Balaji Parthasarathy delivers the opening keynote at CSCW 2022

Date: 08/11/22

About the talk: Prof. Balaji Parthasarathy speaks on the asymmetrical contractual relationships that reconfigure the division of labour in service delivery, with a focus on platform companies.


From the Cooperative to the Coercive: Digital Platforms and the Antinomies of CSCW

New technologies have the potential to expand the spatial and temporal bounds of various social exchanges. It therefore becomes possible to incorporate more people and territories, and enlarge networks of cooperation of various forms for various ends. This, indeed, has been the premise of contemporary globalization: affordable, ubiquitous computing technologies to create an economy that works as a unit in real time at a planetary scale.

Long before computing networks provided the technological infrastructure for globalization, or computer science attempted to understand cooperation, the social sciences grappled with the question of why and how people cooperate. Economists, for instance, have viewed it in terms of the emergence of a division of labour, supported by technology, to fulfill various needs. However, any narrative suggesting the frictionless incorporation of different people and territories into the global economy overlooks how social contracts, which political theorists and sociologists highlight as the basis for cooperation, can be asymmetric due to power differentials between social actors. The asymmetry is another manifestation of the socio-spatial unevenness that has historically characterized capitalism.

The unevenness in our times has not gone unnoticed as evidenced by efforts to address the needs of those on the wrong side of the digital divide, or at the bottom-of-the-pyramid, with such initiatives as frugal innovation, or technologies for inclusive development. After a brief survey of such efforts since the turn of the millennium, the presentation will draw on ongoing research in India to describe how digital platforms mediate the last-mile delivery of services, from producers to their customers, by relying on increasing numbers of smartphone-armed gig worker ‘partners’. The presentation will argue that, as platform companies deploy technology and rely on asymmetrical contractual relationships to reconfigure the division of labour in service-delivery, workers find themselves in unequal partnerships to experience CSCW as Computer Supported Coercive Work.

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CITAPP at IIIT Bangalore is an interdisciplinary think-tank set-up to focus on the policy challenges and the organizational demands made by technological innovation. Of particular interest to the Centre is how technological advances, along with institutional changes that harness the legitimacy and the powers of bureaucracies and market, address the needs of underserved communities.