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.

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