For growing numbers of urban inhabitants, smartphones and their mobile apps have become essential tools for everyday life.
In the decade since smartphones first became popularised, many millions of people in cities around the world have grown used to using apps for finding and making our way around the city, for hooking up with friends or potential lovers, for sharing things or thoughts or pictures, for playing games, and for many more things besides.
It may seem as though these apps are working for us – improving our experience of the city. But I think this is to put it the wrong way around – or at least, to tell only half the story. We are also working for the apps.
As use of these apps become part of our everyday movements around the city, we are performing a kind of ‘digital labour’ that generates vast amounts of profit for the corporations that make them. A ‘right to the city’ for our digitally-networked places and times will need to include an analysis of the exploitation of our digital labour, and a strategy to democratise the surplus that it generates.
Urban life and digital labour
The idea that as we use mobile apps we are performing a kind of ‘digital labour’ at first seems counter-intuitive. When we use these apps, aren’t we just consumers of a product that someone else has made? Of course, that’s part of what’s going on here. But if we think about the business model of the people who own the apps, the idea that we are not just consumers but also ‘digital labourers’ starts to make more sense.
Many of the apps on which urban inhabitants come to depend are ‘free’. But app owners are not giving us their apps out of the goodness of their hearts. The reason that their makers can give them away for little or no cost is because they (hope they) can make money in other ways. So, how do they make money?
Of course, putting up with some advertising is one of the ‘costs’ of using some of these apps, which depend upon advertising revenue to make some money. But the apps that we use as we move around the city are also frequently designed to gather data about our movements. That data about our patterns of activity in the city – often referred to as a form of ‘locational’ or ‘geospatial’ data – is a goldmine for app owners. It is sold on to third parties, who analyse that data for a variety of purposes – ranging from the provision of further commercial services to targeted advertising and security.
It’s notoriously difficult to get clear information about these data markets and their value. But we can get some sense of how valuable geospatial data has become by looking at the way that markets value the apps that collect it. For instance, the real-time navigation app Waze, which works by collecting and then sharing data about its users movements across the road network, sold to Google in 2013 for a reported figure of about US$1.3 billion. That massive price is for an app that is ‘free’ to download and use. Those who use it to navigate the city have also been working for its owners, producing the data that allowed them to sell it at such a high price.
Waze is one of many popular mobile apps that work by enlisting us in the conscious or unconscious production of data. As we use these apps, our everyday lives outside the ‘workplace’ come to involve a form of labour. Such labour plays a crucial role in generating the vast market value of such apps. As digital media analyst Trebor Sholz puts it, “without being recognised as labor, our location, input, and tracked mobility become assets that can be turned into economic value.”
If our everyday use of smart phones and their apps has become a form of digital labour, what should we do about it?
Much of the debate about our rights in the informational city has been conducted in reference to our rights as consumers. This approach tends to emphasise important issues like privacy protection and the terms of service associated with specific apps.
A digital labour perspective adds something to these discussions about our rights as consumers. It draws our attention to other issues that are crucial to the politics and political-economy of the informational city, related to our rights as producers.
As geographer David Harvey puts it, the fight for our right to the city must be a fight for “greater democratic control over the production and utilisation of the surplus.” If our everyday use of mobile apps produces data that is the source of massive surplus, then we have to find ways to democratise this surplus to make our cities more equitable and just.
The rights of labourers to shape the conditions of their labour and to socialise the products of their work have never been established without a struggle. And while this is a struggle for our times, perhaps there are lessons from our past to guide us.
We will need to develop new ways to assert our collective rights as labourers (alongside our individual rights as consumers). We are witnessing the birth of forms of organising on these issues. If unions offer us one historical model of how labourers have worked together to enact and protect their rights, how might we effectively adapt this model to our current situation? A few years ago, an attempt to establish a Facebook Users Union generated some media coverage, but did not catch on. What new strategies might we experiment with to collectivise as digital labourers?
We will also need to find more effective ways to collectivise and redistribute the profits that are made from our labour. Labour movements in the past have deployed good old-fashioned taxation for this purpose. Making new demands around taxation will be a challenge, but one worth pursuing given that so many of the nimble global digital corporates profiting from our labour are not paying their fair share.
This article is from a collection of pieces titled Our Digital Rights to the City, you can access the full booklet via meatspacepress.org and Red Pepper will be republishing individual articles over the coming weeks. The collection was edited by Joe Shaw and Mark Graham, with design by Irene Beltrame
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.