May 13 2021
Recent years have seen the rapid development of platforms advertising care workers, raising questions about changing working conditions in a shifting sociotechnical landscape. A recent ‘Transforming Economies of Care’ seminar at the Centre for Alternatives to Social and Economic Inequalities, Lancaster University set out to explore some of these questions, addressing ‘what happens to care workers when care becomes platformed, and also what happens to social responsibility on platforms with little accountability’. In the below, I reflect on some of the themes raised in the seminar, and argue that any response to platform care work must reckon not only with the changing digital infrastructure of work, but also with the conditions and character of care work itself. In short, I argue, many of the issues at stake are unlikely to lend themselves to purely technical solutions.
The American research scientist Adam Marblestone characterises a platform as ‘a technology that can be used for many different purposes and be customized for each specific use case […] a relatively fundamental technology that can be used in many areas of a field, upon which you can then build other technologies’. A platform, according to this technology-focused definition, is a structure that particularly lends itself to repurposing, reorientation, and elaboration. This understanding is different from, but not necessarily at odds with, with Nick Srnicek’s widely accepted understanding of platforms as intermediaries and infrastructures – particularly those that enable two or more groups to interact. Both definitions, nevertheless, position platforms as infrastructural and adaptable, foundational and flexible.
To the extent that we conceptualise platform care specifically as platform driven, then, Marblestone’s characterisation would appear to invite us to imagine its alternative forms and manifestations. But the extent to which capitalist technologies (in the sense of assemblages of devices, systems, and users) can be repurposed is a matter of debate. How do we negotiate directionality in terms of platforms? How do we decide what to repurpose and what to abandon? Certainly, platforms may contain certain encouraging possibilities – by bringing together large groups of workers who may not otherwise come into contact, or who may operate in isolated workplaces as solitary individuals, platforms could feasibly offer a resource for workers to organize themselves and build collective power, for example. In many cases, however, we must acknowledge that such an ambition very much goes against the grain in terms of the ways these technologies have been designed and the ways in which they currently tend to operate.
A key question, then, is what needs to be done to enable particular (more desirable) kinds of downstream actions and effects rather than other (less desirable) kinds. While platforms, as technologies, may lend themselves to a variety of uses, they can also calcify quite quickly – in part precisely because they are capable of coordinating a number of different tasks, roles, and relationships. Platform organization often aspires to a state of indispensability, particularly in terms of the big global infrastructure providers, but also in terms of lean platforms such as those involved in the provision of care services. This effectively translates to ambitions toward expansion, monopolisation, and ‘lock-in’. A platform may be capable of doing various different things, making a range of interactions possible, but the direction of travel for platforms at the moment is still largely toward a deeper level of entrenchment. This is concerning when one considers that many emerging care platforms are setting out to bridge – and to capitalise on – gaps in our existing social infrastructure (namely, those associated with the “crisis of care”).
Turning towards the specific
Care.com – an online marketplace for those who need and deliver care services – is one example here; its Care@Work service allows corporate clients to offer back-up care services as an employee benefit. In other words, platforms want to play a role in reorganising care services and reshaping the ways in which we care for each other. So, a reorientation of platforms and platform work is likely to face some barriers, given the path dependency, institutional habits, and value systems that currently govern what kinds of activities and processes are prioritized and which are neglected.
Another challenge in terms of thinking about the possibilities for platform care stems from the fact that, despite sharing a certain flexible, infrastructural, and intermediary quality, individual platforms need to be understood in their own specificity. The structure of the platform will, in practice, manifest itself in distinctive ways, meaning that it can be tricky to talk about ‘platform care’ as a single cultural entity. We have to navigate the relationship between abstract and concrete, general and particular, and to avoid thinking solely about platforms as a form to address the affordances of specific platforms. This is an insight that is common to a lot of work in Science and Technology Studies, which has long sought to steer us away from the idea of Technology as a ‘metaphysically inflated phantom’ and toward approaches that would ground our analysis in specific devices, systems, and user behaviours. We must be very careful in terms of extrapolating from these specifics, and look to ground our discussions in particular platforms and platform mechanisms before entering into any speculation about generalisable claims that can be advanced on the basis of specific case studies.
Different platforms organize and facilitate care work in different ways, and that will directly affect workers’ experiences. As the ILO notes, ‘In some cases, digital platforms simply match domestic workers with private households, and are not involved with directing the work and setting the working conditions. In other cases, digital platforms establish the payments that the domestic workers receive, ensure a certain quality of service, or a branding of their services.’ Different platforms might have different approaches to who bears the costs of insurance, of background checks, and so on – in most cases, we would expect to see platforms shifting these costs and risks onto workers (and to a lesser extent, clients) as far as possible, but it is easy to imagine different kinds of platforms that would structure this differently.
Refuse and repurpose
Beyond this, we need to reckon with the influence of race, gender, and class in terms of the way care work is perceived and understood, and how that is likely to shape the dynamics of platform work in this area. This seemingly extra-technical information is fundamental to the dynamics of platform care; one pitfall to avoid when talking about platform work is to map an idea of ‘uberization’ onto everything, and to assume that the use of platforms means increasing precarity, insecurity, forced flexibilization and so on. In the case of care work, many of these qualities were in place long before Care.com and its brethren came along. The situation is not straightforwardly comparable with digital technologies’ transformation of other kinds of (comparatively stable and regulated) work, such as cab driving. In fact, some researchers have noted that, in contrast to an uberization narrative, care platforms have in fact formalized elements of the work involved by managing aspects of the hiring process and employment relationship – although such formalization is patchy and uneven, exclusionary of many immigrants, and of sometimes questionable benefit to the workers involved.
So, while platforms may piggyback on existing tendencies around work, and accelerate some of their worst features, it would be a mistake to direct all of our anger and anxiety onto platforms themselves. We must not limit ourselves to thinking purely in terms of the nuances of platform design. Rather, we must reckon with the dynamics of care labour itself. In other words, it is – quite obviously – the work, as well as the platform, that constitutes platform work. There is a risk that an over-emphasis on platforms encourages us to see the issues at stake as primarily technical rather than social; it leads to the idea that the problem is bad tech rather than low-quality, insecure, poorly paid work, and that – if they wanted to – platforms could eradicate the problems with this work by “‘designing-in’ to their models inclusion, empowerment and equality of opportunity and outcome.” This kind of framework helps to contain the problems, frame them as a matter of novel technical developments that might be solved by neat regulatory solutions or a quick technofix.
Ultimately, I agree with Miranda Hall that
By focusing on technical tweaks to the platform design (for example, two-way rating systems or an hourly wage), campaigns often fail to situate these changes within a broader social and political agenda. Recommendations should instead start with the systemic changes needed to tackle the crisis of care: universal free care provision, collective sectoral bargaining for care and domestic workers, a shorter working week, and more. Only then should [we] ask what role digital technologies might play in making these changes happen.
That being said, however, I also agree with Niels Van Doorn that ‘Digital platforms amplify existing power dynamics and inequalities while introducing technologies and techniques that produce qualitatively new arrangements, conditions and experiences of work’. As such, we must be attentive to both what is novel about and what endures within platform care if we are to think about how it might be otherwise.
The criteria that make some technologies more available for radical transformation than others have yet to be determined, and we must not lose sight of the value of refusal when it comes to digital platforms, too. What, within the current sociotechnical infrastructure of platform care, can we repurpose, what do we need to turn our efforts toward refusing, and what must we start building from scratch? These are questions that require sustained deep thinking.
Helen Hester leads our Feminist Futures Programme. She is Professor of Gender, Technology and Cultural Politics at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2021, with Nick Srnicek)