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Publié le
Mercredi 08 Mars 2017
Jeudi 06 Avril 2017
13h00 à 14h30
France Stratégie organise avec l’EHESS et Inria un cycle de débats mensuels « Mutations sociales, mutations technologiques » qui rassemble des personnalités de la décision publique, de la recherche, du monde associatif ou économique, pour débattre des avancées technologiques et des transformations sociales motrices ou résultantes de ces innovations.

Le développement des technologies numériques a considérablement modifié le monde du travail au cours des dernières décennies. Les tâches exécutables en ligne peuvent être décomposées et externalisées n’importe où dans le monde. La collecte de données s’étend sans cesse, à la fois du fait de l’augmentation du nombre de capteurs mais également des situations donnant lieu à collecte d’informations.

Ces changements ont des implications non seulement sur le travail individuel et sur les entreprises mais également sur l’ensemble de la classe ouvrière.

La rencontre, « Le cybertariat » a été introduite par Antonio CASILLI, maître de conférences en humanités numériques à Telecom ParisTech et chercheur au Centre Edgar-Morin de l’EHESS et Ursula HUWS, Professor of Labour and Globalisation, University of Hertfordshire Business School.


The issue to be discussed is how the rise of digital technologies has changed the workplace in recent decades. Indeed, in today’s world different aspects of a job can be carried out in different corners of the globe, and data can be collected from more and more devices and used in an ever-increasing variety of situations. These changes have implications not only for individual workplaces and firms but for the working class as a whole.

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Cybertariat: The Digital Economy’s Underbelly

Information technology and the digital economy built on it have without a doubt improved our lives in many ways, saving time and sparing drudgery for many. On the surface, the online world represents a break from 20th century capitalism in that it has shaken up vested interests, democratized access to information and given more of a voice to many millions across the globe.

But a closer look reveals that though the proliferation of new technology has rewritten a lot of the job market’s rules and created many new ways of earning a living, the traditional dichotomy of labour and capital remains very much unchanged. On the contrary, some would argue the rise of what has been termed the platform economy, dominated as it is by a handful of players like Amazon, eBay, Uber, Airbnb and Google, has only further skewed the balance of power in favour of capital.

France Stratégie invited Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the UK’s University of Hertfordshire Business School, and Antonio Casilli, associate professor at Telecom ParisTech, to discuss the new online workforce and the consequences for the old system of benefits based on salaried work.

The upper hand

A convergence of different trends has given rise to the digital labour force, which Huws has labelled the “cybertariat”. First and foremost, Huws explained that as globalization has spread over the past three decades, multinational corporations have become more and more powerful and wealthy. The world’s biggest have revenue equivalent to the GDPs of countries like Portugal, Finland, Denmark – and even Sweden for the largest (Walmart, with income of half a trillion USD).

One of the key factors that has allowed these companies to amass such massive amounts of wealth is a global division of labour. Together with political forces that have become increasingly beholden to the interests represented by the large corporations, this has led to the decline of the 20th century economic model based on stable salaried employment.

Digital players have been able to benefit from this economic context and draw on the widespread use of computers and smartphones to grow rapidly. They have also encouraged and profited off of the commodification of culture and social interactions and, Huws stressed, the formalization of the informal economy (e.g. activities such as babysitting and gardening).

At the same time, the worst economic crisis in seven decades has only served to fragment the workforce even more and strengthen the business model of many platform companies, which is built on precarious work and non-standard contracts. Huws pointed out that many of their practices, such as using applications to notify workers of new tasks, customer ratings and online platforms for logging work done, have spread across the job market.

Behind the curtain

But while in advanced economies this new economic model usually conjures supplementing an income by driving for Uber, doing handiwork via Taskrabbit or renting out a home on Airbnb, Casilli pointed to a whole other workforce, much less visible, propping up the digital economy.  

This human labour gives the lie to purely artificial intelligence, which it turns out is much more a mix of automation and “clickwork”, i.e. work carried out on online platforms. Workers living more often than not in Asia and Africa are paid piecemeal wages to train the algorithms that curate online content (e.g. tagging photos) for internet giants like Google and Facebook. They compete to perform this “gig” work and microtasks on platforms like Crowdflower, Amazon Mechanical Turk and Freelancer.com.

Another type of digital labour is also done mainly in developing countries. So-called clickfarms consist of workers paid low wages to click on websites or advertising links to either train search engine results or put a dent in a company’s competitor’s advertising. They are also paid to boost likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Needless to say, this work constitutes outright fraud.

As Casilli explained, those recruiting this labour tend to be in the Global North, whereas those carrying out the menial tasks are often in the Global South.

In the end, the flipside of  the independence and autonomy the digital economy has afforded users appears to be labour that is more precarious, ‘taskified’ and even hidden. The question then is how can – and indeed when will – governments and policy makers intervene to counterbalance the spread of this cybertariat.

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