Urban life today is undergirded by technological systems, rapidly cutting through various domains that make up what we know as life in the city—public and private spaces, governance, public utilities and infrastructure, labour processes, cultural production, interpersonal interaction, family structures and so on. Think of an oft-expressed question—what impact do technologies have on society? Let us begin with the basic categories at work in this by-now-familiar narrative. Categories in any narrative or discourse do the work of classification by operating as oppositional binaries. In answering this question, we borrow from and reproduce the binary between technology and society.
These categories are not useful beyond a point since they sometimes conceal more than they reveal. By externalising technology as outside of society, the end result has led to what can be called technological determinism, the belief that technology can cause things to happen, as if it is possible to isolate a pure entity called technology independent from other systems and networks—economic, political and cultural—and measure its ability in terms of cause and effect. Such categories produce a limited and often conspiratorial understanding of the rapid changes that are taking place around us.
The actual transformation of technological systems over time is much more messy, uneven, keenly conflicted and contested, often subject to chance, failure or luck rather than by design—in other words, the process is subject to contingency.
There are enough studies on various technological systems (from the railways and typewriter to smartphones) to show that these are very much socially constructed and implicated in political and economic networks. Further, they produce changes in society which in turn directly or indirectly produce subsequent technological innovation. This movement is a historical process that can and indeed has been studied across various contexts (although more work needs to be done in Global South countries). It is also a process that has no linear tendency towards ‘progress’, even though in popular culture the history of technological systems is almost always depicted as evolutionary—faster, better, more efficient and so on. The actual transformation of technological systems over time is much more messy, uneven, keenly conflicted and contested, often subject to chance, failure or luck rather than by design—in other words, the process is subject to contingency.
Given these problems, this issue of Bevaru presents a somewhat different way of engaging with the transformations involved with technological systems in urban life and particularly with the labouring class in cities. Broadly speaking, when we refer to technological systems, we refer not just to the technical aspects of objects in terms of their characteristics (application interface, materiality of physical objects, etc.,) but also what technologies do when they are put in practice. Technical descriptions usually erase any mention of the subject—that is, it is as if technological systems work by magic, without human and social presence. In reality, technological systems come ‘alive’ only when they are being used in society in some way. In other words, we refer to technological practices implicated and integrated in everyday life rather than technology in the abstract.
Such perspectives give an experiential and affective sense of what it means to be a worker whose labour is technologically mediated. Understanding the role of technology in transforming our experience, our sense of the world and self, makes for a more empathetic and deeper understanding of what the gig economy is really doing to workers.
Nihal’s article adds to valuable previous work on gig economy by drawing attention to how some of these technological systems are operationalised as daily practices. He signed up as a gig economy worker (with a well-known courier company in Bangalore) and delivered food for nearly a month. This was also an opportunity to meet other workers and interact with them about their experiences and thoughts. The article thus manages to provide a glimpse of how mundane practices create a real sense of suffocation and powerlessness. The account of Ravi (who also signed up as a gig worker), on the other hand, is a fictionalised story of a young man who migrates from rural Karnataka to Bangalore. The narration pulls together various stories from workers he interacted with during his month-long stint. We can see how there is a sharp skew between digital cultures and systems in rural and urban areas. Aadhaar authentication problems create issues for his family in the village while the worker struggles with private gig economy systems to make a living. Similarly, Angarika’s article on domestic workers illustrates the everyday practices of finding and doing domestic work mediated through apps in a radically alienated and segregated urban society. High-rise apartment buildings occupied by upper-caste and upper-class families demonstrate a sense of paranoia, pettiness and cruelty as domestic workers experience humiliation, fear, anger and frustration. These feelings emerge precisely at the point of everyday practice that usually involves a repetition and thus a ritualisation. Such perspectives give an experiential and affective sense of what it means to be a worker whose labour is technologically mediated. Understanding the role of technology in transforming our experience, our sense of the world and self, makes for a more empathetic and deeper understanding of what the gig economy is really doing to workers. Priyanshu’s account of sex workers transforming their work during the pandemic is evidence that all technologisation is not necessarily oppressive. Given that sex work has to be done in the shadows of society, there are no large corporations who control the labour force. Sex workers have innovated significantly in order to reach out to clients directly while also increasing their own incomes without putting their bodies at risk. Even as older sex workers grapple with new technological practices, it remains to be seen what kinds of struggles and opportunities lie ahead for sex workers in this new environment.
Attention to human subjects engaged in concrete everyday practices puts technology firmly back in the social domain rather than as something external. Bringing back the social element into technology raises the further question of how technological systems (practices and processes) play a role in shaping human activity and identity—whether it is based on the intentions of those who designed technology, or the technical features that have been used in unanticipated ways with unintended consequences, or through efforts taken up by users who use technologies towards their own political, economic or cultural ends, and so on.
These processes are sometimes quite obvious, for example, the smartphone in combination with online social media practices (liking, sharing, commenting, etc.,) operating within capitalist society surely has played a major role in creating a new subjectivity, a new way to perform the self. In other instances, the processes are quite subtle and complex. Think about how a Metro train network has shaped urban subjectivity. Does Metro travel produce a different cartography of the city in the traveller? Does the aerial view of the city or the underground travel produce a different sense of being an urban citizen? What new kinds of social interactions are enabled or erased because of travelling in these trains? Clearly there are a wide range of technological systems, from the very intimate (the smartphone) to the very broad and subtle systems (Aadhaar card and infrastructure) which we have difficulty in perceiving as shaping us in any way.
We realise that technological systems are deeply embedded in the social only when we see results of their spectacular failure, when users realise that these systems are not designed keeping social realities in mind.
Janani’s article discusses the struggles of a garment worker in accessing her own money stuck in the Employees' Provident Fund because she is unable to negotiate with the Kafkaesque system of online forms, ID proofs and an absence of a human to take her problems to. We realise that technological systems are deeply embedded in the social only when we see results of their spectacular failure, when users realise that these systems are not designed keeping social realities in mind. Her article shows how migrant workers from far away states struggle to access their EPF funds due to various problems with the biometric authentication system of Aadhaar. Similarly, Yameena’s article on Anganwadi workers in Delhi illustrates how public workers are harassed with technological procedures in the name of greater efficiency. The technologised surveillance of workers towards transparency and efficiency is the first step in the rapid liberalisation of the public sector. Anganwadi workers, who often don't have their phones during work as they share the device with family members, end up recording data manually and then later re-entering on their mobile phones in the designated app. Designed to be efficient and transparent, these systems are increasing the work for Anganwadi workers. Priyanshu’s article on compulsory biometric attendance for powrakarmikas in Bangalore also emphasises the same pattern. Initially seen as a step towards regularisation (since the Aadhaar ID of the powrakarmikas are linked to biometric attendance), this move has since resulted in greater inconvenience and surveillance of the workers. By removing the possibility of negotiating with humans, the biometric systems are leaving them with no option but to comply with the machine.
These articles have been written after interactions with many workers on multiple occasions and are representative of the larger workforce. They are snapshots of a new working subject—partly alienated, partly empowered, partly negotiating and partly subverting their way through new working environments and thus new challenges. There is much more to be done, but we hope that this issue provokes a wider and deeper public interest in how workers and their labours are transformed in the age of technologisation.
Ram is a co-founder of Maraa, a media and arts collective, and is a media and communications researcher.