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Digital labourers of the city, unite!

It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson

March 17, 2017
6 min read


Kurt IvesonKurt Iveson Associate Professor at The University of Sydney


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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.”

Taking action on digital labour

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

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Kurt IvesonKurt Iveson Associate Professor at The University of Sydney


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