James leads Autonomy_Digital. His research currently focuses on platform co-operativism and other alternatives to the current platform economy. He is a lecturer in political science at the University of Exeter.
Advances in digital technology have transformed the global economy at unprecedented speed. Autonomy_Digital seeks to understand the contours of this digital world and develop its potential towards more sustainable and empowering horizons.
Entire industries have been changed in under a decade, with global businesses disappearing and new ones rising in their place. Digital platforms promise us instant access to an amazing array of new experiences. This emerging world is offered to us as an enticing package of entrepreneurial spirit and liberated desire. But it also threatens to create new forms of regulation and control, with more surveillance and the extraction via vast war chests of data.
The 2010s were dominated by a narrative of the innovation and benevolence of Big Tech. Stories abounded of how the “sharing economy” and ethical entrepreneurs would transform our lives for the better. Many of these illusions are now shattered. But we must act to control how the story of the next decade will be told. Avaricious technology firms have so far succeeded in setting the terms of the debate. In the next decade, Autonomy_Digital will act as a knowledge hub to frame the narrative and provide expertise in digital technology. We will facilitate the exchange of knowledge, dispel myths and reveal uncomfortable truths about the digital economy.
We cannot simply reproduce the organisational forms and demands of the past.
Technological change has brought with it new forms of production and the prospect of an economy based less and less on human labour. Our aim is to develop a policy agenda for this new era that moves beyond nostalgia and an outdated playbook of economic and social categories. As an organisation, we will strive for agility in order to respond quickly to new developments and develop new tactics and strategy. The ongoing crisis of the job-society presents an opportunity to radically change our thinking of the necessary structure and outcomes of the digital economy.
Our ongoing “Democratising the Digital Economy” project aims to develop an understanding of the complex challenges faced by platform co-operatives in the UK and ways to overcome them using novel qualitative research methodologies. Platform co-operatives adopt the democratic ownership and governance structure of workers’ co-operatives and utilise a digital platform for the sale of goods or services. They offer a fairer alternative to current platform business models and practices through a broad-based ownership and governance structure, improved conditions for workers and genuine engagement with stakeholders. However, as an emergent model of doing business more research is needed to better understand the challenges and possibilities of platform co-operatives in the global economy.
Autonomy_Digital will address new inequalities between platform owners and platform users, data analysts and data producers, tech entrepreneurs and digital labourers.
The rise of the digital economy has seen the proliferation of new forms of labour – from food delivery riders, to 'microworkers' performing short online tasks for piecemeal wages via online platforms. While globally concentrated in the Global South, we've compiled groundbreaking findings on microwork within the UK economy, as well as setting out new policies to help improve microworkers' conditions, which you can read below:
Technology firms have generated enormous wealth, but have concentrated it in ever fewer hands. Advances in digital technology are driven by and help shape political ideologies. We seek to understand not simply the technological changes, but the political forces which underpin them. Corporations have succeeded in selling us a vision of private power over public goods and of consumption over real control. To better understand the rise of new inequalities, we will place questions of power and democracy at the heart of our ongoing analysis.
Phil is a Senior Researcher at Autonomy, who focuses on precarious forms of work, particularly the ‘clickwork’, ‘microwork’ and ‘crowdwork’ economy. He is the author of Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism (Verso, 2021).