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Help us shape the Fairwork Foundation: request for feedback

In an earlier post, I described a new initiative that we recently started: The Fairwork Foundation. The goal of the Foundation is to certify key standards in the platform economy. By setting those standards, and certifying platforms against them, we hope to try to work against a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. Workers avoid unfair contracts, and platforms and consumers will be able to avoid acting unethically.

To get this right, we'll need to make sure that we understand what fair work actually means in the gig economy. In other words, what are the standards we want to certify against?

Next month, we'll be hosting meetings at UNCTAD and the ILO in which we bring together platforms, trade unions, policy makers, and academics in order to discuss how to define fair work in the platform economy. But, we'd also like your help. If you have any opinions on standards that we should be thinking about, or ways in which we should be implementing them, we'd love to hear from you. We've created this form for you to submit your ideas: bit.ly/FairworkForm

We look forward to your thoughts, and please do pass along the link to anyone else who you think might have something to add.

To read more about our plans, we've put together this short article:

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

 

 

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
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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.