In the prior two posts in this set I described how the leading mainstream economic explanation of rising inequality and its primary critique treat technology. Here, what I’ll try to do is synthesize out of the work of many of us in the field an understanding of a political economy of technology that gives technology a meaningful role in the dynamic, but integrates it with institutions and ideology such that it becomes an appropriate site of struggle over the pattern of social relations, rather than either a distraction or a source of legitimation.
Yesterday, I outlined the ways in which the dominant “skills-biased technical change” and “winner-take-all economics” explanations of inequality share an idealized view of both markets and technology as natural and necessary. Today I’ll write about the most influential criticism of these dominant stories that have been developed by labor economists. These focus on the central role that institutional choices played in shaping bargaining power, and through it, the ability of the managerial class and shareholders to cause stagnating wages for the median worker and the great extraction by the 1%.
If we think that that platforms and robots, ubiquitous sensors and algorithms do exert a real influence on the pattern of social relations that make up the economy, but we doubt that technology causes inequality by a “natural” process driven by its own intrinsic affordances and constraints interacting with markets, then we owe ourselves a clearer story than we have given to this point. In today’s post, I’ll describe the limits of the mainstream economists’ answer, which lies at the foundation of “the robots will take all the jobs” and the legitimation of winner-take-all markets.
The concept of ultrahazardous activities, the creation of no-fault workers’ compensation and motor vehicle insurance, and the rise of mass tort litigation can all be partially traced to underlying technological changes and accompanying social shifts. In this post, I will use prior tort law revolutions as a springboard to discuss how new products liability law and fiduciary duties could be used to rectify this new power imbalance and ensure that IoT companies are held accountable for the harms they foreseeably cause.
Once upon a time, missing a payment on your leased car would be the first of a multi-step negotiation between you and a car dealership, bounded by contract law and consumer protection rules, mediated and ultimately enforced by the government. You might have to pay a late fee, or negotiate a loan deferment, but usually a company would not repossess your car until after two or even three consecutive skipped payments. Today, however, car companies are using starter interrupt devices to remotely “boot” cars just days after a payment is missed. In this post I’ll elaborate on how IoT devices empower companies at the expense of consumers and how extant law shields industry from liability.
Companies around the world are dreaming up a new generation of technologies designed to monitor their workers—from Amazon’s new employee wristbands, to Uber’s recording whether its drivers are holding their phones rather than mounting them. Technologies like these can erode workplace privacy and encourage discrimination. Without disregarding the importance of those effects, I want to focus in this post on how employers can use new monitoring technologies to drive down wages or otherwise disempower workers as a class.
If the First Gilded Age is the age of industrial capitalism, the Second Gilded Age is the age of digital or informational capitalism. Like the First Gilded Age, it is also a time of deep political corruption and despair about the future of American democracy. It has not yet produced a second Progressive Era, yet every day I see signs that this is where we are headed.
Taxi workers today understand their precarity as a product of structural power and re-regulation in favor of powerful private actors.
While we should be cautious about government demands for more data, nationalization can improve data protection and ensure more equitable access.
Twenty-first century democracy demands structural limits on techno-power that render private data monopolies amenable to democratic control.
The local structure of American policing has shaped the adoption of surveillance technology, including body cameras, in fundamental ways.
Existing legal institutions of contract and property are evolving in response to the information economy, producing and consolidating new relations of power.