Digital Labourers of the City, Unite!
For growing numbers of urban inhabitants, smartphones and their mobile apps have become essential tools for everyday life. In the decade since smartphones first became popularised, many millions of people in cities around the world have grown used to using apps for finding and making our way around the city, for hooking up with friends or potential lovers, for sharing things or thoughts or pictures, for playing games, and for many more things besides. It may seem as though these apps are working for us – improving our experience of the city. But I think this is to put it the wrong way around – or at least, to tell only half the story. We are also working for the apps. As use of these apps become part of our everyday movements around the city, we are performing a kind of ‘digital labour’ that generates vast amounts of profit for the corporations that make them. A ‘right to the city’ for our digitally-networked places and times will need to include an analysis of the exploitation of our digital labour, and a strategy to democratise the surplus that it generates. Urban life and digital labour The idea that as we use mobile apps we are performing a kind of ‘digital labour’ at first seems counter-intuitive. When we use these apps, aren’t we just consumers of a product that someone else has made? Of course, that’s part of what’s going on here. But if we think about the business model of the people who own the apps, the idea that we are not just consumers but also ‘digital labourers’ starts to make more sense. Many of the apps on which urban inhabitants come to depend are ‘free’. But app owners are not giving us their apps out of the goodness of their hearts. The reason that their makers can give them away for little or no cost is because they (hope they) can make money in other ways. So, how do they make money? Of course, putting up with some advertising is one of the ‘costs’ of using some of these apps, which depend upon advertising revenue to make some money. But the apps that we use as we move around the city are also frequently designed to gather data about our movements. That data about our patterns of activity in the city – often referred to as a form of ‘locational’ or ‘geospatial’ data – is a goldmine for app owners. It is sold on to third parties, who analyse that data for a variety of purposes – ranging from the provision of further commercial services to targeted advertising and security. It’s notoriously difficult to get clear information about these data markets and their value. But we can get some sense of how valuable geospatial data has become by looking at the way that markets value the apps that collect it. For instance, the real-time navigation app Waze, which works by collecting and then sharing data about its users movements across the road network, sold to Google in 2013 […]