Covid-19 and transfer of risk on digital platform workers

At an internal meeting of the IDHES lab in Gif-sur-Yvette, and then at an event at the University of Bologna, I have had the pleasure of presenting recent research on how the current health crisis reveals a new dimension of digital platforms – their tendency, wherever possible, to shift risk from clients to workers, within its ecosystem. The paper, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli, is now under submission for a journal.

Here is an abstract:

As the recessionary effects of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic become
manifest, the paper discusses their effects on digital platforms and the
workers in their eco-systems. Against the possibility that platform
labor may be a buffer against crisis-induced layoffs, our analysis of
the risks associated to it suggests that it may eventually increase
precarity, without necessarily mitigating health risks for workers. Our
argument is based on a comparison of the three main categories of
platform labor – “on-demand labor” (gigs such as delivery and
transportation), “online labor” (tasks performed by freelancers and
micro-workers) and “social media labor” (like content generation
and moderation) – in terms of the health and economic risks involved in
coronavirus times. We show that platform managers have deployed varying
strategies to transfer risk from themselves and their clients onto
workers, exploiting and deepening the existing power imbalance between
them. Success in achieving this has enabled them to secure their bottom
line even at the expense of working conditions. The Covid-19 pandemic
has brought to light how digital platforms apply a management style that
revolves around transferring the burden of risk to their own workforce.

Crowdworking Symposium 2020

With Antonio A. Casilli, I will be presenting a paper tomorrow at the Crowdworking Symposium organized by the University of Paderborn, Germany. Unfortunately, we will participate only online because of the health situation.

Our mini-paper (3 pages), entitled ‘Portraits of micro-workers: The real people behind AI in France’, is available here.

The platform economy, labour and Covid-19

On 18 September 2020, I present my research on the platform economy and its impact on labour in Covid-19 times at Nantes Digital Week, as part of a special event organized by CGT, a Union.

The mobility restrictions that accompanied the pandemic encouraged use of digital tools to socialize, study and work, suggesting that automation is gaining ground and that technology enables contactless – hence safe – interactions in much of our social life. Yet behind apparent automation, precarious and unprotected human labour is hidden. Workers recruited through digital platforms to make these solutions work, are in fact disproportionately exposed to risks. I illustrate these ideas in three main cases: food delivery workers, that enabled the restaurant industry to stand the crisis even during lockdown; commercial content moderators that are to return to office sooner than others, to protect our safety online; and AI micro-workers who trained tools whose sales have gone up during stay-at-home rules, such as voice assistants, and helped the creation of datasets for much-needed health applications.

First seminar of the year!

Next Thursday, 17 September, I have been invited to give a talk as part of the cycle of seminars organized by the quantitative sociology research group at CREST-ENSAE, Palaiseau (Paris area). Although the health situation is still bleak, I am glad to return to almost-normal functioning by giving an in-person talk. Hopefully there won’t be any new lockdown before that.

I will present an in-progress paper provisionally entitled:

«Disembedded or deeply embedded? A multi-level network analysis of the online platform economy»

The two types of platform labour analyzed in the paper.

In this paper, I extend the economic-sociological concept of embeddedness to encompass not only social networks of, for example, friendship or kinship ties, but also economic networks of ownership and control relationships. Applying these ideas to the case of digital platform labour pinpoints two possible scenarios. When platforms take the role of market intermediaries, economic ties are thin and workers are left to their own devices, in a form of ‘disembeddedness’. When platforms partake in intricate inter-firm outsourcing structures, economic ties envelop workers in a ‘deep embeddedness’ which involves both stronger constraints and higher rewards. With this added dimension, the notion of embeddedness becomes a compelling tool to describe the social structures that frame economic action, including the power imbalances that characterize digital labour in the global economy.

How many ‘micro-workers’?

Finally published! Counting `micro-workers’: Societal and methodological challenges around new forms of labour is a paper that I co-authored with Clément Le Ludec and Antonio A. Casilli, and that hs just been published in a special issue of the journal Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation.

What is it about? ‘Micro-work’ consists of fragmented data tasks that myriad providers execute on online platforms. While crucial to the development of data-based technologies, this little visible and geographically spread activity is particularly difficult to measure. To fill this gap, we combined qualitative and quantitative methods (online surveys, in-depth interviews, capture-recapture techniques, and web traffic analytics) to count micro-workers in a single country, France. On the basis of this analysis, we estimate that approximately 260,000 people are registered with micro-work platforms. Of these some 50,000 are ‘regular’ workers who do micro-tasks at least monthly, and we speculate that using a more restrictive measure of ‘very active’ workers decreases this figure to 15,000. This analysis is important to better understand platform labour and the labour in the digital economy that lies behind artificial intelligence.

Digital inequalities in time of pandemic

Just published a new, collective paper on new kinds of risk that are emerging with the COVID-19 virus, arguing that these risks are unequally distributed. Digital inequalities and social inequalities are rendering certain subgroups significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. Populations bearing disproportionate risks include the social isolated, older adults, penal system subjects, digitally disadvantaged students, gig workers, and last-mile workers. We map out the intersection between COVID-19 risk factors and digital inequalities on each of these populations in order to examine how the digitally resourced have additional tools to mitigate some of the risks associated with the pandemic. We shed light on how the ongoing pandemic is deepening key axes of social differentiation, which were previously occluded from view.

These newly manifested forms of social differentiation can be conceived along several related dimensions. At their most general and abstract, these risks have to do with the capacity individuals have to control the risk of pathogen exposure. In order to fully manage exposure risk, individuals must control their physical environment to the greatest extent possible in order to prevent contact with potentially compromised physical spaces. In addition, they must control their social interactional environment to the greatest extent possible in order to minimize their contacts with potentially infected individuals. All else equal, those individuals who exercise more control over their exposure risk — on the basis of their control over their physical and social interactional environments — stand a better chance of staying healthy than those individuals who cannot manage exposure risk. Individuals therefore vary in terms of what we call their COVID-19 exposure risk profile (CERPs).

CERPs hinge on pre-existing forms of social differentiation such as socioeconomic status, as individuals with more economic resources at their disposal can better insulate themselves from exposure risk. Alongside socioeconomic status, one of the key forms of social differentiation connected with CERPs is digital (dis)advantage. Ceteris paribus, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms. Therefore we believe that digital inequalities are directly and increasingly related to both life-or-death exposure to COVID-19, as well as excess deaths attributable to the larger conditions generated by the pandemic.

The article has been published in First Monday and is available here.

In the same special issue of First Monday, I co-published two reference articles:

Digital inequalities 2.0: Legacy inequalities in the information age

Digital inequalities 3.0: Emergent inequalities in the information age

PhD studentship available

I have an exciting opportunity for a brilliant master’s degree holder willing to do a PhD in economic sociology. The topic of the thesis is “The division of data labour: How multi-level micro-work networks elucidate the social and economic dimensions of artificial intelligence”. The studentship is generously funded by CNRS.

More information and application form (both in French and in English) here: https://emploi.cnrs.fr/Offres/Doctorant/UMR8623-PAOTUB-001/Default.aspx?lang=EN

The trainer, the verifier, the imitator: Three ways in which human platform workers support artificial intelligence

New article, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli and Marion Coville, just published in Big Data & Society!

The paper sheds light on the role of digital platform labour in the development of today’s artificial intelligence, predicated on data-intensive machine learning algorithms. We uncover the specific ways in which outsourcing of data tasks to myriad ‘micro-workers’, recruited and managed through specialized platforms, powers virtual assistants, self-driving vehicles and connected objects. Using qualitative data from multiple sources, we show that micro-work performs a variety of functions, between three poles that we label, respectively, ‘artificial intelligence preparation’, ‘artificial intelligence verification’ and ‘artificial intelligence impersonation’. Because of the wide scope of application of micro-work, it is a structural component of contemporary artificial intelligence production processes – not an ephemeral form of support that may vanish once the technology reaches maturity stage. Through the lens of micro-work, we prefigure the policy implications of a future in which data technologies do not replace human workforce but imply its marginalization and precariousness.

The three main functions of micro-work in the development of data-intensive, machine-learning based AI solutions.

The paper reports results of the 2017-18 DiPLab project, and is available here in open access.

Internship offer, TRIA project

I am currently seeking to hire a student intern for new research project TRIA (Les TRavailleurs de l’Intelligence Artificielle / Los TRabajadores de la Inteligencia Artificial). Start as soon as possible, conditional on evolving regulations at the end of the current lockdown. Max 6 months.

A full description of the project is enclosed (in French).

HDR Paola Tubaro

(English version below)

J’ai le plaisir d’annoncer la soutenance de mon habilitation à diriger des recherches en sociologie intitulée :

Décrypter la société des plateformes: Organisations, marchés et réseaux dans l’économie numérique.

Cette soutenance aura lieu le mercredi 11 décembre 2019 à Sciences Po Paris, 9 rue de la chaise, salle 931, à 10h00.

Si vous souhaitez venir, merci de confirmer votre présence grâce à ce lien car les personnes externes à Sciences Po ne pourront pas accéder à la salle si elles ne sont pas annoncées.


Le jury sera composé de :

  • M. Gilles Bastin, Professeur des universités, IEP de Grenoble (rapporteur)
  • M. Rodolphe Durand, Professeur, HEC Paris
  • M. Emmanuel Lazega, Professeur des universités, IEP de Paris (garant et rapporteur)
  • Mme Béatrice Milard, Professeure des universités, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (rapporteure)
  • M. José Luís Molina González, Professeur, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • M. Tom A.B. Snijders, Professeur, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

La soutenance sera suivie d’un pot. 

Résumé

Le manuscrit original conceptualise la récente montée en puissance des platesformes numériques selon trois dimensions principales : leur nature de dispositifs de coordination alimentés par les données, les transformations du travail qui en découlent, et les promesses d’innovation sociétale qui les accompagnent. L’ambition globale est de décortiquer le rôle de coordination de la plateforme et sa position à l’horizon de la dualité classique entreprise – marché. Il s’agit aussi de comprendre précisément comment elle utilise les données pour ce faire, où elle amène le travail, et comment elle gère des projets d’innovation sociale. Je prolonge cette analyse pour faire apparaître la continuité entre la société actuelle dominée par les plateformes et la « société organisationnelle », montrant que les plateformes sont des structures organisées qui distribuent les ressources, produisent des asymétries de richesse et de pouvoir, et repoussent l’innovation sociale vers la périphérie du système. Je discute des implications de ces tendances pour les politiques publiques, et propose des pistes pour la recherche future. 


I am pleased to announce the defense of my habilitation to direct research in sociology entitled:


Decoding the platform society: Organizations, markets and networks in the digital economy


This defense will take place on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 at Sciences Po Paris, 9 rue de la chaise, room 931, at 10am.


If you wish to attend, please confirm your presence through this link because people who are external to Sciences Po will be denied access to the room if they are not announced.

Members of the jury are:

  • Prof. Gilles Bastin, IEP de Grenoble (referee)
  • Prof. Rodolphe Durand, HEC Paris
  • Prof. Emmanuel Lazega, IEP de Paris (advisor and referee)
  • Prof. Béatrice Milard, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (referee)
  • Prof. José Luís Molina González, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
  • Prof. Tom A.B. Snijders, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

There will be drinks after the defense.


Abstract

The original manuscript conceptualizes the recent rise of digital platforms along three main dimensions: their nature of coordination devices fueled by data, the ensuing transformations of labor, and the accompanying promises of societal innovation. The overall ambition is to unpack the coordination role of the platform and where it stands in the horizon of the classical firm – market duality. It is also to precisely understand how it uses data to do so, where it drives labor, and how it accommodates socially innovative projects. I extend this analysis to show continuity between today’s society dominated by platforms and the “organizational society”, claiming that platforms are organized structures that distribute resources, produce asymmetries of wealth and power, and push social innovation to the periphery of the system. I discuss the policy implications of these tendencies and propose avenues for follow-up research.