Mark Graham has presented research at over eighty-five conferences, workshops, and colloquiums since 2003. This includes keynotes and invited talks with institutions like: UNCTAD, the US State Department, the Wikimedia Foundation, TED, Re:Publica, SXSW, DFID, and a variety of international and regional academic conferences in the fields of Geography, Internet Studies, Development, African Studies, Communications, and Sociology. His work has been featured in over one hundred media outlets including The BBC, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The Telegraph, Wired, Der Spiegel, Il Sole 24 Ore, and many others. He has also written a series of articles about the social and economic effects of the Internet for the Guardian and The Atlantic.
Digital Labor and Development: New Knowledge Economies or Digital Sweatshops?
In most of the world’s low-income countries, un-, and under-employment is a major social and economic concern for policy makers. South Africa, for instance, has a youth unemployment rate of almost 50%. At the same time, we are currently at a moment in which 2.5 billion people now are connected to the Internet: a majority of whom live in low-income country.
In response to this convergence of poverty and connectivity, many international development organisations have been attracted to digital labor as a way of bringing jobs to the world’s poor. Drawing on initial findings from an ongoing, mixed-method research project investigating value networks, discourses, and practices of digital labor in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, our lecture engages with two primary data sources.
First, with a critical discourse analysis, we examine the assumptions baked into digital labor development plans. Who are policy-makers seeking to connect? Who are the programmes they design intended to benefit? And what is left unsaid?
Second, with digital trace and log data obtained from online marketplace administrators, we map value chains of digital labor in six African and Asian countries. This analysis explores market structures and distributions of revenue, pertaining to the role of geographies and distance in shaping clusters of power and inequalities in these networks. A key question addressed concern the accumulation of human capital: Do experienced laborers upgrade to higher-value added tasks?
This comparative analysis of development discourses and actual chains of value in digital labor networks touching down at the world’s economic peripheries, ultimately allow us to begin to address whether any global inequalities can be effectively addressed through digital labor or whether such practices only reproduce and expand exploitative relationships.