Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Platform to Precarity

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Platform to Precarity

Article excerpt

Cheap taxis come at a price but remodelling the online marketplace is an option, says Kylie Jarrett

Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy

By Trebor Scholz Polity, 242pp, £55.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9780745653563 and 3570 Published 7 October 2016

The conditions of work particular to 21st-century digital capitalism form the grim landscape that Trebor Scholz paints here. On one hand, automation and digitisation have reduced the physical intensity of various kinds of labour, freeing some workers from degrading and dangerous work. Technological and social change has expanded avenues for creativity in the workplace and facilitated new industries, such as games and app development. Networked telecommunications allow flexibility in work schedules and labour practices.

But digitisation has also created opportunities for exploitation. The flexibility that mobile devices bring extends the working day as well as filling our supposed leisure time with social media use that generates profit for digital companies. In creative work, "doing what you love" becomes a mechanism to extract unpaid labour so that effective under-compensation is the norm, joining the austerity-fuelled race to the bottom in pay.

Moreover, digitised work emerged after decades of aggressive assaults on unionisation and neoliberal deregulation. As careers become a spectrum of precarious, short-term and low-waged gigs, a "job for life" becomes nothing but a quaint, half-remembered myth. Disappearing along with it is the stable class identity associated with labour struggle.

As Scholz argues, the exemplary instances of such trends lie in the "sharing economy" or, as he terms it, "platform capitalism". His survey focuses on companies such as Uber and Upwork that leverage digital platforms to aggregate workers and services, doling out short-term, piecemeal jobs such as driving someone to an airport or debugging a section of code. …

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