The embedded digital economy

One of the things that I liked about Platform Capitalism, by Nick Srineck, was its concern to avoid analysing the tech sector as sui generis. By situating it in social and economic history, we are left with a much richer account of where it came from, why it is the way it is and where it is going. The myth of exceptionalism concerning technology militates against this, as the protagonists of grand disruptive projects don’t take kindly to being regarded as mundane organisations driven by environmental constraints and enablements like all others.

The consequences of this exceptionalism aren’t just analytical though. Exceptionalism licenses a view of the digital economy as disembedded, obscuring the manifold ways in which it is dependent on the wider context. This section from Uberpaid and Underworked, by Trebor Scholz, loc 1014 illustrates this powerfully:

Rarely acknowledged are also the networks of care that sustain contingent workers. Just for one moment, think about the families that are paying the price for just-in-time scheduling of work hours. Who is caring for their children when they face unpredictable work schedules, often decided only days or hours in advance? And let’s not forget that government programs like the Food Stamp Act of 1964, introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, are essential in providing subsistence for crowdworkers and Walmart “associates” alike. In this way, personal networks of care, global supply chains, American taxpayers, academia, and the military sustain the digital economy.

Recognising this context makes it easier to see the grim reality underlying the lofty rhetoric of the sharing economy. From loc 1290:

What if the engine of the “sharing economy” is not the instinct to share, but rather economic desperation? Just consider the 8–10 million Americans who are unemployed and the almost eight million who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 78 They are piecing together a living wage by working with companies like Uber but only few make a good living in the Hunger Games.


Categories: Digital Sociology

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  1. Re Uber. My wife and I are immensely satisfied customers after using Uber several times in and around Washington,D. C. From a customer perspective the pricing and service were excellent. What about drivers? In every case our driver was not attempting to make a living working for Uber. They were, instead, using their cars, otherwise an idle asset, to supplement incomes from other sources. One was a restaurant owner driving full time while in the process of shifting his business to the West Coast. Would our drivers like to earn more? Of course. Were they engaged in Hunger Games? No.

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