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Three visions for how information and communication technologies alter positionalities at global economic margins

I'm currently working on a book chapter about our 'digital labour and gig economy' research. The chapter attempts to contextualise plans and projects to expand digital labour schemes by governments, third-sector organisations, and private sector actors. In writing the chapter, I thought it would be useful to outline the three broad perspectives that I have encountered in previous research. 

Imaginaries of the ways that technologies alter positionalities at the world’s economic margins are used to open up or limit possibilities. They are used to drive policies and plans; and they are deployed to shift attention and resources in some directions and away from others. It is therefore worth thinking about the nature of them, and what sort of changes they actually propose to bring into being. 

The three outlined below are taken from the following paper.

Graham, M. 2015. Contradictory Connectivity: Spatial Imaginaries and Techno-Mediated Positionalities in Kenya's Outsourcing Sector. Environment and Planning A 47 867-883 (pre-publicaion version here).

But I'd welcome other directions and other readings as edit this chapter.

The global village

This is one of the most persistent visions underpinning hopes about transformations that the internet can bring about. Built on Barlow’s (1996) vision of the internet as an ontic space in which states ‘have no sovereignty where we gather’. The global village allows any connected economic actor to be brought into a shared digital market space or communications space. Positionalities can be transcended and barriers to non-proximate interactions have technical fixes. The global village imaginary allows for a vision that anything can be done from anywhere.

Shrinking distance

This vision centres on the perceived ways in which technology would shrink geographic frictions with richer, faster, and cheaper connections and those diminishing frictions, in turn, lead conceptions of distance as a unit that can be shrunk. In other words, frictions between places are seen to be significant impediments holding back trade; and information and communication technologies (ICTs) not only eliminate those frictions, but facilitate and mediate a global economy. While this perspective shares much in common with the global village, there are significant differences between the two. Both perspectives attribute significant power and agency to technology and allow it to function as a bridge, intermediary, or tool that can fundamentally transform positionalities. Both highlight how the location of a business or businessperson could be rendered irrelevant: business can now be transacted with anyone, anywhere. However, while the global village perspective explains this change because of access to the Internet, the shrinking distance perspective makes the same argument with a focus instead on the diminishing role that distance plays. In the former, geographic positionality no longer matters (hence the temptation to assign an ontic role to digital spaces), whereas, in the latter, geographic positionalities retain more significance: the world here remains material and augmented (rather than as a dualism between virtual and material spaces), but distance between those material places becomes less important. The shrinking distance perspective ultimately presents a world of potential. The old barriers
of distance and geography, that previously rendered some places as peripheries and some places as cores, have melted away; and it is only a matter of time before people in economic margins can begin to buy, sell, and interact with anyone, anywhere

Digital augmentations

Finally, there are visions of digital augmentations in which economic actors neither imagine a digital global village in which they can interact with their peers, or a world in which distance had become meaningless. Instead, they focus on the incremental changes brought about by ICTs and the ways in which those changes are embedded into existing networks, structures, and positionalities. The primary argument put forward here is that distance is just one hurdle to cross. As such, the ability of ICTs to mediate new types of communication and information flow is of necessarily limited benefit. This recognition of the myriad social, economic, and political challenges inherent to doing business across international borders results in a conceptualization of distance as always socially constructed and always grounded in individual contingencies and positionalities. In other words, we are offered a more modest view of what new communications affordances can achieve. There is no sense that human territoriality can be replaced by communication technologies, and there is a full recognition of the fully augmented and relational links between technology, space, and economic activity.
 

Related readings

Smart, C., Donner, J., and Graham, M. 2016. Connecting the World from the Sky: Spatial Discourses Around Internet Access in the Developing World. Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2909609.2909659

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographical Imagination and Technological Connectivity in East Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(3) 334-349. (pre-publication version here).

Graham, M. 2013. Geography/Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities? The Geographical Journal 179(2) 177-182(pre-publication version here).

Graham, M. 2011. Time Machines and Virtual Portals: The Spatialities of the Digital DivideProgress in Development Studies. 11 (3). 211-227.

Graham, M. 2008. Warped Geographies of Development: The Internet and Theories of Economic Development. Geography Compass, 2(3), 771-789.

Hacking code/space: Confounding the code of global capitalism
Screenshot from 2018-03-03 12-53-50.png

I have a new paper out. The paper focuses on attempts by 'airline hackers' to subvert the code/spaces of international travel. Download a full version of the paper at the link below, or read the conclusions here. 

Zook, M. and Graham, M. 2018. Hacking Code/Space: Confounding the Code of Global CapitalismTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 10.1111/tran.12228. 

Conclusions.

The global airline network is a key code/space of contemporary global capitalism and, like other core networks, relies on a heavy degree of algorithmic (albeit non-hegemonic) governance. Crucially, this analysis shows that the encoded rules and algorithms of airlines are potentially malleable via the practices of hackers that “offer an abstract negation that doesn't already fit into a binary computation” (Shaw & Graham, 2017, p. 917); they refuse to act in the ways that algorithms and systems define as normal. These efforts demonstrate that the very complexity of code/spaces can render systems designed for hegemonic control porous and susceptible to subversion by those it was meant to restrict. The diverse and colourful examples from airline hacking highlight both the myriad ways a system has been turned towards unintended purposes and the creative (and time-consuming) methods some will use to manipulate code/space for their own goals. In short, these transgressions demonstrate that we need not do everything that the machines tell us to do.

To be clear, the case of airline hackers is not necessarily a subversive or even democratic activity as the motivations and effects are focused on personal gain. Encoded rules often exist for good reason and thus hacking is not inherently emancipatory (Mott & Roberts, 2014), and has the potential to undermine well-intentioned and socially beneficial systems. However, our analysis demonstrates how playful, transgressive and mischievous approaches can repurpose and recreate the code/spaces of airlines and beyond.

In addition to computer hacking documented by Coleman (2013, 2014), individuals regularly remake elements of their hybrid spaces.8 Examples include Google bombing or search engine optimisation (SEO) that manipulate search results, as well as virtual private networks to gain access to online material blocked because of one's location. Other practices target tracking and profiling systems by flooding them with false data using readily available tools like the AdNauseam.io browser plug-in that clicks on all advertisements to mask users’ habits. While these cases began as exclusively digital practices, the hybridisation of space – e.g. search engine optimisation of maps (Zook & Graham, 2007a, 2007b) and profiling users by tracking physical mobility (Conger, 2016) – ensures their relevance to material and code/spaces.

There are also micro-hacks in public transportation systems in most cities worldwide: solutions that save time or money using strategies not envisioned by transport planners. Londoners, for instance, pay fares based not on distance travelled, but on how they traverse concentric fare zones radiating outwards from the centre. However, there is one particular Overground rail line that travels from the west to the east of the city without leaving one of the concentric zones: allowing canny travellers to traverse huge distances for the cost of a local journey. Opportunities for code/space hacking are growing as the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities initiatives increasingly surround us with devices that exert control over our spaces but often do so rather insecurely.9

As code increasingly governs financial transactions, human mobility, dating, job search and much of the rest of everyday life, a key finding of this paper is recognising the potential vulnerability of even the most encompassing algorithms. Code often works on people, en masse, expecting them to act in normal and foreseeable ways. But in a world of unpredictable people, able to engage with, transgress against and switch between networks, the hegemony of code/space can be contested and manipulated. Algorithmic rules for human behaviour often do produce socially valuable outcomes, and they might find us the perfect job, partner and mortgage; but they also restrict choices, force disadvantage and disempower the individuals that they govern. It is hard to argue with an algorithm, or even ask it why it made the choices that it did. Airline hackers, through craft and self-interest, exemplify the ways we might manipulate code to challenge the power of code/space to shape human behaviour. In an age of smart cities, big data and encompassing surveillance systems, there seems little doubt that hacking efforts will expand to other areas of digitally mediated daily life.

The trickery of hackers, however, is not devoid of its own power and ability to negatively impact (often unknowingly) those to which it is relationally connected. Hackers can certainly transgress against corporate systems, but the reaction to these challenges reverberate through the global networks of capitalism. This ultimately points to the need for an ethics of care that recognises the relational economic positionalities that we share with one another. The code of everyday life is malleable, but efforts to sidestep and subvert it enrol us into uncomfortable power-geometries beyond our immediate space-time horizons. Thus, we all have a responsibility to reflect on not just the power of code, but also the power we exert through it, with it and because of it.

Towards a Fairer Platform Economy: Introducing the Fairwork Foundation
fairwork.jpg

This month, I started work on a new project together with my new colleague Jamie Woodcock: The Fairwork Foundation. With generous funding from GIZ, we will get to spend the next year and a half figuring out how to certify online labour platforms - using leverage from workers, consumers, and platforms to improve the welfare and job quality of digital workers.

Today we also have a new article about the project out (in a new issue of Alternate Routes focused on 'Social Inequality and the Spectre of Social Justice'). The article explains some of our initial strategies for the project. The specifics will undoubtedly evolve, but you can get a sense of our direction of travel.

Graham, M. and Woodcock, J. 2018. Towards a Fairer Platform Economy: Introducing the Fairwork Foundation. Alternate Routes. 29. 242-253.

Summary

This proposal envisions a way of holding platforms accountable through a programme of research focused on fair work. It operates under a governing belief that core transparent production networks can lead to better working conditions for digital workers around the world. The establishment of the Foundation and a certification scheme will provide demonstrable impact for digital workers, customers, and platforms. For digital workers, it addresses the twofold structural weakness that they face: first, the lack of ability to collectively bargain due to the fragmentation of the work process; and second, the asymmetry of information between workers and platforms. The certification process provides an important means to address these two challenges, along with building and developing connections between workers and institutions like trade unions and regulatory bodies. New kinds of work require innovations in organising techniques and regulations, and the Fairwork Foundation provides an important starting point for developing these in practice. 

As millions of people turn to platform work for their livelihoods, it is no longer good enough to imagine that there is nothing beyond the screen. Our clicks tie us to the lives and livelihoods of platform workers, as much as buying clothes tie us to the lives of sweatshop workers. And with that realisation of our interwoven digital positionalities comes the power to bring into being a fairer world of work.

Labour oversupply in the platform economy

When I give talks about issues that arise in the context of a global market for digital work, one of the most important things that comes up is the oversupply of labour power. I often get asked to share the table above, and so figured it would be useful to post here. The table illustrates labour oversupply on one of the world's largest platforms.
In the chart you can see that there are a huge number of people who come to these platforms looking for work, but never end up finding any. Something that our current fieldwork in the Geonet project strongly corroborates. This huge oversupply diminishes the ability of workers to secure better wages or working conditions.


If you want to cite the source of the table, you can find it here:

Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., Wood, A., Barnard, H., Hjorth, I., and Simon, D. P. 2017. The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At the Global Margins. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute. 

And if you want to read more about the implications of this global oversupply of labour power, we write about it in the following pieces:

Graham, M. and Anwar, M.A. 2018. Digital Labour In: Digital Geographies Ash, J., Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski, A. (eds.). Sage. London.

Graham, M., Hjorth, I., Lehdonvirta, V. 2017. Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research. 23 (2) 135-162.