Translated by Shiqi Lin
Translator’s notes: This essay was originally published in Chinese for the “Trading Thoughts” column of thepaper.cn (澎湃思想市场) on May 23, 2021. Upon consultation with the author and the positionspolitics editorial team, this English version has been edited for length and has added explanatory contexts to theoretical and popular lexicons such as the “poverty of meaning” and “involution” (内卷).
With the rise of Chinese technology firms such as Alibaba, Tencent, ByteDance, and Meituan, the past few years have witnessed the explosive growth of platform economies in China. However, much is still under-examined about the complexities of platform ecologies within China: How has China grown to be one of the largest players in platform economies in the world? How are platform economies entangled with and how do they exacerbate existing problems of migration, labor, inequality, relational poverty, and technological governance? What is the everyday experience of living in platform economies, negotiating with it, and searching to break the systemic impasse? Ever since the publication and wide circulation of an online journalistic article, “Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System” (外卖骑手，困在系统里) in September 2020, these questions have become centers of public and scholarly concern in China. In this article, Dr. Ping Sun, a leading scholar on digital labor and platform studies, offers her observations on this digital crisis. Just as the world is going through the acceleration of platformization during and after COVID-19, Dr. Sun’s words are both timely and prescient for and beyond China.
After a car accident some time ago, a rideshare driver took stacked orders to make up his deficit. In order to complete the orders in time, he took a shortcut which set off an alarm. The location alerts sent by the rideshare system triggered panic in his female passenger, which eventually led to her tragically jumping from the moving car. In the ensuing investigation report, one line stands out in particular: “From the investigation on its own, this is apparently a story of mutual destruction about two people living hard lives.”
What is disheartening in this story of mutual destruction is that there was no dispute, only silence. Both the driver and the passenger chose to trust the rideshare system instead of each other. Therefore, the guidance of the system replaced human communication and, ultimately, human trust. The problem is: when we get in a rideshare such as Didi, we have no interest in knowing who the driver is; just as when we order take-out, we have no clue how the food delivery man arrives at our door; or when we get a house cleaner, we have no idea where the auntie comes from and where she is going.
Technological systems have trapped us all in a dilemma. Technology has lost its order and direction on its way to advancement, a technological “disorder” that, to a large extent, has become a condition of the “disorder of meanings” in modern societies. When humans are locked by automation technologies in relationships of specific settings and chances, and when they can do nothing but play the roles assigned to them, what comes after is not a longing for relation building, but repulsion.
According to political theorist Langdon Winner, the process of technological development is autonomous. It can break free from human control and become self-determining through “technological drift.” Unfortunately, with today’s platform economies, Winner’s statement is becoming reality. As digital platforms are developing at full speed, we seem to have lost our control over the pace of technological development. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are gradually “disembedding” our social lives, hijacking, alienating, and eroding the existences and lives of human beings.
The Loss of the Meaning of Labor
Karl Marx wrote that labor is a basic characteristic of human beings. However, in the context of platform economies, the meaning of labor is called into question. “Who would want to do this job if not for survival?” This sentiment came up repetitively from the platform workers my team interviewed.
Interestingly, none of these workers has real difficulty making ends meet, but almost everyone feels very poor. This kind of poverty is not really a form of economic poverty defined by the struggle for food, housing, or basic needs; it is a form of relational poverty, emotional poverty, and communication poverty. To put it differently, this is what anthropologist Biao Xiang calls the “poverty of meaning” (意义贫穷), a crisis in economic structure that alienates workers from the meaningfulness of their own labor.
We can hardly find joy in labor anymore. Perhaps we miss the feeling of fulfillment experienced by workers in the Socialist period of industrial mass production, who sweated but smiled. That sense of fulfillment and enthusiasm appears to have been replaced by a social perception of “no future” and what is commonly called “Sang culture” (丧文化), a societal mood of languishing and apathy contagious among young people in China today.
Why labor has lost meaning is complex, but the reasons have a strong relationship to the stigmatization of platform labor, whose workers are constructed by social discourse as the “Other.” The “Other” here refers to not only the blue-collar workers working for digital platforms, such as couriers, food delivery workers, and porters for bike-sharing companies, but also to the programmers, coordinators, operators, managers, and designers in big corporations, Internet companies, and platform businesses. The logic of “othering” is simple: the current discourse on platform labor is constructed around “consumption” and “exhaustion.” This commercialized logic of platform development has transformed the entire society into a crucible, turning every individual into a piece of firewood thrown into the pot for burning and exhausting.
“Silky Service” and the “Cultivation of Laziness”
An important feature of the platform economy is its reorganization of social relations. This reorganization includes two levels: first, the identity of platform participants is redefined and divided into consumers and workers; second, the existing social networks of platform participants are expanded into new relationships and contracts that did not exist before. For example, on ride-hailing platforms, those who send and receive orders are divided into “passengers” and “drivers” with respective duties and responsibilities. Through the mediation of technology, “random encounters” between people may happen anytime and anywhere, but long-term relationships are harder to maintain.
At the same time, in such a multi-party chain relation, human relationships are unequal. Although everyone is a platform participant, “client orientation” is always the chief principle for platform development. Improving the clients’ experience and attitude about consumption has become a core factor for platforms to seize market share. The client is an important prerequisite for platforms to make profits: platform algorithm design and platform management are all built around the client, so meeting the needs of users has become the top priority for platforms. For this same reason, platforms demand that their workers provide impeccable “silky service” (丝滑服务).
When those who are often seen as “vulgar people” set foot in platform economies from sweatshop factories, construction sites and farmlands, what comes right away are an overwhelming number of detailed work requirements. For the first time in their lives, they have to learn how to manage their facial expressions and body language, how to communicate in proper Mandarin, how to “read the room,” and how to be soft to please customers.
“(When I work for others) I never go to the bathroom. Nor do I drink any water. If I drink too much and go to the bathroom, my clients will be unhappy.” This is Mrs. Li’s secret to being a star cleaner, which is to endure. Sometimes she drinks nothing for eight hours straight, so that she can keep mopping the floor, doing the laundry, and cleaning the windows.
When technological systems favor one side over the other, an unequal relationship emerges. A systemic “disorder” becomes inevitable. The existence of “full-score service” and “on-call” has led to the “cultivation of laziness” (惰性养成) in the public. As a result, if a food delivery worker arrives a few minutes late, a client may get angry; if a package is delivered to the wrong place, the client may get irritated; if a cleaning lady forgets to clean a piece of furniture, she may receive a customer complaint.
Unreasonable “indulgence” has cultivated the customers’ laziness. In the long run, the effect may be negative. The cultivation and maintenance of social relations is a long-term process. If we lose our patience and trust, what comes after will be the other end of the systemic impasse—we may easily lose basic trust, amity, and tolerance among each other.
What lies behind these conflicts and discordances is a systemic problem of the model of platform economic development. The disorder of the rules of systems has led to frequent conflicts between individuals. We probably have heard this claim more than once: “The development of technology will clear up today’s worries in the end. Platform economies are no exception.” However, in the face of the big revolution Chinese platforms are going through today, I would rather be a conservative a little longer. Technological solutionism may sound quick, easy, and enticing. However, it is problematic to reduce complex social phenomena and ecosystems to simple, quantifiable processes. If we do so, we might only see the need to perfect the order of systems, but we will lose sight of the meaning of social relations.
The disorder of the system is a matter concerning data responsibility, social governance, labor dignity, and emotional ethics. It is a complex issue. When digital platforms come to today, there are too many problems to address. What is the most urgent for now might be a reflection of and improvement on the model of platform development.
Platformization: A Model in Question
The platform economy, to put it simply, is a new economic form supported by digital technologies, enabling multi-party transactions. It is made up of a series of data-driven, algorithm-based, and networked economic activities. Our lives are surrounded by platform economies: when we scroll on our cell phones, almost all the apps related to food, clothing, housing, and transportation can be considered “digital platforms.”
In their paper, legal scholar K. Sabeel Rahman and political scientist Kathleen Thelen suggest that an important feature of twenty-first-century platform capitalism is a paradigm shift of management from “control” to “connectivity.” Put differently, the business model of platform economies is no longer the old factory, Taylorist style of making money through controlling manpower, but a model that makes profits by connecting all parties. In this process, manpower comes and goes freely, but every person who enters the digital platform will be turned into data, and contribute to the profit of the platform. The existence and accumulation of platform big data lays the foundation for ”connectivity,” while the development of algorithms makes “connectivity” possible.
In my conversations with friends, one question that came up was why platform economies today could be so powerful, attractive, and destructive like the demon child Nezha. The reason is simple: every platform extant today is a victor that survived multiple rounds of industry reshuffles, subsidy wars, price wars, and merger wars. These platforms carry a strong sense of crisis and a strong desire to survive. For them, survival is the top priority.
After all, digital platforms in China are going through serious “involution” (内卷), a process of incessant cut-throat competition that has not yielded proportional outputs for the participants. In the past decade, the cash-burning process of gathering funds, offering subsidies, seizing market share, and then raising the price has become the norm. In this survivalist process, consumers and workers have all become targets of platform competition.
Then, why are we so skeptical about today’s digital platforms?
In addition to the problems of commercialization and capitalization mentioned above, it is largely because platform development today has departed from its original vision. As a new form of production and labor model, the platform economy is characteristic of its ability to lead the new wave of technology. It is a “newborn” of the Internet industry, and a representative of technological innovation. To a large extent, it inherits our imaginations about Internet technologies: democratic participation, individual autonomy, equality, and progress.
In our mind, the platform economy should be similar to the Internet in its early days, full of openness and benevolent intentions—it is supposed to be an effective realm enabling peer-to-peer, permission-free innovation and open participation. In our imagination, everyone could join or quit a platform with no barriers, while sharing information, experiences, values, and ideas. It was supposed to be open and fair, with no suppression or mandates.
These ideals are beautiful, but the realities are chilling.
Platform economies have forged ahead through the glory technology brings, huge investments, and a swarming labor force. With the logic of commercialization and privatization, they have plunged headlong into the ocean of capital without looking back. The principles of “equality” and “fairness” promised by the Internet have disappeared; individual, subaltern, and marginalized discourses are entangled with consumerist desires, being ignored, annihilated, and no longer present.
The last time I saw Ma Ting was in a small restaurant. In the summer of 2018, she told me shyly how she came from a small town and eventually settled in Beijing to do food delivery, because she thought she could make more money that way. A few months later, she had lost two electric motorcycles in three days and could not take it anymore. After she called the police, she squatted on a street corner, and cried. “I heard the GPS alert of my electric motorcycle (when it was gone), but I was delivering food on the twentieth floor.”
Such stories from the lower classes are often left unattended, but their discursive invisibility should be taken more seriously.
Our research team conducted a project on the Internet discursive power across different social classes in China over the past ten years. Our finding shows: From 2009 to 2019, there was significant stratification of discursive power among Chinese netizens on social media. 60% of the population account for only 1% of online expressions, whereas 6.3% of elites account for over 70% of online expressions. The lasting process of commercialization and capitalization has become a key approach for social elites to take over online discursive power, while decimating the discursive expressions of the lower class on the Internet.
As another challenge, artificial intelligence technologies today have not only replaced mass human labor, but also taken over much of humankind’s decision-making and discursive power. Technological abuse of power is becoming the norm in our society, not only in the settings of platform labor but also in daily life. For example, we ought to be more critical about why the autopilot system of Boeing aircraft is configured in a way that disallows human interventions.
Chinese society has rich textures of life, with vibrant forms of platforms growing there. If there is no effective way to amend the model and logic of platform development, the inverted pyramid structure of imbalanced development will expand to all aspects of social life.
Is the Reconstruction of Meanings Possible?
The rise of platform economies is leading to another great shift in the Chinese labor market. In China’s Reform period [1990s-2000s], the phenomenal scenes of peasants migrating to factories are still in our recent memories. However, when it comes to today, “factories” are in the past, with the “gig economy” as the new future. The platform economy is producing a huge Siphon Effect, absorbing populations from traditional industries.
This is a colossal project of demographic “relocation.” According to “China’s Sharing Economy Development Report 2020,” the number of platform workers in China reached 78 million in 2019 and will hit 200 million within five years.
We are living in an era with a strong sense of “public commons.” Every day there are massive topics and problems coming to the surface of everyday life. However, in some public discussions we lack an attentiveness to “big questions.” The future direction and development model of platform economies is an example.. The specialization of technologies and labor division has divided platform systems into countless individualized, tiny “frames,” leading to hastily-fashioned responses to countless scenarios and problems when they come up. Time and space are compressed, meanings and relations are neglected, individual expressions are not validly heard, and the meaning of labor in the digital age is not effectively constructed by society. This is also where the loss of joy in labor is manifested.
In the past year, we have had big successive discussions about “work” and “labor.” A series of discussion topics has shown us the public’s engaged reflections on what decent work should look like. The rapid development of platform economies has rendered our theories and capacity for thinking outdated. We need more people to join in the reconstruction of the meaning of platform development, to think about some more sustainable forms of co-creating discourse and relationships, and to participate in the process of dialogue and reconstruction.
We need to establish a new form of digitized relationships, through which we need to consider the possibility of collaborative production, enhance the accessibility of technologies, and maintain long-term reciprocal relationships.
The platform economy is becoming a vehicle for the meanings of our lives. “Random encounters” are entering our lives as a form of normalized, everyday rule. This type of economy relies on a logic of “connectivity,” but under the current development of platforms, this form of “connectivity” excludes the establishment of meaningful relationships and the maintenance of decent labor. Consumers are prioritized, while workers are devalued. As a result, there are no trustworthy, sustainable, and respectable social relations created between the two ends of the platform.
We met a delivery worker in our fieldwork. Her name is Ma. Two years ago, her husband gambled online, and lost 1.5 million RMB. She went from being the owner of a hair salon to a delivery worker with nothing. Every day when she returned home, she would park her electric motorcycle one kilometer away from her neighborhood, take off her uniform, and then walk home. As she said, “I don’t want my neighbors to see and laugh at me.” One day, when Ma was waiting for an order on the street, she ran into a previous client of hers. She lowered her head, waiting to be ridiculed. The client spoke to her instead, “I didn’t expect that a boss like you would come to do delivery as well. In fact, I’m a rider, too, but I was embarrassed to let you know every time I went to get my hair cut.”
There is a large number of low-barrier jobs in the current stage of platform labor. People in these jobs are struggling to identify themselves. In our fieldwork, we met many people like Ma, who were reluctant to reveal their jobs as couriers, delivery workers, or domestic workers. The model of platform development has reinforced the logic of treating digital labor as an underclass. How could the relationships established by algorithms and artificial intelligence move from “bias” to “justice”? This task will be an important precondition for the reconstruction of meanings and relationships.
The disorder of meanings is becoming the norm of our life. On one end of the disordered platform is the social system shared by all; on the other end are the micro-ecosystems of individual lives. The starting point for reconstructing meanings is to identify the ground of living together, on the basis of recognizing our mutual equality and equal right to share technological development.
 In China, food delivery workers and house cleaners are highly gendered professions: 90% of food delivery workers are male and 90% of house cleaners are female. This may have to do with Chinese societal expectations that see food delivery as masculinized labor and domestic services as feminized labor of care.This translation preserves the gendered language in the original text to highlight the gendered connotations of labor, yet it is crucial to interrogate this gendered framing and pay attention to the more marginalized workers who do not fit to these gender stereotypes.
 In Chinese legend, Nezha (哪吒) is a mischievous prodigy who was born to a military commander but perceived by his father as inauspicious. After killing the third son of the Dragon King, Nezha was pressured to take his own life to repay his debt and bring his town peace. Here, the author is referring to the reincarnation of Nezha in a 2019 Chinese animated blockbuster, “Birth of the Demon Child Nezha.” The analogy between platform economies and Nezha points to the immense but disastrous social changes that could be created by platform economies.
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