Conflict theory and the digital economy

Using the lens of conflict theory, digital technology has seemingly made it easier for workers to be exploited by corporations or app makers. The Digital Labor and Imperialism article viewed the digital age as spawning a new era of imperialism domestically as well as internationally, using the example of Apple iPhones. Fuchs described the plight of the Chinese worker required to work 60 hours a week (also a racist standard) and earning $5 per phone sold, while Apple makes a profit of $175 from the purchase price of $299. Apple and other corporations would argue that the “profit” pays for technology development, software development, extensive testing, and other processes necessary to even create a product for manufacture (thus needing the worker).

The gig economy article attempted to keep a positive spin on Uber’s interactions with its contractors by recommending more transparency and possible technology fixes for common complaints. Uber might be exploiting its contractors through inconsistent policies (wait time and cancellation fees), guaranteed wages (unclear who gets offered these opportunities), and technology glitches. This discussion leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the corporation has not prioritized fixing these issues, therefore does not value its workers as much as customer service and profits.

How would either situation be good for society? What progress (or the opposite) is made from the conflict? In the first scenario, societal globalization may be the eventual destination emerging from economic globalization. We’ve been seeing the results of a limited cultural exchange for centuries, such as the import of European fashions or the export of Hollywood movies. As corporations seek to find cheap labor, the worker’s plight extends to these areas and new bonds form between the working classes of both countries (eventually, after the initial objections about losing jobs overseas). From a Marxist perspective, a critical mass of worker consciousness around the globe might kick start the revolution? From an organizational view, companies have gained economic power by sourcing cheaper labor and possibly avoiding corporate taxes for moving their facilities elsewhere as well as political power to lobby for corporate incentives. In China, these jobs might be very desirable because the alternatives have even worse pay or hours (which makes our capitalist imperialism seem even more despicable).

For the second scenario, I’ve seen arguments that the transportation gigs have done well in areas with poor infrastructure (taxis or other public alternatives). The conflict between the company and its drivers exists because of a larger issue within a metropolitan area and its available services. From a Weberian perspective, the availability and affordability of these services reinforces the social strata of the riders. From a Marxist view, the drivers bear the brunt of the physical (possibility of accidents) and economic risk (taxes and maintenance costs as subcontractors) while the company reaps the profits from their work. Uber’s goal to employ a fleet of self-driving cars also threatens the economic incentive to workers. If the company pays people for being “backups” to the self-driving system rather than actually driving, then wages might be cut because the workers technically need to do “less” work. Technology is not helping resolve class conflict, but making it worse!

One thought on “Conflict theory and the digital economy”

  1. There isn’t a “right’ answer, for sure. There’s only the sociological answers. One of your colleagues observed how technological disruptions increasingly seek to replace public services, like mass transportation. That tends to be because of the profit potential. But what about public services that are critical but don’t offer much profit potential?

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