In the unfolding drama of work in the digital age, new circumstance demands new language. Gig economy, on-demand work, sharing economy, precarious work, automation, zero-hour contracts, outsourcing, workfare. Whilst the entire stage set changes, the central character of the drama remains. The worker. If this indicates both a resilience yet a revisionism of the worker today, there is the need to probe the worker subject of the new economies through new ones. Thus here is the Workerant.
Who is the workerant?
The following are. The Uber taxi driver. The Deliveroo courier. The warehouse picker in an Amazon fulfilment centre. The handyman on Taskrabbit. The workerant is the human tethered to handsets, whose real life boss is an app. Whose labour is in service of that app’s algorithms that monitor it second by second. The workerant is a global subject geographically located by gps. Where is a matter now of logistical detail. It could be London, Berlin, Bangalore, Cairo, Jakarta, Nairobi and so on.
The workerant’s name is adopted from ANT, the Actor Network Theory from the 1980s whose principle proponents were three sociologists of science Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law. Whilst the workerant’s naming does not imply that this writing adheres to ANT, the theory is a means to step out of the ready-made narratives of the Digital Revolution that come bundled with the technology. The making of a network society with its smart handsets, its social media, its automation of work and the new reality of the Internet of Things. Michel Callon in a fascinating account of the tragedy of the VEL, the electric car of the 70s long before the days of the Digital Revolution, outlined the basics of ANT through a network involving heterogeneous actors. From technologists to electric battery components to environmental activists to competing corporations. The range of actors, both animate and inanimate, along with ambiguities of understanding roles led to the oxymoron of the actor-network “reducible neither to an actor alone nor to a network”. An actor-network that is “simultaneously an actor whose activity is networking heterogeneous elements and a network that is able to redefine and transform what it is made of”. Its significance lies in that the human is no longer the privileged subject. Instead ‘multiple things do things’ as in the Internet of Things. Through an exploration of networked agency, ANT gave us a subject to avoid the human connotations of the actor – the actant, the thing in itself. The actant as the latent subject with the capacity to act and thus to also alter and modify other actors in its networks.
The workerant of this writing is derived from the actant. The -ant denotes the thing of today’s human worker, its place within networks run by apps that are non-material and non-terrestrial. Through words analogous to ANT, the human is now one of the things doing things in the Internet of Things. The cognitive capacity of the network of things may less be dependent on the human than on its algorithms. If this opens up new dimensions both on the question of agency and of rights, the language of the networks obfuscate them. The workerant subject lays them bare by declaring its “thingness”, free of the narratives of the networks.
By this classification as a thing, the workerant is not to be confused with the phonetically related worker ant and the social contract of the insect world; nor is it to be reduced to a zombie, the biological state of the human. Both imply an alteration of the social sphere through technology in a way we have never managed before; of scenarios that writers like Yoav Noah Hariri describe so graphically. Worker. Worker ant. Workerant. In the differences between them, Marx’s reminder that it is not our consciousness that determines our material existence but the other way round could never be clearer.
In this respect, we accept the workerant not as a subject of a natural evolution of technological progress; instead here it is the product of specific processes of mobilisation of finance capital and information technology that set out to create internet platforms to claim and reorganise old forms of work. In their book Modern Monopolies Alex Moazed and Nicholas Johnson describe the phenomenon of the internet platforms whose economies grow through their emphasis on connectedness. The platforms do not produce products but “ecosystems” or networks that connect. Once they reach a certain scale, platforms networks can grow virally. In a frenzy of what’s called creative destruction, the platform economies have now eclipsed industrial era corporate giants and cut the lifespan of the S&P 500 leading companies from fifty to less than fifteen years. Through this not only have the material conditions of work been transformed but the platforms have vicariously produced a new worker; the workerant. A human worker as before but extracted from its habitus and planted in the platform networks.
The primary characteristic of the workerant is the vast accumulation of finance and technology to de-skill the human rather than advancing its capacity. The skills-base of the human work in the new economy is extracted and progressively vested in the platform app. By this process the human can be expendable in the future as the markets decide; it’s a part of the workerant’s latency. So whilst maintaining the meniality of the human worker, the human social capital, its social value is channelled into the platform’s own communication cloud – through metrics of reviews, likes, friends etc that sustain the app.
Technology to de-skill work gets over the problems of uneven development in local and global markets, to level and to leapfrog. Ample stories abound on how the gig economy overturns the rules of the labour market for those excluded from it. How it cuts through local and global hegemonies. Strategists speak of the global potential of ‘Uber-isation’ as a development tool where the platforms at last provide empowerment and security for untapped income potential. But the stats show that it is always the possessors of capital that stand to benefit from the platforms. Whether it’s Uber drivers in Pakistan or Airbnb rentiers in Spain. For those without capital, the labour relations the platforms produce inevitably reinforce existing imbalances. But the process has other purposive outcomes as the very fabric of society is altered. As Satyajit Das writes, the most fundamental building block of human socialisation, trust, is slowly but surely relocated as humans get rewarded by placing their trust not in each other but in the platform. Once that’s accomplished, the platforms reign in the society of “a virtual “human cloud”.
The cloud is central to the workerant as a free-range human, yet whose panopticon is everywhere. The demographic base of the workerant predominantly lies in the certain environments. The impenetrable zones of inner city estates, anonymous urban sprawls, mazy slums, spaces that serve the political imaginary like the casbahs in the colonies. There the workerant serves as a surveyor for the cloud; an actant of geography and demography for a new cartographic project that recalls what the anonymous French collective Tiqqun described as the “construction of a decentralised real-time gridding system” whose purpose is “total transparency, an absolute correspondence between the map and the territory, a will to knowledge accumulated to such degree that it becomes a will to power.” The will to power through the benign yet relentless gathering of information turns into a ‘homoeostasis’ with its own feedback loops. For Tiqqun, it signifies the end of the liberal order and the beginning of another.
We can now tap into our Uber app to get a feel of the homoeostasis in operation coursing through multiple platforms. The ease and simplicity of being habituated into it. Yet sooner or later, the balance sheets of the social order change as their algorithms begin to define the measures of value. Whether it’s through trending tools or predictive policing policies. As Kathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction describes, they act by default as instruments of policy. To do their work, network algorithms need to have full sway.
Yet again the workerant serves as the working vanguard to extend the algorithms’ domain; this time through the way work time is premised on leisure time. As smart phones get smarter, algorithms weave seamlessly in-between work apps and social media apps.
Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition had raised the distinction between work and labour, the labour of slaves and the work of citizens, and why labour was central to the Industrial Revolution. Arendt’s argument was that the Industrial Revolution replaced work with labour because only labouring could bring about abundance. Because “the spare time of labour is never spent in anything but consumption” only labour could “attune individual consumption to an unlimited accumulation of wealth.” By the interplay of labour and consumption, the rationale for technology to craft the slavish labour we associate with the new platform economies becomes clearer. As Arendt put it, “slaves are not instruments of making things or of production, but of living, which constantly consumes their services”. The growth of today’s platforms are based on this logic; the primary form of human agency they invest in lies in consumption. The algorithms are premised on choice, flexibility and access but relentlessly undercut income whilst working towards an optimisation of consumption. Their two pronged dynamics harvests the wealth accumulation of the platform companies. Amazon, Uber, Facebook, Deliveroo, and so on.
Thus in a new cartographic era, on a virtual plane set apart from reality, an unparalleled freedom has been created to reconfigure Capital and universalise its risks. On the cutting boards of the digital platforms with vast accumulations of finance capital the algorithms work. Out of this comes the human worker exactly as it was, yet a doppelgänger through new divisions of work. The worker who can live through the workerant; the workerant conceived for work only if connected to the platform networks. The workerant who in work or in play has agency when it taps into its apps. Marx had seen the worker, the wage-labourer, as the final stage in the whole process of the division of labour. As in Zeno’s paradox, that final stage can now be endlessly extended through sub-divisions and fragmentation. With each segment, fragmentation of the subject of work, of the time of work, of the narratives of work, the workerant comes closer to its fulfilment. Then in a way Marx that could never imagine, we can gratefully proclaim:
The worker is alive.
Long live the workerant.
—Michel Callon, Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis, in Bijker, Wiebe E.; Hughes, Thomas P.; Pinch, Trevor J. (eds.) The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, MIT Press, 1987
—Alex Moazed, Nicholas L. Johnson, Modern Monopolies: What It Takes to Dominate the 21st Century Economy, St. Martins Press, 2016
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
—Tiqqun, The Cybernetic Hypothesis, 2001 Online at theanarchistlibrary.org
—Kathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Penguin Books, 2017
—Karl Marx quotes adapted from, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859 Online at marxist.org The German Ideology, 1845 Online at marxists.org (2)