Today on Radio 4, ‘Thinking Aloud’ re. Platform Capitalism. Tech, the global economy, and precarious working #mscedc

I heard this programme on the Radio this afternoon, while driving in the car. It’s funny how, after a while, things join up from different media.

The programe is called ‘Thinking Allowed’, and is a collaboration between BBC Radio 4 and the Open University. The programme’s website, pictured below, even offers a reading list….

The programme was a wide-ranging and engaging discussion of ‘Platform Capitalism’. It interacts with a number of posts on my Lifestream, regarding issues such as:

  • Seeing platforms as “intermediaries… [which] bring together different groups of people…. [and] connect them all together”, are platforms themselves communities, or catalysts to community – and, if the latter, what kind of communities do they engender?
  • How and where digital culture and platform capitalism “replicates historical prejudices”, e.g. the Guardian’s allegations of racial prejudice within Air BnB’s offers of accommodation (13:00 minutes). This article was the subject of a posting on my Lifestream, earlier this week.
  • Differing and “obfuscating discourse” about platforms – contrasting techno-optimists, with those who see platforms as a means for generating, and exploiting, flexible labour.
  • Working conditions within digital cultures (14:30ff minutes). This paralleled another Lifestream posting from earlier this week, about the ability, let alone the right, to disconnect from the ‘gig economy’.
  • How we historicise / periodise the rise of digital cultures within broader historical changes. The presented variously located ‘platform capitalism’ within a 1970s crisis of profitablility; the end of the Cold War, and the economic situation it engendered ; 1990s communication technologies; the global financial crisis of 2008-9. This reminded me of Jeremy Knox’s pre-reading, and the historiographic elements within the ‘Cybercultures’ block.
  • How to monetise data, especially ‘big data’. I anticipate this theme will rise within the ‘Algorithmic Cultures’ block, yet to come.

Also, indirectly, the programme probed issues for education and learning, such as the gig economy’s need to market oneself as a flexible and skilled potential worker meaning that “the traditional idea of a specialist occupation seems to be breaking down” (16:55). Such breaking down and restructuring will be both cause and effect of changes in educational practices and policies, in uneven and even contradictory ways.

Also, (18:00) academics are far from immune to ‘gig economy’ practices, as is evident here and here.

As this programme makes clear, the more this is normalised, the less people see it as a problem (18:55 minutes) – but, at the same time – the restructuring is high-speed, and uncertain to endure in present forms (21:00 minutes). The ‘race to the bottom’ will suit some with particular skill sets and a certain resilience, but “many are called, few are chosen” (25:40 minutes), and the effect of work being broken into discrete tasks, workers being summoned at short notice, and increased subservience to performance indicators deserves sustained critical examination.

Perhaps the most telling comment for me was the likening (at 22:30 minutes) to the wild west – new territory from the informal economy, from sociality and from the arts and culture, being exploited by new forms of capital, and government seeking to legislate into the novel and experimental realities.

Frontiers can be both exciting and dangerous places for communities, and for those within them.