The “Sharing” Economy, Uber, and the Triumph of Neo-Liberalism

Ride-sharing is a form of prosumption- those who are using (consuming) their cars provide (produce) rides for those in need of them. Ride-sharing can also be seen as part of the sharing (of cars in this case) economy, a collaborative system (the collaboration of those with rides to offer and those who need them), and a peer-to-peer (p2p) systems (drivers providing rides mainly to other drivers who happen to be without their cars). These ideas and systems associated with the sharing economy (another is airbnb) were, in principle, not based on a profit-making model, but were generally more communal and altruistic in nature. However, they all have, at least in part, been transformed by the entry of profit-making businesses that in the pursuit of profit are altering these systems, especially their more romantic characteristics.
Many drivers can, and do, engage in ride-sharing free of charge for altruistic and communal reasons. However, the rise of profit-making companies like Uber and Lyft that charge drivers a portion (roughly 20%) of every transaction for use of their online platforms has transformed ride-sharing into a job (at least part-time) and a profitable business. Unlike most forms of prosumption- using ATMs, scanning one’s groceries, using self-check-in kiosks at airports and hotels- the “producers” (the companies and the drivers) earn a money from the process.
These ride-sharing businesses been proliferating despite the fact that they have encountered opposition nationally, and to some degree globally, from taxicab companies and local governments. This is because their app-based system accessible via smartphone is highly attractive, especially to younger people, who can summon a car more quickly without standing on corners and hailing, sometimes fruitlessly, taxicabs. The latter characteristics make the taxicab seem old-fashioned to younger people. Thus, they are likely to continue to shift in the direction of ride-sharing, while the older generation will likely remain wedded, at least for a time to the taxi industry. However, while the taxi industry will not disappear, this generational difference suggests a long-term shift away from taxi industry and in the direction of the ride-sharing industry. While the traditional taxicab industry is being threatened, it is difficult to defend it because it has tended to be monopolistic and has successfully resisted unionization efforts. For their part, drivers are not well-paid and must deal with difficult (sometimes dangerous) work, with little in the way of job protection and benefits.
Yet, ride-sharing through Uber and similar companies is not without its problems. Uber drivers would seem to be even more powerless and difficult to unionize than traditional taxi drivers. Among other things, they work on their own, are widely dispersed and have little opportunity to come into contact with one another. This gives Uber great power to release them and to alter the percentage they earn from each ride. The income of Uber drivers is limited because unlike taxi drivers, they are not supposed to accept tips. While the income is attractive for those who now do this in their spare time, it might be less satisfactory for those who try to do it on a full-time basis
Another point worth mentioning is that unlike in paid jobs, those working for the ride-sharing business provide many of their own “means of production”. Uber does provide the crucial (and expensive) online system that supports and drives ride-sharing, but the drivers provide and maintain their own cars as well as the smartphones that connect them to the online system.
This a near-perfect neo-liberal system in which capitalist organizations earn profits while giving those who work for them relatively little and leaving them largely on their own to fend for themselves.

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E-Games and Prosumption

People have long played e- (or virtual) games, especially those involving many players. They have traditionally consumed multi-player games by buying them and by observing the actions of others playing them. Of course, they also produced them by creating the action that is the game. That is, people have always prosumed of e-games. These games are an example of playbor, a phenomenon with much in common with prosumption, because those involved labor as they play.
Many throughout the world continue to play e-games; in fact, the numbers involved are growing rapidly. However, the games are rapidly becoming mass spectator sports with millions of online viewers, thousands of others viewing the games in person at sports arenas, and millions of dollars in prize money. A major on-line site for these games is Twitch. The coming of age of these games was heralded by Amazon.com’s recent $1.1 billion purchase of Twitch, which had 55 million visitors in July, 2014 (Wingfield, 2014a).
While gamers were always prosumers, the consumption aspect of the process was dominant at first as they purchased computers, internet time, games and products associated with many games. While that is still true for gamers, some are now more involved in producing games, often as members of teams and for prize money. Others consume these games either online at home or in a stadium with thousands of other fans. The most successful of these gamers are earning large sums of money.
Prosumption is key to the profitability of these games and why Amazon.com was willing to pay over a billion dollars for Twitch. The secret of Twitch’s success is “because it supplies its own content and audience, comparable to an oven that produces its own food” (Carr, 2014: B5). In other words, the consumers (audience) of these games are also their producers.This is made clear by the creator of Minecraft: “’No fake doors that don’t lead anywhere, no trees you can’t cut down, and no made-up story being told to the player to motivate them…Instead, the player would make their own story, and interact with the game world, decide for themselves what they want to do’.” (Wingfield, 2014b)
It is clearly the most avid of the consumers who eventually become producers of these games for others to consume. Furthermore, even the most successful producers of today’s games must continually consume the actions taken by competitors in a game and, more generally, the entire gaming environment.
As in many cases of prosumption, it is the prosumers who do the vast majority of the work involved in production and consumption while owners of sites such as Twitch reap most of the economic benefit. Twitch succeeded because it invested the money needed to provide the infrastructure and huge bandwidth needed by those involved in multiplayer games, the major competitions, and the commentators on them. The audience flocks on its own to the site to provide the content. The vast majority of those who do so earn little or nothing for their efforts.

Carr, David. “Amazon’s Bet on Content, In a Hub for Gamers.” New York Times September 1, 2014: B1, B5.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014a: 1, 13.

Wingfield, Nick. “In Games Like Minecraft, Tech Giants See More Than Fun.” New York Times September 11, 2014: A1, B2.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014: 1, 13.

Customer Service or Disservice?

Consumer Reports (September, 2014) offered a revealing analysis of the accelerating trend toward customer self-service, or one aspect of what, in my terms, is “prosumption as consumption”. Customers who engage in self-service are, by definition, producing as they consume. To its credit, Consumer Reports makes no bones about why self-service has been embraced so enthusiastically. The reason? “To save money”. For example, if customers themselves place an online order, the cost to the company is pennies, while ordering from a live agent could cost between $2 and $10. In most cases, the corporations involved do not pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower prices. When multiplied by thousands, if not millions, of transactions, such savings mean much greater corporate profits. While such cost savings and profits have long been possible, they have been greatly increased in recent years by new digital technologies and by consumers who are not only familiar with them, but greatly prefer using them to interacting with paid employees.
Why do consumers do this work without pay or economic gain of any kind? Among the reasons offered by Consumer Reports are consumers’ feelings of empowerment, the ability to handle transactions more quickly, and the possibility of avoiding contact with employees who are increasingly likely to be less than stellar in their work. In fact, because corporations much prefer self-service customers, they are likely to hire fewer workers of lesser ability, to offer little training, and to accept marginal performance of the job. While many customers are cognizant of the incapacities of service workers, they generally seem unaware of many of the costs of self-service such as the loss of human contact, the paid jobs that are lost because they are willing to work for no pay, and the dehumanization of their relationships with corporations.
Because of the increasing acceptance of self-service by consumers, some corporations have taken the outrageous step- with nary a peep from consumers- of charging them fees for handling tasks the corporations used to perform without charge. Among the examples are airlines charging customers $50 for a paper ticket, $25 for having the audacity to make a reservation by phone, $20 for asking for a receipt for an e-ticket, and a $10 fee for having a boarding pass printed out by an agent. Fees such as these are likely to increase in price and to proliferate in number and variety in the coming years thereby further increasing the costs to consumers and profits for the companies.
Profit-making organizations have discovered that they can increase their profits by cutting personnel costs and by exploiting consumers to an ever-greater degree. There are many more customers than employees to exploit, they accept their exploitation meekly and, indeed, they often embrace it eagerly. This system greatly reduces the possibility of class consciousness among the declining number of employees who are ever-more fearful of losing their jobs. Worse, the system can operate without fear of the development of class consciousness among consumers who are too diverse and self-interested to think of themselves as a class, to become a class, and to act as a class. As much as one might like to hear it, we are not likely to hear consumers utter the clarion call- “Consumers of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your iPad”.

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

In its key U.S. market, McDonald’s sales and customer visits were down in the first half of 2014 and they were flat globally. That, in itself, is not terribly worrying to the company since such declines have occurred before and McDonald’s has always roared back. However, a recent survey in ConsumerReports (August, 2014) makes those declines much more worrisome for the company. A survey of the dining experiences of over 32,000 subscribers to the magazine showed that of 21ranked burger chains, McDonald’s was tied for last with Burger King. McDonald’s, like Burger King, had a score of 71. This compared very unfavorably to the top-ranked chain, In-N-Out Burger, with a score of 88. While McDonald’s customers were satisfied, they were not nearly as satisfied as the customers of all the other burger chains (except Burger King). McDonald’s also ranked last when customers were asked to rate burgers on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the least delicious burgers they have ever eaten and 10 being the most delicious. McDonald’s burgers got a score of 5.8 (the next lowest was 6.6 for Jack in the Box) compared to the best score (8.3) at The Habit Burger (In-N-Out Burger was 2nd with a 8.0 score). Overall, the mass burger chains, those that are the most McDonaldized, tended to rank toward the bottom in both ratings. The same can be said other kinds of chains. Of the chicken chains KFC was at the bottom in terms of the taste of its chicken and the same was true among the Mexican chains of Taco Bell and the taste of its burritos.
McDonald’s (as well as the other mass chains) is in no immediate danger, but these data should lead us to wonder about its long-term future. Other retail giants have fallen in the past (e.g., Woolworth’s, Montgomery Wards) and still others are presently in danger of collapse (e.g. Sears). There will come day when McDonald’s falls, but given its global power and its public relations skill, such a collapse will not occur any time soon. Similarly, these developments do not spell the end of the process of McDonaldization. However, it may well be that McDonald’s position as the paradigm of that process is being undermined leaving us with the possibility of a new paradigm (In-N-Out Burger?). In that case, the lack of fit between the paradigm and process would be awkward, but whatever the new paradigm, it would still be highly McDonaldized.
One of In-N-Out Burger’s great advantages is the higher quality associated with using fresh hamburgers rather than the frozen burgers of McDonald’s and other large chains. The calculability dimension of McDonaldization points to the tendency to emphasize quantity rather than quality. More frozen burgers can easily be stored, shipped, cooked and served than fresh burgers. However these quantitative gains come at the cost of lower quality. In the end, a high degree of McDonaldization brings with it the tendency toward mediocrity. Thus, McDonald’s may be done in by the very process that bears its name, but that is not to say that chains like In-N-Out Burger (as well as others like Chipotle) are not McDonaldized. They are simply less McDonaldized in some ways and on some dimensions that give them various advantages over the most McDonaldized systems. The success of these somewhat less McDonaldized chains promises to reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the irrationalities of rationality (e.g., the tendency toward mediocrity) associated with McDonaldization.

Prosuming Machines and the Internet of Things

Many prosuming machines interconnect, and will do so more and more, on what has been termed the Internet of Things (IoT). A recent Pew Research Center Report sees IoT as encompassing a wide range of interconnected sensor-laden devices and parts of the environment that feed back to one another. However, discussion and conceptualization of the IoT has failed to see that smart prosuming machines constitute a large part of what is, and will be, interconnected on the internet. The IoT will include smart prosuming machines that communicate with, and get responses from, other smart machines. In fact, IoT is a machine-to-machine (M2M) system. For example, in the health area there are contact lenses that measure and report glucose levels to doctors’ computers, bands that report heart rates to hospitals’ computers, and pills that are ingested and let caregivers’ computers know whether the patient has taken proper dosage.
While many prosuming machines will communicate with one another, many others will communicate with humans (e.g., bracelets that let users know where they stand in a particular exercise program). Since in this case humans retain agency, even power (they can ignore feedback from their bracelets), this is a less worrisome scenario than one in which prosuming machines communicate directly with one another and action is taken as a result of that communication (e.g. a quakebot that bypasses a human editor and causes an erroneous alert that panics the population).
An ever-expanding web of interconnected prosuming machines will be infinitely more powerful than any single machine or small subset of these machines. We are in the process of creating a system where the human prosumer will have less and less of a role to play in the prosumption process. The machines will produce and consume (both really forms of prosumption) in a seemingly endless loop.
There is no question that interconnected prosuming machines on the internet will bring with them an endless array of advantages (e.g. heart monitors that indicate an imminent heart attack and that elicit an automatic response from another smart machine inducing an electric shock or administering a dose of intravenous nitroglycerin). However, from the perspective of a critical sociology, these interconnected prosuming machines on the IoT bring to mind a dystopian image of a reified world in which they communicate with one another, are self-organizing, and operate largely autonomously without human intervention. As a result, humans will be increasingly dependent on, if not controlled by, smart prosuming machines that communicate with other machines of this type. This promises to create an extreme post-human and post-social world similar in many ways to the one dominated by the fictional Skynet system in the Terminator movies.

The Resilience of Capitalism and the Demise of the Sharing Economy?

Many observers, especially Alvin Toffler and, more recently, Jeremy Rifkin, have seen the rise of the prosumer and of the sharing economy (or the “collaborative commons”) as harbingers of a hoped for amelioration of the excesses of capitalism, if not as an alternative to that economic system. However, it is difficult to ignore the power, resilience and adaptability of capitalism. Two recent examples demonstrate that it may be the alternatives to it, rather than capitalism itself, which are in jeopardy.

Peer-to-peer (p2p) lending sites such as Zopa are based on prosumers lending money to one another, perhaps switching time and again between being borrowers and lenders. However, as P2P lending has grown in importance, large financial institutions have become increasingly involved. Further, their participation is not always clear to those interested in borrowing money. This institutional involvement threatens to drive out individual investors interested in lending money thereby subverting the process of prosumption that lies at the base of all P2P systems. Of course, if they know of the participation of these institutions, prosumers retain the ability to reject their offerings and to borrow only from other prosumers.

More threatening, somewhat ironically, is the rise of prosumption sites and processes which pay those involved a substantial amount of money. Examples include those who drive cars for Uber (and similar enterprises), as well as those who shop and deliver (in their own cars) groceries for Instacart. This is no longer the prosumer-dominated “sharing economy”, but rather another way of making a profit and earning a living in a capitalist economy. Instacart charges $3.99 per delivery and earns extra money by marking up the prices of grocery items by, according to one estimate, 20%. At the moment, shoppers can earn between $15 and $30 an hour depending on how quickly they deliver the food (using their own cars). As is true of Uber, the pay is good, workers don’t need college degrees, and the hours are flexible. However, there is no job security and those who do this work do so without any of the benefits of employees of companies like Peapod. Furthermore, their relatively high pay is likely to decline as more people sign up to do the work.

Indicative of the increasing incursion of capitalist interests into the sharing economy is the investment of over $1 billion in Uber and the fact that it is now valued at $17 billion. In good capitalist fashion, Uber is positioning itself to expand in various directions (e.g., global package delivery).

The Current Status of the “Arab Spring”

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Page 1

The Current Status of the “Arab Spring”

The dramatic changes associated with Arab Spring that began in 2010  continue to reverberate in 2013. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, among others, are trying to create and institutionalize more democratic regimes. Other parts of the Muslim world such as Bahrain and Jordan are experiencing unrest, although significant change has yet to occur. Especially notable is the civil war that has raged in Syria since early 2011. The euphoria of the early years of Arab Spring has given way, at least for some, to worry about its negative consequences. While the deaths of tyrants like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and the departure of others from Tunisia and Yemen, are welcome developments, those despots had managed to suppress internal differences in their countries and to exert at least some control over their borders. However, their demise and the continuing failure to replace them with strong democratic regimes have had a variety of dangerous consequences.

As a result, new areas of violence and bloodshed have arisen (including the killing of the American Ambassador to Libya in 2012), especially in the African area known as Sahel. This is a band of land that stretches across North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and lies between the desert areas to the north and the grassy plains to the south. It cuts through several troubled countries, most notably two recent and interrelated trouble spots Mali (Hagberg and Korling, 2012) and Algeria.

Mali has been experiencing for some time a low-level civil war involving the Tuareg minority in the northern part of the country, but the country was  destabilized by a coup d’etat in 2012 that overthrew the president and further weakened the government. The war in the north took on a new form and was heightened in intensity by weakened borders with neighboring Libya and the resulting influx of weapons and fighters, the existence of members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali, as well as the influx of battle-hardened militant Islamists from elsewhere in the Middle East. The Islamists began to move south conquering a vast portion of Mali and by late 2012 they threatened to take over the entire country. The French intervened militarily in Mali (their former colony) in order to prevent it from becoming a radical Islamic state.

As this was happening, radical Islamists, claiming that they were retaliating for the French incursion in Mali, invaded a gas-production complex in neighboring Algeria taking a number of hostages. Members of the Algerian security service stormed the complex and in their wake many hostages and militants were killed (Nossiter, 2013).

The events in Mali and Algeria were described by an expert on the Middle East and Africa as “the darker sides of the Arab uprisings” (Worth, 2013: A1). None of this is to indicate that the Arab Spring has been a failure, but it does demonstrate that a series of changes have been set in motion and it will take years to determine their long-term implications.

The developments in the Sahel area of North Africa reflect current thinking on globalization (see pp. 5-9), especially the increasing fluidity of global flows of many kinds. They also reflect the declining ability of structures such as national governments and borders to impede many types of flows.

References

Hagberg, Sten and Gabriella Körling, “Socio-political Turmoil in Mali: The Public Debate Following the Coup d’État on 22 March 2012.” Africa Spectrum 2-3, 2012: 111-125

Nossiter, Adam. “Algerians Find Many More Dead at Hostage Site.” New York Times January 21, 2013: A1, A8.

Worth, Robert F. “Jihadists’ Surge in North Africa Reveals Grim Side of Arab Spring.” New York Times January 20, 2013: 1, 13.

Violence against Women in India

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 10, Page 375

Violence against Women in India

Violence against women, especially rape, is a global problem, but the case of a 23 year-old Indian woman who died as a result of a horrific gang rape in New Delhi in December, 2012 galvanized India and much of the world. This was not an isolated case nor is it restricted to New Delhi. For example, in what was apparently a well-planned attack just a month later in the north Indian state on Punjab, a woman was assaulted after accepting a motorcycle ride from the driver of a bus on which she had been riding. He took her to a nearby village where she was raped by repeatedly by six men, including the driver, the bus conductor and four other men (Timmons and Kumar, 2013).

The New Delhi case was particularly outrageous and brutal. A 23-year-old female medical student and a male friend had seen a movie and were seeking a ride when a bus pulled over, they were waved on board, and were charged 36 cents each. However, the bus was not a public but a private bus, although the couple was fooled into believing that it was a public bus. Six men, including the driver and another posing as a conductor, were out for a joy ride on the bus. Soon after the bus departed, the harassment of the woman began and her companion was beaten with a metal rod. The woman was then repeatedly raped by the men and she was penetrated by the metal rod as the bus circled the city. Eventually, the naked couple was dumped by the side of a highway on the outskirts of the city (Mandhana and Trivedi, 2012). The woman survived for almost 2 weeks but then died as a result of internal injuries.

The case aroused global indignation and public protests in India. It also brought attention to a broader pattern of murder and other forms of violence against women in India including killings over dowry disputes, sexual violence, family disputes, and discriminatory treatment of both infant girls and elderly women (Harris 2013). Sexual harassment is common and rape is a daily occurrence in New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi experiences nearly two rapes a day. One woman who lived in New Delhi for 24 years described the ways in which her life had been affected while living in New Delhi:

As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car…I wore clothes that were two sizes too large…The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street…To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by…In my office…at the doctor’s office, even at a house party- I couldn’t escape the intimidation (Faleiro, 2013).

While this violence against women has a long history in India, as well as in many other places in the world, some believe that is has been fueled in recent years by the progress of women in Indian societies and the resulting hostility of males who blame their failures on the success of women (Harris, 2013).

The New Delhi rape has attracted global attention and spurred protests and demonstrations in India (Timmons and Gottipati, 2012). It remains to be seen whether anything changes; whether Indian women will be less subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence and harassment.

Faleiro, Sonia. “The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India” New York Times January 1, 2013.

Harris, Gardiner. “India’s New Focus on Rape Shows Only the Surface of Women’s Perils.” New York Times January 13, 2013.

Mandhana, Niharika and Anjani Trivedi. “Indians Outraged Over Rape on Moving Bus in New Delhi.”  New York Times India Ink December 18, 2012.

Timmons, Heather and Sruthi Gottipati. “Indian Women March: `That Girl Could Have Been Any of Us”. New York Times December 30, 2012.

Timmons, Heather and Hari Kumar. “Indian Woman is Gang-Raped after Bus Ride.” New York Times India Ink January 13, 2013.

Extreme Weather around the World

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 14, Page 585

 Extreme Weather around the World

An overwhelming body of scientific research over a long period of time and covering many parts of the world shows that the global climate has changed and that it is likely to change even more dramatically in the foreseeable future (National Research Council, 2011). As a result, the vast majority of scientists believe that we are in the early stages of global warming that is going to lead to a number of different kinds of weather extremes in various parts of the world (Field, 2012). These extremes, as well as climate change in general, are likely to have increasingly negative effects on life throughout the world. The impact is going to vary in different parts of the world, but in many the effect is going to be negative if not catastrophic. Those who doubt this, and are dubious about global warming, were likely shocked by the extreme weather patterns throughout much of the world in 2012 and which continued into early 2013. While these could have been aberrations, they are consistent with various weather extremes that have occurred for decades, especially throughout the first decade of the 21st century. It is likely that these extremes foreshadow what we can expect in the future. Among them are the following (Lyall, 2013):

  • 2012 was the hottest year in the recorded history in the United States
  • Rio de Janeiro reached a temperature of 109.8 degrees in late 2012- the highest since records began in 1915; the heat wave continued in Brazil into 2013
  • The same was true of a heat wave in Australia which followed two of its wettest years in its history; 2013 began in Sydney with the first days of the year being among its 20 hottest days in recorded history; since the 1950s every decade in Australia has been hotter than the preceding one
  • At the same time, the Middle East experienced extreme cold which brought, among many other stunning weather events, a highly unusual storm dumping eight inches of snow on Jerusalem
  • Extreme cold gripped Siberia and China, among other places
  • The northeastern coast of United States was struck by a devastating hurricane that wreaked havoc on many areas, especially New York City and the Jersey shore
  • England has a had a variety of weather extremes with 2012 being the wettest year in its history resulting in, among other things, floods in various places; London experienced unusually heavy snowfall in early 2013

A resident of England summed up the feelings of many in the country, as well as in many other parts of the world, about these new weather realities: “’We don’t expect extremes. We don’t expect it to be like this’” (Lyall, 2013: A10). It seems clear that in the future we will all need to learn to expect the unexpected as far as weather is concerned as well as the need to learn how to deal with it as best we can. Of course, what we most need to do is to change the various ways in which humans are serving as the major cause of these climate changes.

References:

Field, Christopher. Testimony of Christopher B. Field before

United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

on Update on the Latest Climate Change Science.

Washington, DC, August 2012.

Lyall, Sarah. “Heat, Flood or Icy Cold, Extreme Weather Rages Worldwide.” New York Times January 11, 2013: A4, A10.

National Research Council. America’s Climate Choices. National Academies Press, Washington DC., 2011.

Are You a Digital Drone?

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

Are You a Digital Drone?

Most people, especially young people, view the Internet as a “playground” and much of what they do their as fun; as an enjoyable leisure-time activity. There is, however, an alternative perspective on this. While you might not see yourself in this way, there are those in sociology and other fields who are coming to look at much of the Internet as a “factory” and what you do there as a form of labor or work (Scholz, 2013). From the latter perspective, you are seen as spending hours every day slaving away on such tasks as updating your Facebook page and checking recent additions to other’s pages or detailing your most recent fashion choices on Pinterest. To some observers, you seem to resmble worker-bees tirelessly toiling away at a never-ending series of tasks.

In addition to thinking about what you do on the Internet as a fun, leisure-time activity, you might also see it as a series of tasks that you perform largely for yourself. They therefore seem to stand in contrast to traditional occupational activities in which you are working for others and in the process enhancing their interests while gaining little for yourself except for the pay involved. However, many critics now view what you do on the computer as very much like such work since you are often working for others and in the process making them wealthier. However, one important difference is that you are not working for a wage; on the internet you are usually engaging in “free labor”; you are working for nothing (Terranova, 2013).

For example, when you write product reviews for Amazon.com you are enhancing the value of that site and the company; you are working for them and you are not being paid for that work. Similarly, you work for Facebook, again for nothing, when you indicate your various likes and dislikes, especially for commercial products. More troubling is the much greater amount of such work that you do even though you are unaware of doing it. Google, for example, uses various data-mining techniques (web crawlers, personalized algorithmns) to track all of many things that you click on (Ross, 2013). The results are used to determine the kinds of advertisements that appear on your computer screen. Google earns money, lots of money, from those advertisers.

To put it baldly, the value of these computer-based businesses is based largely on the “work”- those clicks and likes- that you do for them free of charge. In a capitalist world you ought to be paid by all of them, but of course you are not paid. From the perspective of the critics of capitalism, you are being exploited by firms such as Google and Facebook (Fuchs, 2013). In fact, you are being exploited more than the paid workers in the capitalist system. Most of them are being paid relatively little, but you are paid nothing at all. Low paid work often yields great profits, but work that is unpaid leads to an even higher rate of profit. As a result, Google earns huge profits with a comparatively small workforce and while Facebook is not yet nearly as profitable, it has a market value of $100 billion even though it only has about two thousand paid employees.

While you might regard sites such as Facebook and Pinterest as playgrounds, you might feel a bit different about them, and perhaps behave differently, if you also thought about them as modern-day factories and yourself as unpaid drones slaving away on those sites for the benefit of their corporate owners.

References

Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 211-224.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 13-32.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor”. In Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 33-57.