Digitalisation is outsourcing not automation

Most of the everyday digitalisation that we encounter is not actually about automation, but outsourcing.

Instead of having an employee from the train company helping you to buy your ticket, you do it yourself for free (and pay a “booking fee”), in the same way as you search for airlines and hotels for your holiday and scan your grocery yourself at the supermarket. None of these things are about automation or bring any obvious value to you as a customer. You get to do the job for free that someone (with knowledge and experience) would previously get paid to do.

This has been called “shadow work” and is essentially little bits of unpaid work that the respective companies are outsourcing to their customers.

The companies that are taking this “digitalisation” (outsourcing) furthest is of course the internet giants like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, that make the full transformation of their customers into workers, in the form of producers of all their content, and the user data that they sell to advertisers.

In the wake of the globalisation movement and No Logo, it was a big revelation to me that the advertisement industry often made us into products — like in the case of newspapers, that get their main incomes from corporations buying ads, so what they’re really doing is delivering viewers to those ads.

It’s useful to think about this relation between product > producer > consumer for different companies (what is their main source of income, who is making it and who is paying for it), as it has big implications on how we can assert our rights as individuals versus those companies.

If we’re not consumers, there is no point in talking about boycotts or ethical consumption. If we, on the other hand are workers, like when we upload a video to YouTube, or provide valuable user data by clicking on a video, there are a lot of things we can learn from the labour movement of the last 150 years. Like basic organising, cooperative alternatives, strikes and sabotage.