Social Relations under Surveillance Capitalism: Is Solidarity Still Possible?
The ongoing global pandemic has accelerated our transition to a platform economy. Platforms are disrupting traditional labor relations. And in doing so, they are disrupting social relations as well. This affects all of us, and the effects are greater on those who have had less power in labor markets to start with.
Many “future of work” discussions have focused on digital access as a means of giving workers greater power in labor markets. There has been an overall rise in the share of workers worldwide whose work is in some way mediated by a platform. A recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) notes that four in 10 workers on online and web-based platforms worldwide are women. A non-trivial 20 percent of the global platform-mediated labor force is in India. But as in the broader economy, gender norms affect this catch-all category. Far from empowering women or vulnerable workers, tech-enabled social disruptions may further marginalize them.
Platform work has been hailed in some quarters as providing more and better choices to workers. However, in reality, there is growing evidence of the ways in which platforms exacerbate information asymmetries, reducing, rather than enhancing, workers’ ability to control the terms and conditions of their work. Platforms also limit workers’ access to information that might enable them to bargain. Platforms targeting low-wage workers in typically informal jobs — including domestic services, delivery services, light repair, home beauty care, and transportation — use automation to assign work in digitally-mediated tasks. These replace the social networks or human brokers that would otherwise connect those seeking to perform tasks with prospective clients. This vitiates one of the few assets available to low-wage, precarious workers in informal labor markets: their social networks and capital. But are new possibilities for connections and solidarity also possible, particularly for women and marginalized workers who have long been isolated from one another?
Platforms and Capitalist Discipline
This is not the first time a technological shift has altered gendered power dynamics in labor markets and societies. Let’s look at an example in recent history. The expansion of light manufacturing into previously agrarian economies created factories with predominantly female workforces. In her 1979 work on women factory workers in newly industrializing Malaysia, Aihwa Ong applied the term capitalist discipline to challenge arguments that the movement of women into the formal economy, in newly created factory jobs, necessarily indicated their ‘empowerment.’ As young women from villages migrated to urban areas for factory jobs, the authority previously imposed by the men in their villages and families was replaced by new forms of patriarchal authority, embodied in the male managers under whose surveillance they toiled. As workers often lived in dormitories on factory premises, the panopticon was real.
Yet in my own work with women factory workers in Southeast Asia in the 1990s, I discovered new forms of solidarity emerged in these settings as well. Living in close quarters and experiencing a common set of new pressures, neophyte women factory workers formed bonds of trust and friendship with one another. These emerging social relations created new forms of solidarity and resistance. In the communities where I worked, women workers started to form their own mutual aid associations. Over time, they began to form unions in their factories, despite the threats and pressures from both their employers and the government.
These insights are critical as we consider discussions of empowerment and equity in platform work. There is a profound interplay between technology and our social fabric. We must consider how new forms of platform discipline are taking root, and what new forms of social relations are emerging around this experience.
Technology over Trust: The Disintermediation of Social Relations
Gender and factors like race, caste, and migration status are particularly important as we consider how platforms replace word-of-mouth networks for informal work. Platforms may take advantage of vulnerable workers’ precarity and lure them into replacing their meager social networks with apps. For example, in South Africa, I found that migrant workers with limited social networks were more likely to turn to apps to seek work.
We need to understand this phenomenon of disintermediation, or taking humans out of the loop, as a form of platform discipline that has particularly dire consequences for those who are already in precarious work. By removing direct human communication between client and worker, and distancing workers from the social networks that might support them, automated management removes empathy and reduces autonomy. In cases where stress, illness, or emergency situations interfere with work, workers are unable to negotiate over timing or performance of a task because there is no human interlocutor and no artificial intelligence equivalent of empathy. Nor are they able to rely on social networks for backup or help. This leaves platform workers with potentially fewer options than non-platform workers performing similar tasks.
Inevitably, this has gendered consequences. Studies based on interviews with platform domestic workers in some countries cite workers’ frustration with the inflexibility of such work. In a typical example from a study of platform-based domestic work, a South African domestic worker stated,
“I was really ill and couldn’t go to a booking so I contacted support through the app in the morning. No one answered me. The client called me at 9.30 to ask me why I wasn’t there yet for my appointment and I realized (the platform) had not contacted the client or addressed my request at all. Later, this was included in my cancelled booking even though I was genuinely sick.”
To be sure, off-platform precarious workers may feel equally vulnerable or unable to take time off to deal with illness or family emergencies. However off-platform workers are also more likely to have direct and possibly ongoing relationships with a client base, for example performing services for the same set of families or clients on a regular schedule. In this situation, even if each week may consist of several individual ‘gigs,’ the worker may well have more autonomy to be able to negotiate a change in schedule with a regular client. Moreover, the worker may have greater ability to suggest a substitute service provider on an occasional basis; on platforms, this ability is taken out of the hands of the worker.
Clients may be less inclined to tolerate last-minute changes or other unexpected changes when there is not a direct, face-to-face interaction. Available information on the use of rating systems suggests that workers are penalized for last-minute cancellations or changes via reduced ratings, which affect the assignment of further tasks. Clients may not be aware of the effect of a negative rating. However, there is other evidence that suggests that when people are distanced from face-to-face contact, their behavior toward others can become less empathetic and more hostile.
We do have evidence on the ways in which platform-enabled rewards and penalties affect social norms. The ‘gamification’ of work, driving employee performance through electronic rewards and penalties, enables employers to disregard anything beyond the data point to be manipulated on-screen. The disruption of normal social interactions and emotional cues can lead employers and clients to engage in behavior they might otherwise consider socially unacceptable. An example is the practice of ‘tip-baiting’. During a surge in online grocery delivery work and long waits for service due to the pandemic and lockdowns, some customers in the US were offering extra tips and then canceling them after the delivery was made. Interviews with shoppers, who were predominantly female, highlighted their awareness of the disintermediation problem. A shopper in Florida explained, “I tried my best. A lot of people are detached from the situation going on. They really don’t see what we see”.
Solidarity Under the Panopticon
Disintermediation is also a serious problem on another level: it may disable the possibility of solidarity. The word-of-mouth networks that provide informal workers with tips about work are unreliable and fraught with their own power dynamics, to be sure. However, there are also embedded relationships involving trust and sometimes solidarity. Migrant workers in many countries have been able to find each other and organize on the basis of social networks that replicate themselves from home villages to destination communities. Other precarious workers such as street vendors have found ways to access and pool their strength in some circumstances. What happens when those networks are no longer a source of support?
Previous technological shifts, by reorganizing work, created new forms of workplace discipline, but also new forms of workplace-based solidarity. The silver lining in the digital economy is that some social realignment may be taking place, including new social networks that allow for organizing. This has happened more readily in sectors where workers are able to congregate in physical spaces, such as drivers and delivery people. In those spaces, workers speak to one another and establish trust. The modes of resistance are both online and offline. For example, Deliveroo riders in Berlin determined how to reverse-engineer the pricing algorithm, shared the information with fellow drivers, which allowed them to make more informed choices regarding which gigs to accept. Recognizing the benefit of pooling information and acting collectively, this innovation led to offline organizing among Berlin’s drivers. Ultimately, however, it also resulted in the company’s decision to pull out of the Berlin area altogether, rather than negotiating in an information-symmetric environment.
Researchers in Indonesia report on similar strategies among moto-taxi drivers. They describe tech-savvy driver groups — known as ‘IT jalanan’ — or street programmers who share information that allows drivers to modify the apps’ performance algorithms and slow down the relentless pace of work. Here, too, platform companies have pushed back on workers’ attempts to correct the informational power imbalance, convincing municipal authorities to outlaw certain types of program alterations. Thus, drivers are resorting to offline collective actions more frequently, such as using public stickers and badges to create high visibility for their networks in public areas.
These sectors, where work is performed in public spaces, are male-dominated. However, I have noticed in my interviews with ride-hailing app drivers that women drivers are often leaders in organizing efforts despite their under-representation. The women organizers I have interviewed are able to establish trust with their male peers, and rebuild social capital. This is not surprising, and it is not a result of ‘innate’ qualities. Over generations, women have learned that collective power is essential to overcoming longstanding inequities.
Take, for example, women drivers from Cairo, Egypt, who formed chat groups using Facebook and WhatsApp, and reported that they “developed a sense of belonging to this group. Many participants expressed that working as drivers has allowed them to expand their networks and connections, forming communities of support with other female drivers”. They also reported using this solidarity in situations where they faced violence or harassment to notify other drivers to assist them.
In South Africa, I found that isolated and vulnerable migrant workers were building communities online through WhatsApp groups. Researchers in other countries have reported similar findings. In Thailand, the Just Economy and Labor Institute has been conducting interviews with on-demand massage workers. Assigned to gigs in individual homes, these workers are largely invisible and isolated. Moreover, platforms provide them with no way to rate or report clients who may harass or abuse them. However, taking matters into their own hands, these workers have formed their own chat groups where they routinely post information and warnings about clients to avoid. They recognize that they do this at their own risk, as the platforms continue to penalize workers who turn down assigned gigs.
Such online communications are fraught with additional risks, including the risk of increased harassment if the client learns that their information has been shared. Can these workers collectively take offline actions to push for changes in this deeply exploitative dynamic, as their counterparts in delivery and ride-hailing have been able to do? Finding co-workers and connecting with them offline typically requires access to public spaces. Women are already constrained by gender norms, especially by the widespread normative acceptance of gender-based violence as a means of controlling women’s access to public spaces. If the main mode of establishing trust and building social capital is face-to-face, feminized sectors will have many more limitations.
A recent case in India provides some hope that even these barriers can be overcome. A thriving home beauty care services market has given rise to new platforms such as Urban Company. While the company experienced a 102 percent surge in revenue in 2020, women beauty workers on the platform reported loss of income and lack of necessary information for their economic decision-making. The disintermediation factor has left workers without any information about their client base. Consequently, workers are in a more precarious situation than, for example, if they had been able to communicate with clients and determine whether the clients still intend to use their services in the future.
Given the workers’ isolation from one another, what happened recently at Urban Company is particularly noteworthy and inspiring. In October 2021, their workers organized a simultaneous online and offline protest, asking all workers to turn off the app to disrupt the service, and staging a protest outside of the company’s Gurgaon headquarters. Workers also used social media very effectively, sharing screenshots of wage stubs to substantiate their claims of price-gouging.
As all of these examples show when workers are enabled to gain access to their own data they use it to negotiate collectively for fair terms and conditions. Yet as the Berlin Deliveroo case illustrates, some platforms would rather give up on geographic markets than relinquish their data monopolies. Platforms could be used to increase workers’ access to information and choices; instead, information is not only monopolized but weaponized against them, and used to impose new forms of control and discipline. This has little to do with the actual technology, and everything to do with the people who make decisions about its use. When a few individuals benefit from the extraction of social capital from millions, we cannot suppose that they will adjust the algorithms to restore the balance. That will only happen if there is powerful offline organizing.
Thus, the real solution is for governments and policymakers, business leaders, and anyone else claiming to care about the well-being of platform workers to invest in helping people connect without technology as well as with it. Well-organized groups of workers can and will create new social capital that will help correct informational power asymmetries, restore autonomy, and provide real choice and flexibility for workers on platforms. It will help workers ensure their own safety, and reduce abusive client behavior. The dominant platform business model is inherently exploitative and the disintermediation of social networks is an important element of that exploitation. Increased accountability is vital. We will only achieve it when we restore offline social relations and support old-fashioned person-to-person organizing.