Aditi Surie on Studying the Platform Economy in India

By Niyati Dave on August 21, 2019

Aditi Surie is a sociologist with training from the Department of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. Aditi’s current research at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) investigates the nature and conditions of work in the life of urban residents bereft of state-sponsored work and social security. She is particularly focused on understanding how Silicon Valley tech companies, at the forefront of creating the ‘gig economy’ (like platforms of Uber and Ola cabs), impact Indian urban workers whose experiences do not rest easily with the Northern discourses associated with the gig economy. In this researcher interview, we talk about her work with a focus on research methodology, examining precarity in the Global South and the ways in which the “firm” of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is emerging as one of the most opaque sites to study. 

Niyati Dave: I’d like to start by talking about how the project itself started and how it came to be a part of TURN?

Aditi Surie: My project had started at IIHS through the Internal Research Grant in 2015 with two other colleagues, an economist and a mixed media professional. At that point, the focus wasn’t necessarily on the informal economy but it definitely informed our decision to start the project.  I think all of us were just struck by how everyone was calling Uber and app-based economies very new.

There was a lot of hype around these platforms, so we really wanted to figure out how to gauge the  newness. 

That was really our question– looking to ask an employment transition question around this economy.

What does it mean to be part of this  new economy?

Is this model new, for the city of Bangalore and for India?

At that point we didn’t really know anything about what the transition meant, and then as we progressed, we started to learn just how important it was going to be for us to understand how these apps were changing the nature of employment in the informal economy, to think through how the entry of these apps affected the existing job market.  

One of the main reasons we started looking at this was because, discursively, precarity or precarious work is one of the major concepts that gets tacked along with Uber or any kind of  gig work. And it really struck us how the discourse of the informal economy and app-based precarious work were very similar in many ways.

But, it seemed like–as so many gaps in knowledge-making and discourse-making are–a northern and southern difference.

It’s only in about 2016, 2017, did we start to find scholarship that was trying to bridge these two conceptual worlds. This conceptual inquiry is an interest area for me as well.

I think the precarious work discourse doesn’t take into account what’s been happening in the rest of the world.  It doesn’t want to. I think people in the Global North don’t want to learn how people in the South live– which is to live adaptively, which is to live in this very agile form. 

I think these questions of theory, and the question of the kind of employment  and work Uber was creating really hit upon how these economies and societies are set up.

As I started getting into these questions, the project fit very well with the framing of TURN, which was looking at  what forms of informal employment were hiding in the incumbent industry of how services in the city worked before they got digitized onto apps. Additionally, what is the technology model or model of digital capitalism also keeping hidden, because there is very compelling evidence to say that there’s a lot of unpaid labour, that takes place on these platforms, the true kind of employment relationship is hidden. That’s how the project materialized and it  continues to tackle these questions.

 

Dave: So, conceptually, do you think that thinking through the idea of tacitness, helps in some way to make those north-south connections or contrasts between say, precarity and informality? This is something that’s been coming up with other people’s work, in that informality has a very specific way of coding things within a binary, whereas, the idea of ‘tacitness’  perhaps allows for some more nuance or grey areas between? Do you think that’s something that you found coming up in your work?

Surie: It’s been really difficult for me to think about how the tacit frame is going to work for this project. In my mind makes complete sense, because I think it works in a complementary fashion to the technology question and to what I am going to call the ‘older’ informal economy (though it exists at the same moment as these technology companies do). I think the way I am trying to answer that question of what is tacit and what does the conceptual universe of tacitness do, is by contrasting it with how digital capitalism works. This might be a frame that I drop later, might be a frame that I keep. I’m also thinking through these questions. 

The whole premise of how digital capitalism works is that relies on networks and nodes of information which is nothing new for an economy like ours, or for that matter for economies in general. Especially when we try to understand city economy, we expect all sorts of social, educational, political capital to work through networks and nodes and to spread in this fashion.  So, I have been trying to understand how that informal economy tacitness parallels digital capitalism in terms of the networks that are created through the apps or through the kind of relationship that the app in that network is creating. 

I am looking more at what’s intangible and, codified, because I think, it also works well with the metaphor of technology since it’s equally hard to break down what is happening with these technology companies as it is. Part of what I’m trying to understand is what kind of processes are codified into the platforms because the app is creating its own economy, its own marketplace which is, right now, completely unregulated by any force other than what the company and their venture capitalists want. 

The idea is to also look at whether we can make similar claims about the informal economy. 

For example, one of the questions I have been trying to grapple with is, how was the wage set for a service worker in the informal economy and how does that factor in for the driver, if he’s comparing the kind of labor markets he has available to him, both digital or offline.

Basically, I have been trying to read what tacitness by trying to look at what information flows, how that information flows, how the networks update, how those prices are set…

 

Dave: Tell us a bit more about examining these apps across different locations in the country and also, in some sense, about having an online platform/app as your site of study. 

Surie: That’s an interesting bit because I know, it often makes it hard for me to compare some of my work to other people here, since the other IIHS TURN projects are so spatially determined, but that’s not to say that it’s siteless because I am using Bangalore and Bangalore’s economy as a provocation. There are a lot of specificities to the city economy and regional economy that are giving the platform economy a certain shape. It doesn’t look the same in Delhi, it doesn’t look the same in Mumbai, so the role of existing city institutions are very important in  terms of how these apps are working out with relation to the culture of the city. Part of the landscape is also that startup culture with its entrepreneurship and risk taking, is something that is very widely accepted in the city and that there are higher levels in education. There is a lot of intra state migration, there’s a lot of short term circulation of people who are okay with doing gig jobs, and this has been the way the market has been created for these companies as well. Uber and Ola both launched in Bangalore first, I think, because there is some sense of part-time work being more prevalent in this city than others. This is something I first heard from people working in app companies who had helped launch the business in Bangalore and I have been trying to figure out how they got to this data point.

So my project is not siteless in the sense that the city is very much the broader site for the research but it’s not spatially defined as a neighbourhood or  other kind of settlement. Yes, there are spatial footprints to the platform economies but part of what makes a platform economy so different from other kinds of industrial revolutions or economies that have existed before is that, they are meant to be siteless in a way. You have the app; that’s your connection, so, typically, the workplace doesn’t exist for the labour force that’s actually doing the work of the platform, but there are spatial footprints, there are physical nodes where people do meet. With Swiggy workers often, you find them clumped in particular areas waiting for the good times to start, you find Uber drivers who know the city really well for the hidden spots, where they can take a nap and no one’s going to trouble them.

There’s also like, a third answer to this. 

 I am considering the firm that runs the platform economy as another site, to answer this question, and that’s something I want to start doing now with Dunzo. It’s going to be very complicated because it’s not easy for companies and firms to open themselves up to this kind of ethnographic work, but I think to start to answer the tacit question and to start to answer like what are the values that run this kind of economy. I’m very much considering these companies, themselves as a site.

 

Dave: Jumping off this idea of spatial nodes and ways in which drivers navigate the actual physical space of a city,  do you think that as information and knowledge flow between the drivers in these physical nodes, there are ways in which they are finding ways to optimize their use of the app? In many ways, the platform economy also creates communities that exist in cities and are not just connected through the app– so I wonder if there is some sort of knowledge sharing happening on that front.

Surie: Yeah, absolutely, and I think it’s interesting to think about what the collective means when it comes to this work, and when it comes to informal economy work. So you do have drivers who know how to game the system very well. They understand when the incentives start to drop. In Bangalore, a lot of drivers start the month driving for Uber; they drive for Uber for about 10 days and then when incentives start to drop, then they switch on to Ola. They have all these kind of strategies and what we see in this strategy is mostly flow through networks that they already have. I don’t think that they are necessarily creating new networks from this kind of work which they would trust as much as they would trust the networks they are already a part of.  The information, however, has taken a different form because now it’s all completely on WhatsApp, it’s on YouTube, it’s on these kind of digital platforms, but when it comes to like physically collectivising, through an association or a union or even through momentary collectives that come together for the day of the strike or the day of the protest–it’s extremely hard to get drivers to do that. One reason, of course, is because there is this kind of baseline of they have to earn, but that has been the character of informal economy workers since we have started to think of them in this way, you know. And there is a lot of work like from Barbara Harriss-White, that talks about  just how difficult it is to move the informal economy workers from this individuated position into the collective, because life is so precarious and they are responsible to these other networks and not solely to the identity of the worker first which is different from what you see in London and New York. In London, two weeks ago (October 2018), there was this really huge protest that was launched by delivery runners, Uber drivers, and McDonalds minimum wage workers, which is really interesting cut in terms of the kind of commonality they see between themselves.

 But there’s such diversity here in India that there’s no standards really you know; even the minimum wage doesn’t really form a standard for most people’s lives and the kind of enterprises that these people work in, in this informal service economy. To answer your question, I would say it’s replicating the kind of networks and nodes that have existed before rather than creating new ones and maybe in the next five years we will see that change as more apps start to take shape.

 

Dave: Could you perhaps give me an example in which it’s replicating existing networks and nodes?

Surie: So, I have also been pushing the wage question or the price question because I’m not sure what creates the wage and the price for a particular service in an informal economy in the city. How much do you pay a carpenter? How much do you haggle for that price, who sets that price?

There was something an UrbanClap carpenter said to me, in an interview. I was talking to this man who has been doing carpentry work in Bangalore for the last 35 years. He’s Muslim, and he comes from a particular community of people that are known to do this work. He talked about this very interestingly. I asked him if he found himself feeling akin to Ola workers or other carpenters that you find on other apps, and he said, actually the only thing that this app has done for me is to set a price in the market. He said constantly what happens is that people come from North India, from Bihar, from Madhya Pradesh, from UP and they undercut the price, they undercut the kind of relationships we created with our clients, and our customers because they are willing to work for almost next to nothing, they don’t have the ability to aspire to the quality of life that we have. I thought that was a really telling way of this question of, what community means, what network means and whether you can create that community even in terms of the employment identity.  I think that, how that’s playing into ones selfhood as a person because it’s very different from what you’d imagine coming from, this kind of Fordist understanding of where your identity is supposed to be in a place, how important work is to your life.

 

Dave: I think you were also mentioning how in UrbanClap, there was no distinction between providers with differing levels of expertise.

Surie: Yes, so there’s absolutely no difference or  way in the app to tell the difference between people’s expertise, their skills, their years of service or have a sense of what they have created. I think people aren’t really saying that they need to charge more money for their expertise, but the fact is that each time, they go to a new customer, they have to sing that song and prove themselves as having a lot of expertise. So, they find a lot of ways outside the app to do that. They find the customer’s number and start sending the pictures of things they have created. They have also started using WhatsApp as a way to document, to create a portfolio for themselves basically, which I think is a really interesting way of using technology.

 

 Dave: Can we talk a little more about research methods and whether you think, with relation to your work, that there’s certain methodologies that allow for drawing out tacitness, to understand these networks, more than others? I think it would be great if at this point you could also reflect a little bit on interacting with the companies themselves.

Surie: I think I felt extremely methodologically challenged in this process, for a number of reasons. One is that, these companies and this economy has moved so fast in the last three years, that it’s so hard to actually grasp what’s going on. The only way I feel I have been able to do that is by doing surveys, every 4 to 6 months because the shape of that digital market has changed so much. 

Also,  that’s only one way to enter the market and what it means is that you lose a lot of the story because you’re only entering it through particular sets of workers. The fact that this labour force is you know a gig- economy labour force or they are part-time labour force, or they are labour force that lack this kind of spatial location, it means they are very hard to track for research purposes which is also true of trying to track informal workers over like, say for a longitudinal study.  I would have loved to have been able to do that, to have someone enter a labour cohort like you would do for like medical studies because eventually the question I have moved on to for the worker is what is the place of the gig economy in the life and employment of the worker. Now to understand that it means you need to have very in-depth information, you’re checking in with them, you’re seeing whether at every point when the platform changes, does the perception also change to the platform and that’s been extremely hard to do.The in-depth semi-structured interview, which while being a great entry into the platform, hasn’t been able to hold everything I wanted and that’s a very real kind of barrier with the kind of economy I’m looking at.

 I do think the survey format has been helpful to get quick snapshot answers like this what it’s been like for this marketplaces, what are the broad changes in temperament towards the platform which has been nice but that kind of in depth information I feel that’s very closely tied to very personal information that takes time to gather.I could have found a way to do that and I should you know and in the next year, I’ll find a way to do that. So, that was one front.

The other front is looking at the firm which is challenging on so many levels.

Just to give you a sense of what the logistics of trying to do this work is that there were, I went through a couple of months of not knowing exactly how to set up this relationship with Dunzo, because initially, I thought of it as some kind of a research partnership in which I just go embed myself in Dunzo.  For that they needed me to sign an NDA. Now that was of course something that was completely unacceptable from the research ethics point of view because you don’t want the same party having control of the information. It was interesting to see how both Dunzo and IIHS had to work out what ethics meant in this context and how the principles of ethical research could be maintained in this situation.  That’s been one of the major methodological issues also: how do you start to build a methodology with the company, where the base trust and the base relationship is being questioned by both institutions? As a researcher, it’s been a really big learning opportunity, it’s put me in a place to really drill down to say, who am I trying to protect, what’s the story, and how do you deal with data in this kind of context.

The  larger context is that of course technology companies, because of a number of reasons, are literally the most hidden kind of institutions that we have around us. The fact that I am asking questions about proprietary technology, about things that are very much mired in like IP battles has made the company and the “firm” of the fourth industrial revolution the tacit question that has really been hard to break rather than the informal economy. As a sociologist, you know that trying to look at power or people in positions of authority, is very difficult. People who are poor, marginalized are very much willing to tell their stories.

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