Newspeak in the digital platform economy

NewspeakWhat’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Or would it? In his novel 1984, George Orwell introduces the idea of Newspeak whereby the Ministry of Truth reshapes language in order to make it impossible people to express, and hence think, concepts that go against the Party.

On Thursday 10th March the Green Templeton College’s Future of Work programme hosted the Oxford University Digital Transformations of Work conference. The conference presented many interesting, and somewhat troubling reports about the asymmetrical power structure of the, mostly unregulated, online work platforms like Upwork, ClickWoker, Amazon Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit etc. For instance, because the platforms are organized in a way that requires workers to bid for jobs, the international competition between people workers, many of whom are from developing countries, is producing a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ in hourly wage rates. Similarly, many of the job platforms maintain a system where workers are rated on their performance by those who posted jobs, with very little transparency about how the ratings are decided or recourse if the worker feels that the rating they were given is unfair. The many ethical and regulatory issues around online jobs platforms clearly warrant a much more detailed investigation and reporting which we might come back to in the future.

For now however I wanted to take a look at some of the language that is being used in these, and other, online services to promote a progressive and friendly image. When it comes to online work mediating platforms, the most glaring example is obviously the self-assigned label of ‘sharing’ economy used by services like Uber and AirBnB where the meaning of the word ‘sharing’ has been twisted to refer to a purely commercial exchange involving money payments for services. By co-opting the use of the term ‘sharing’ however these services not only paint a distorted picture of their actual activities, they also make it more difficult for the truly sharing based communities, like the P2P foundation, to gain popular recognition. The degree to which this use of euphemisms is starting to resemble Orwellian Newspeak however only truly reveals itself when you also consider the fact that people who work for these platforms are referred to as entrepreneurs, or at best freelancers and in case one of these ‘entrepreneur’ ‘freelance’ workers decides to speak out against any of the working conditions of the platform they risk getting delisted or deregistered, which is equivalent to getting fired only in less obvious wording. Besides framing public opinion through the use of more positive sounding words, this terminology also serves to promote an agenda for minimizing of regulatory responsibility on the part of the platforms. By being a ‘sharing’ economy with ‘entrepreneurs’ who are using their ‘free time’ to ears a bit of extra cash from the tools/skills they have, the platforms are pushing a narrative aimed at avoiding labour laws and worker rights.

In a less obvious way, social network platforms and other ‘free’ online services are dong them same when they position themselves as ‘free’ services while monetize the data and content that users, a.k.a. prosumers, contribute to those platforms.

Of course government are also playing this game, as is nicely illustrated by the terminology in the proposed Investigative Powers Bill where hacking into communications systems is refereed to with sanitized terminology of ‘equipment interference’.

Final thought: if linking people to your social graph on Facebook were simply called ‘link’ instead of ‘friend’, would this change the way you think about and interact with those linked people?

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