The promise and peril of the digital economy

How digital capitalism, despite often being framed as potential growth engine, exploits the already marginalized and reproduces inequalities and power-relations between Africans.

Roofs of Marrakech. Image credit David Denicolò via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Digital technologies enable new ways of organizing the production of services, unconstrained by spatial distances. By making it possible to carry out a service from everywhere in the world, digitalization has facilitated the increased fragmentation and outsourcing of services that were previously constrained by the need for geographic proximity between buyer and seller. The digitalization of the economy is at the same time giving rise to new forms of work and new ways of organizing labor processes—across the globe.

In The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work, Mohammed Amir Anwar and Mark Graham explore the development and organization of digital labor—defined as “work activities involving the paid manipulation of digital data by humans through [information and communication technologies] such as mobile phones, computers, laptops, etc.”—in Africa. They argue that African workers are playing an increasingly central role in digital capitalism by training “artificial intelligence” and machine learning algorithms, tagging images, and performing customer services, design tasks, data management, and so on. Thus, Anwar and Graham argue that digital capitalism is—despite rarely being mentioned—increasingly “made in Africa.” The aim of their book is to make both African workers and Africa as a core location in the digital economy visible.

Based on extensive fieldwork in five countries—Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda—Anwar and Graham first argue that digitalization has made African countries lucrative destinations for offshoring services. They explore two such cases: “business process offshoring,” where a firm outsources non-core functions to specialized subcontractors, and the “remote gig economy,” composed of service tasks (such as writing, transcription, search engine optimization, and so on) mediated and coordinated by digital platforms and carried out by individual workers for customers who can be located anywhere. Second, they show how the African labor force is increasingly drawn into the digital economy, as workers who struggle to find employment in the “analog” sector of the economy turn to digital labor to make a living. This, Anwar and Graham argue, raises concerns for employment protections, social rights, and working conditions on digital platforms.

Anwar and Graham intervene in a prominent narrative promoted by governments, the World Bank, development organizations, and consulting firms that frames digitalization and information and communication technologies as “technological fixes” that will create jobs, reduce poverty, improve productivity, and lead to economic growth in Africa. Although digitalization and the fragmentation and outsourcing of production processes has integrated Africa into global production networks, Anwar and Graham argue that “Africa continues to be locked into a value-extractive position in the global economy.” Rather than a frictionless and “flat” global economy, Anwar and Graham’s analyses show how digitalization amplifies existing inequalities and power relations; in Africa, digital production is primarily characterized by poorly remunerated tasks at the bottom of the value chain that do not, in practice, represent economic improvements for workers.

For some segments of the population, such as university-educated workers unable to capitalize on their credentials, the digital economy provides an important lifeline. On the one hand, these forms of work provide a certain flexibility and autonomy. Workers are often able to, at least partially, set their own schedules. On the other hand, however, digital labor can also contribute to precarity, as contracts are usually short, working hours long, and social benefits and labor rights irregular or lacking. This is, Anwar and Graham argue, partially a result of workers being classified as self-employed independent contractors, the piece-rate model of compensation, and the ease with which digital firms can transfer tasks to another worker, company, or continent.

In addition, Anwar and Graham highlight the so-called “algorithmic management” used in these digital business models. Digitalization, they argue, is not only a tool for capital’s expansion into new localities, markets, and industries—digital technologies also enable managers to exert new forms of control over workers and labor processes. The authors term this form of management “digital Taylorism,” a digital manifestation of the Taylorist principles of detailed surveillance, meticulous control over labor process, disassembly of the production process, and “deskilling” every task to improve productivity and lower the costs of labor power. While the notion of “digital Taylorism” highlights platform capital’s control over workers and labor processes, it might neglect a key feature of “algorithmic management”: its strategic use of freedom and flexibility. While Taylor’s “scientific management” instructed workers on how each particular task should be performed, digital platforms usually allow workers to choose when they want to work, what tasks they want to do, and how they want to do them—partially in an effort to avoid being classified as their employers. Moreover, worker evaluation occurs through rating systems, with workers being sanctioned with moves like “deactivation” or firing if their average rating falls below a certain threshold. Thus, “algorithmic management” might be seen as representing a mode of management and control diverging from the core principles of Taylorism.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasize the ways in which workers assert agency and resist capital’s control, as Anwar and Graham do in detail. Drawing on the notion of “hidden transcripts,” they theorize labor agency not solely in organized and collective action, finding that digital workers in Africa exert individual agency through everyday practices and strategies of “resilience, reworking, and resistance.”

The Digital Continent is a very well-researched and well-written book. Anwar and Graham build on an impressively rich empirical material, mixing statistics and excerpts from interviews to give readers a proper understanding of workers’ lives, struggles, and aspirations. The presentation jumps eloquently between theoretical discussions, explications of labor geography concepts, and empirical investigations, producing thorough and thought-provoking analyses. This is particularly true for the final chapter, where the authors discuss measures for building a fairer global economy and world of work.

As a researcher studying platform work in the Norwegian transportation industry, the similarities between the working conditions, biographies, and experiences of the workers I interview in Oslo and the workers I met in The Digital Continent is striking. They are drawn from similar segments of the labor force and express the same ambivalence toward the real economic opportunities—combined with precarious working conditions—offered by the digital business models. Despite the field’s recent emphasis on how digital business models are being “embedded” in local social, political, and economic contexts, these models seem to create surprisingly similar outcomes in very different parts of the world. This puzzle might suggest that although digital labor platforms have to adjust to local conditions, regulations, and so on, they also function as technological and global capitalist machines, exporting the same employment model and “algorithmic management” from Silicon Valley (where they are usually designed) to every corner of the world, creating similar outcomes for workers regardless of their different contexts while also taking advantage of local specificities. This highlights Anwar and Graham’s conclusion that the fight for a fair digital economy has to be global.

Further Reading