The most recent two episodes of the excellent podcast Reply All made me think about the role digital labour that takes place as part of the platform economy and how this intersects with race and culture.
These two episodes were two parts of an investigation into an Indian company which appears to run a scam in which people receive an email claiming that their iCloud has been compromised. They’re provided with a phone number to call to a call centre with staff who claim to be authorised by Apple to solve this issue but are then charged hundreds of dollars to do so. It is a really fascinating story but one aspect in particular stood out to me. After one of the employees of the scamming company had been called out by the journalist they gave the following justification for their scamming of Americans:
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: You guys are conservative-minded people. Still you are fighting for who is black and who is white. Everyone is human being. But you guys are doing terrible thing to your brother, your people that are living in your country. You are killing them and you are robbing them. And you are saying that you are very honest.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m gonna be honest with you. I agree with you. But listen, I am a human being.
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: No, you–you were also a human being when you bomb 1947/45 atom bomb on Japan. –Have you heard about that?
ALEX GOLDMAN: –Okay. Th- I have heard about that.
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: –Millions–[CUTS]–millions and millions people died—
ALEX GOLDMAN: I—that was—
LEVEL 9 TECHNICIAN: And still in Japan, babies are—babies are born and paralyzed and disabled.
ALEX GOLDMAN: —That was 45 years before I was born. So I only had so much decision making power when that happened. —
CHARLIE: –So listen to me. You are all ee– Where was the humanity of those American people that point of time?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh
CHARLIE: –Alright? You’re talking about human beings. What–You don’t have answer of my question. And you are giving me talk– You are giving me long speech about the human being? What do you–Just don’t talk–
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m not a–Look`
CHARLIE: –You can hang up the phone–[FADES
This rather ill formulated critique of American expansionism, colonialism, foreign policy,and racism is built on a kind of broad liberal, civil rights critique filtered through for a 4chan type nihilism with the worker even citing an “Anonymous” speech at one point, although I don’t think they were actually connected with the group.
This moral justification didn’t strike me as very strongly held but that doesn’t mean it is insignificant as an ethical justification for work is important. But more importantly his justification highlighted racial and economic global inequalities in the digital ecosystem. The company he works for is able to scam Americans because of the existence of sophisticated digital networks which are themselves interconnected with the exploitation of people in developing countries by the globally wealthy.
In the article ‘Platform labor: on the gendered and racialized exploitation of low-income service work in the ‘on-demand’ economy’ Niels Van Doorn Highlights how women and ethnic minorities have often taken on low paid and low status work and been rendered invisible in the process. This has continued in the digital economy as:
the gendered, racialized, and classed distribution of opportunities and vulnerabilities associated with digitally mediated service work, or what I call platform labor […] the ascendant ‘on-demand’ or ‘gig’ economies are shoring up a particular order of worth whose political and moral economy leverages inequality and severs the link between labor and livelihood for those at the bottom of its entrepreneurial supply chain – now reimagined as a value-adding ‘ecosystem’
Van Doorn’s Article focuses on the “gig economy” but the crux of the argument applies to the situation of those working for these scam based companies in India. The workers are conducting tasks which are undesirable and kept hidden. It is even revealed that the call centre conducts their work behind a padlocked door to try to make observers think that they are closed. When the journalists spoke to former employees it became clear that the companies targeted well-educated people with good language skills but from poor areas of India. These were aspirational people trying to earn more money and gain status in a competitive employment market but were forced to work for what they quickly realise was a disreputable company.
As Van Doorn asserts (citing Tomassetti) the new digital economy is built on an:
aspirational image, saturated with start-up mentality and the desire for upward social mobility [which] ‘obscure[s] relations of servitude between workers and the company at issue’ as well as veiling ‘workers’ generalized class subordination under contemporary capitalism’ (Tomassetti, 2016: 60)