UCI media scholar's new book explores the shortcomings of the gig economy
The gig economy—the collection of app-driven jobs performed by workers who aren’t employees, including those who drive for ride-sharing apps—can be a polarizing topic. At the heart of the debate is whether the perceived benefits of workers’ freedoms outweigh their lack of legal protection and employer-sponsored benefits. Analyzing this complex web of issues, including the technological advances that spur them, is Meryem Kamil, assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine. In Technoprecarious (MIT Press, 2021), Kamil and a group of scholars called The Precarity Lab, share their findings about how new technologies, and the companies that use them, affect workers’ financial security and exacerbate existing inequalities. The authors use the term “precarity” to characterize those populations disproportionately affected by the forms of inequality and insecurity that digital technologies have generated despite the possibilities they offer.
Below, Kamil describes the book and her role at UCI.
You co-authored your book, Technoprecarious, with a group of scholars and activists called the Precarity Lab, which formed at the University of Michigan in 2016. What was the impetus for this group and how did it lead to this book?
In late 2015, the University of Michigan’s Humanities Collaboratory put out a call for groups to apply for a grant that would finance digital humanities projects leading to new knowledge and new forms of collaboration. The Collaboratory encouraged the science model of the lab to be implemented in the humanities as a way to increase visibility and attract funding for humanities programs.
Our group was composed of graduate students and faculty from across various departments including English, American Culture, School of Information, and the School of Art & Design. We all looked at inequality and new media in specific sites, including: Shenzhen, the U.S./ Mexico border, the Navajo nation, and Palestine. We wanted to bring these sites together, to form a cohesive theoretical framework for analyzing precarity, which Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines as the premature exposure to death.
Meeting monthly, we worked together to produce an internal white paper on the laboratory model for the Humanities Collaboratory. In December 2019, Duke University’s Social Text journal published our “Digital Precarity Manifesto,” a document written in the spirit of scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study and author Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”
Technoprecarious evolved from the conversations that Manifesto ignited in collaboration with scholars from outside of the University of Michigan. The book was written in five days at Banff, Canada with about a dozen collaborators and a writing coach. We then spent the better part of a year working with Goldsmiths Press revising the text for publication. We employed a collaborative method in developing the text, where we worked as a group to write and rewrite the text together.
The book analyzes the role of digital technology in aggravating existing inequalities and insecurities through the gig economy. Examples provided in the book include how Uber is built on flexible labor and how Airbnb shifts accountability to users. What do you see as the future of the gig economy? And are there ways we can make digital technologies that further equity?
The current moment is pivotal for the gig economy. In November, California voters passed Proposition 22 that reiterated the role of gig workers as contractors rather than protected employees. The language of free labor, choice and flexibility succeeded in persuading voters that contract classification would be beneficial for workers. However, this language obscures the built-in precarity that the gig economy relies on.
Seattle recently extended minimum wage guarantees to Uber and Lyft drivers, following New York City’s example. The struggle for protecting gig workers is happening in several cities and states, so there are losses and victories across the board. We need to combat the language of freedom that is leveraged by these companies to foreclose accountability to their workers. Precarity is not freedom.
Our book is not techno-utopian, nor does it follow the “Black Mirror” model of paranoia. Digital technologies in themselves will not make the world a better or worse place, as these tools reflect the ideologies of their creators -- racial logics embedded in algorithms, for example. However, what we do want to call attention to are the material conditions that developing digital technologies engender, from toxic landfills filled with toxic metals to toxic workplaces.
We need to think through technoprecarity on multiple levels, at multiple sites. We need to work to protect the Instacart shopper, the communities who are sickened by toxic metals in their environments, the content moderators who sift through violent images to keep our Facebook feeds sanitized, the migrants whose bodies are subjected to biometric technologies. Not everyone experiences technoprecarity equally, and our struggle against the widening gyre of precarity cannot be a selfish one.
Our final two chapters, “Restoring the Depleted World” and “Covens of Care,” strike a more hopeful tone, with examples of projects in Detroit and the Occupied Palestinian Territories that leverage tech to create tools for local communities. Working towards equity is an ongoing struggle.
During COVID-19, it’s been shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected. How has COVID-19 impacted the precarity associated with digital platforms?
Our last round of edits on the book were due a month or so into the pandemic. Of course, the crisis brought a lot to mind regarding precarity, and we were able to include a small forward to address this moment. We never intended the text to be the primer on precarity, so we invite folks to respond to the text in the context of our new reality.
At its core, our definition of technoprecarity as “the premature exposure to death and debility that working with or being subjected to digital technologies accelerates,” continues to resonate in a pandemic-afflicted world. Some aspects of technoprecarity (and precarity in general) are more visible to us: the digital literacy and access required to obtain a life-saving vaccination, or the gig labor of Instacart and Uber workers who put themselves at risk of contracting COVID in order to deliver groceries to the immunocompromised, for example. This moment has made clearer the urgency of working to alleviate precarity.
But we must remember that while this moment seems exceptional, communities of color, the undercommons, gender and sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, the Global South, etc., are always facing conditions of precarity that are also life or death.
What one lesson do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope that readers will understand digital technology differently after reading the text. We relegate these technologies as mundane, as the cost, impact and potential of these tools are obscured. We need to think critically about these technologies and the determinist narratives that surround them.
You joined UCI as an assistant professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies last fall. Before then, you earned your Ph.D. in American culture at the University of Michigan and taught in the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program. What courses are you most excited to teach at UCI and how is your academic background informing your approach?
One of the challenging aspects of doing research is having to cobble together a myriad of theories and methods. I didn’t know anyone in graduate school that worked on Palestinian new media -- I can only name two or three books that directly related to my topic -- but I found so much value in interdisciplinary conversations. As a result, I am trained in critical ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and new media studies. My teaching portfolio reflects this, and includes English writing classes, an intro to Arab and Muslim American studies course, and a class on graduate-student pedagogy.
In the winter, I taught a course on immigration and technology that was rooted in Asian American studies and was formulated in part by my experience as a South Asian American from the Silicon Valley. The course traced key immigration reform like the 1965 Act that facilitated the South and East Asian “brain drain” to help build U.S. technological prowess in the context of the Cold War.
This subject for this course came to me in 2011 as I explored the city of Canton, Michigan that is home to a large South Asian community. I wondered: how did my parents end up in the Bay Area? I discovered so much about my community while formulating and teaching the course. I encourage students to bring their identities and interests to class so we can all learn from each other. I learned a lot about the Midwest when I taught in Michigan, and I’m excited to learn about the UCI community in the upcoming years!
Technoprecarious is available from Amazon, MIT Press and Penguin Random House.