In Digital Working Lives: Worker Autonomy and the Gig Economy, Tim Christiaens explores the impact of the gig economy on working conditions and proposes ways for digital platforms to better support worker autonomy. This concise and accessible book offers a concrete path to realising the convivial autonomy of digital workers, writes Yiru Zhao.
Digital Working Lives: Worker Autonomy and the Gig Economy. Tim Christiaens. Rowman and Littlefield. 2022.
Have you heard of the sharing economy? Have you ever used Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb, or even worked at any of these businesses? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Digital Working Lives: Worker Autonomy and the Gig Economy is up-to-date reading for you. In the book, Tim Christiaens uses our familiar sharing economy apps as examples to critically review a wide variety of political economy theories and propose feasible solutions to achieve worker autonomy. The content is concise, close to life and follows a clear logical argument, thus making it accessible for thinking and reading.
This timely book covers three key arguments. Firstly, it points out that the sharing economy gives the tempting promise of everyone being able to start an entrepreneurial career, yet the current assemblage of technologies is only serving capitalism. In the digital gig economy, the new boss is the algorithm. For example, Uber drivers ‘are slowly transformed into automatised nodes in an assemblage of cars, customers, and traffic, governed by the platform’s algorithms’ (31-32). They are gradually deskilled by digital technologies and thus objectified as machine-like transportation tools. In an accelerated society, production speed is decided by algorithms. It is thus clear that the sharing economy does not give workers as much autonomy as it promises, but instead traps them in a precarious working environment.
Secondly, in Chapters Three to Five, Digital Working Lives focuses on how workers are trapped in self-reproduction and self-government in the gig economy in terms of exploitation, alienation and fatigue. In addressing exploitation through traditional Marxian criticism, Christiaens does not follow the ‘free labour’ paradigm used by Tiziana Terranova, which argues that platforms exploit the surplus value of their users by selling user data. Christiaens argues that this idea ignores the global economic changes that have taken place since the 1970s. Most free labour is unproductive, and therefore the theory of exploitation that derives value directly from the production of material goods is outdated. The reality is that platforms are like shopping malls. They do not directly sell user data but allow advertisers to display products; thus the platforms can profit as middlemen.
To more accurately describe the current economic situation, Christiaens adopts the more complex and realistic Vercellone theory of the becoming-rent of profit. In the case of Facebook, for example, the more a user’s social networks can be converted into private data, the better Facebook will be able to rent out knowledge about the needs of its users. This kind of ‘exploitation-through-expropriation of the common’ (46) is called ‘the becoming-rent of profit’. Such a view is innovative and in line with the reality of the situation.
Fatigue is another aspect that is seen in the book as one of the manifestations of the worrying situation of digital labour. The reality is not like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri promised: the general intellect will be unleashed, but ‘the multitude seems worn out, burnt out and depressed’ (76). In the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic, upper-and middle-class people who work from home have been able to shop online, while couriers have faced prolonged working hours and dangerous working conditions. In addition to the example of Amazon cited in the book, delivery people worldwide have experienced fatigue and overwork, especially in developing countries. However, algorithms do not see the limits of workers, but rather view them as disposable replacements that can be used up. As a result, the low barriers to entry and the deskilled nature of gig work may seem to have brought employment to many, but it has also led them to step into a swamp of labour insecurity and perpetual unemployment.
Unusually for this body of literature, Digital Working Lives explores gender politics in depth when discussing exploitation, alienation and fatigue. For Marxist feminists, capitalism ‘relies on feminised domestic labour to ensure the sustenance of labour-power’ (85). More worryingly, domestic work has been embedded into the capitalist system and has created new global inequalities, with female migrant workers being doubly disadvantaged as ‘global Cinderellas’. Christiaens further asserts that single male workers at the bottom of the ladder do not share the same conditions as middle-class women. They must ensure the reproduction of capital by themselves and face the challenges of sleep deprivation and social isolation.
In referring to workers’ autonomy, Christiaens criticises autonomist Negri for ignoring the importance of the social relation of care. Improved workers’ autonomy would consider both autonomy and human interdependence. In this vein, Christiaens suggests that a ‘vernacular culture’ should be developed. The word ‘vernacular’ is derived from the Latin vernaculum, which means ‘homebred’ without being governed by any institution. According to Ivan Illich, vernacular culture emphasises that ‘human meaning and purpose comes primarily from these immanent, embodied encounters’ (121). These interdependencies cannot be bought and sold as commodities, but they make mutual understanding possible. In family life, housework can ‘also showcase a realm of little noncommodified pleasures and enjoyments embedded in intimate relations of care’ (119). Even though such aspirations come with a degree of optimism, it is laudable to promote embodied bonds in families on a broad scale.
Last but not least, Christiaens makes a contribution to platform cooperativism based on Illich’s philosophy of convivial autonomy in the book’s final chapters. The concept of convivial autonomy involves independence from tools, self-determination in environments and resonance in vernacular culture. These all point to the ideas of platform socialism. Christiaens is not the first scholar to advocate for platform socialism. For instance, James Muldoon has stressed the importance of the multitude taking control of data and platforms. However, the idea of simply putting technology in the hands of the multitude is naive. Christiaens argues that algorithms themselves embody the rules of capitalism and that an overhaul of the design of platforms is necessary to make them democratic and transparent.
Here, Christiaens makes several specific proposals to better realise platform cooperativism. Firstly, platform cooperatives could act as an alternative to capitalist platforms and step in when the latter encounters economic distress. Secondly, by creating ‘peer production licenses’, any capitalist firm that wants access to data would have to pay platform cooperatives a fee. Thirdly, he innovatively argues that inequality is not a stumbling block to convivial autonomy. Such inequality is acceptable if it is not ranked by capital ownership, but by skill, seniority and craftmanship. But from my perspective, giving full power to artisan-masters and superiors may produce inequalities arising from nepotism. In addition, in the hierarchical guild system described in the book, ‘good work’ is judged by workers’ own professional values. Therefore, in my opinion, arguments about ‘good work’ between different individuals may lead to a crisis in the operation of the guild. Nonetheless, these proposals are compelling and thought-provoking.
In sum, Digital Working Lives points to a concrete path to realising the convivial autonomy of digital workers. The goal of the book is not to provide a way for people to totally get rid of ‘bullshit jobs’. Rather, gig work should be redesigned to be better compatible with human autonomy. Overall, this book is an insightful read for students and scholars interested in understanding the current situation of the working class and ways to emancipate the convivial autonomy in gig work.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.