“The age of destroyed boundaries” seems to be an appropriate description of platform capitalism. The existing economic systems or business models are gradually shifting towards a platform economy. Over the two decades since its founding, Amazon has emerged as a major global player, while Coupang has experienced rapid growth, employing 65,000 people directly within 10 years, following Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor in terms of direct employment. Additionally, delivery platforms such as Uber, Lyft, and Deliveroo have established themselves as a prominent industry.
News articles discussing Amazon Mechanical Turk's corporate innovation have become quite common. Online crowdsourcing mediation services such as Appen, Clickwalker, and Scale, descendants of Amazon, have emerged. In Korea, the online crowdsourcing company Crowdworks stands out as an example. Notably, even industry giants like Google and Facebook utilize online intermediaries.
The destructive controlling aspect of platform algorithms reveals the true nature of platform capitalism. Platform companies leverage and control algorithms for profit. The use of algorithms has expanded with the advancement of technology, allowing them to collect and process vast amounts of input data, including visual, audio, biometric, and characters, from cameras, sensors, and other devices. In particular, platform businesses are aware of the value of managing platform algorithm to generate profits.
Platforms break down complicated jobs into their smallest units and measure and evaluate every task, associating it with performance and rewards. Platform companies employ algorithm technologies to precisely measure, efficiently deploy, and automate the flow of various data such as labor, resources, and services. This hands computing governing capabilities to companies as well as countries. Nick Srnicek, the author of Platform Capitalism, called platform apps “the core device to mine data from labor activities.”
Platformization involves the process of datafication, where human behavior is captured and transformed into data to generate new values. Human behavior and interpersonal interactions - which are qualitatively varied and distinct - are translated into quantitative indicators such as activity, viral index, and platform stay time. In the labor market, work experience including characteristics and competency of individuals is replaced by quantifiable figures like suitability and rating. As a result, compensation and control for platform workers’ labor are also used for standardized indicators. Baemin and Kakao T, which have monopolistic share of their respective markets in South Korea, also manage these algorithms.
However, profit-making through algorithm control, also known as platform technology innovation, raises labor intensity and threatens workers' mental health. Platform companies do not disclose the data collected and its usage to workers, even while 28.4 percent of workers criticize platform businesses for unfair work allocation, and just 25.6 percent view the distribution work as fair.
The platforms, on the other hand, closely monitor and evaluate the workers when they select or carry out tasks. If workers fail to follow app instructions or receive poor ratings from customers, they are sometimes subject to penalties. For instance, workers may be fewer job assignments or assigned to tasks with reduced prices. In serious cases, their app accounts are suspended for a certain period. Only 21.3 percent of workers believe that worker evaluation by platform apps is objective, while 23 percent disagree.
The more sophisticated platform algorithms become, the more time workers are forced to work, leaving them with less time for relaxation. Long-term platform workers, in particular, complain of negative feelings like helplessness (61.8 percent), isolation (58.0 percent), feelings of being a machine (61.1 percent), a sense of low achievement (61.0 percent), and finding no meaning in their work (60.4 percent). 21 percent of platform workers reported that they felt alone while working over the past year. Additionally, it has been found that workers have lost the autonomy and professionalism that they once had before they got into platform work. In other words, they think that living labor is replaced with dead labor.
Algorithm management actually refers to a series of processes and activities that implement organizational control through the automation of instructions, evaluations, and disciplinary measures that were previously conducted by either humans or machines. However, as platform algorithms are applied to all aspects of daily life, they extend their realm across all facets of human and worker activities. By standardizing platform labor processes, platform capital reorganizes these algorithms to be applied in various places beyond factories and offices.
Platform labor, the so-called digital Taylorism, is a new form of labor in the 21st Century and appears everywhere. This new type of labor, in which the lines between formal and informal work are blurred, is not the end of jobs altogether but the introduction of a new aspect of low-grade employment. Disguised behind fancy terms like “users,” “performers,” and “players” instead of “workers,” there exists a trend of post-work society that makes it challenging to identify the true exploiter.
“App work,” created by individual capitals and companies in the platform capitalist economic system can be seen as a new stage of labor exploitation based on platform algorithms. In the future, it is vital to enhance corporate responsibility and obligations concerning platform algorithms. Particular attention should be given to abuse of management and control, privacy invasion, data rights, basic labor rights, and health risks.
In contrast to this need, Korea emphasizes the importance of a free market and tends to rely on self-regulation by businesses, as opposed to the discussions in the European Union. However, history has shown that the market has never guaranteed human dignity, ever since the Industrial Revolution. By nature, profit-seekers try to avoid rules and regulations. Given the insatiable greed of platform capital, it is urgent to provide workers with protection and rights via social regulations.
Jongjin Kim is a chair of the Korea Worker Institute·Union Center. Mr. Kim is working on various labor issues and agendas including service labor, platform labor, freelancers, working hours, emotional labor, and youth issues. He is also serving as a social rights expert member of the National Human Rights Council of Korea and a steering committee member of the Korean Journal of Labor Studies.
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