A review of the 2021 book edited by Deepa Das Acevedo and published by Cambridge University Press.
This edited volume provides a law- and policy-oriented overview of the challenges that the gig economy has created for workers and regulators. Unlike much of the related scholarship in the fields of law and policy studies, however, Beyond the Algorithm approaches the gig economy from the vantage point of qualitative research. Edited by legal anthropologist Deepa Das Acevedo, the volume is comprised of U.S.-based case studies written by a diverse cadre of academics and experts. It pursues two goals: to disseminate information about the gig economy that may be of interest for legal scholars and policymakers, and to showcase the necessity of qualitative empirical data for the development of policies and laws. Both endeavors are timely and important, especially since—as Das Acevedo points out in her introduction—the gig economy is generally secretive and little understood, especially by its users. What is known too often rests, on the one hand, on journalistic accounts, and on the other, on purely quantitative data. In the absence of rigorous, long-term engagement with workers’ experiences and voices, several of the volume’s contributors suggest, exploitative work practices are poorly understood and therefore poorly regulated.
In Chapter 1, Das Acevedo outlines the foundational elements of existing regulation of the gig economy in the United States, ranging from federal case law to state-level adjudication, and from federal legislative and administrative developments to state and local ordinances. Das Acevedo argues that, while the responses of state actors to the challenges posed by the gig economy have been uneven, courts have become consistently involved in the effort to establish all-important legal classifications of gig workers. The issue of classification is further developed in Chapter 2, where V. B. Dubal explores the ambiguities navigated by gig workers themselves. Drawing on qualitative empirical data, Dubal surmises that while many rideshare drivers would appreciate the benefits provided by stable employment, they also enjoy the freedom and flexibility that their role as independent contractors putatively grants them. What gig workers need, Dubal suggests, is access to the protections usually afforded to employees, even as they retain some of the flexibility found in current arrangements.
In investigating workers’ experiences with the website care.com, Chapter 3 provides nuanced insight into the experiences of nannies, housecleaners, and eldercare workers who use this online platform to compete for gigs. Its authors, Alexandra Mateescu and Julia Ticona, argue that contrary to the common belief about platform labor rendering workers invisible, care.com in fact makes workers visible in a way that can become uncomfortable. In asking workers to post their profiles, the platform seeks to establish clients’ trust in the workers. However, gig workers experience this visibility as a form of control that many are unable to manage; given the competition on the app, posting a good selfie and drafting a brief biography are rarely enough to hold the attention of potential clients. Other services offered by care.com, such as badges that vouch for individual gig workers’ records, can put an additional financial strain on workers without guaranteeing any return on this investment. Furthermore, while some younger, educated, and tech-savvy workers are able to get ahead, others are frustrated by biased algorithms that penalize them for, among other things, the texture of their hair or their proficiency in English as a second language. Mateescu and Ticona’s conclusion is that, notwithstanding their claims of neutrality, care platforms are riddled with many of the same inequalities and contradictions that characterize traditional arrangements for domestic workers.
In Chapter 4, Shy-Yi Oei and Diane M. Ring argue for the importance of qualitative empirical research in learning how gig workers approach tax questions. In order to do so, the authors suggest, policymakers should pay attention to the very spaces that gig workers use to exchange information: online forums and face-to-face communities. Chapter 5, in turn, analyzes the implications of gig work for its participants’ future career trajectories. By exploring gig workers’ own experiences, Alexandra J. Ravenelle finds that the side hustles many take on frequently become impediments in their pursuit of gainful employment. Trapped in gig work characterized by low earnings and long working hours, rideshare drivers end up extending their precarity indefinitely. “Caveat venditor: seller beware” (p. 120) is Ravenelle’s admonition to those who peddle their labor on online platforms.
Chapter 6, by Julia Tommassetti, engages in a close examination of the Uber app and its byzantine end-user license agreement (EULA). Tommassetti’s conclusion is that Uber uses both the EULA and the app itself to continually recalibrate agreements with its drivers and modifying its obligations to them—all, of course, to the company’s advantage. In Chapter 7, Zack Accuardi considers the adverse impact of companies such as Uber and Lyft on both transit systems and the environment, concluding that it would be beneficial to devolve regulatory responsibilities to local governments.
In Chapter 8, Sam Harnett describes how “swooning” tech journalists came to hail gig platforms as “disruptive, liberating, and futuristic” (p. 170); this one-sided judgment ended up influencing the decisions of politicians, legislators, and judges, thus abetting labor practices that should have been subjected to much closer scrutiny. In Chapter 9, Rebecca Smith and Maya Pinto explore the myriad ways in which gig companies manage to shape the regulations affecting them, thus preempting challenges to their employment practices. Finally, in Chapter 10, Harry Campbell draws on his own experience as a rideshare driver and his conversations with fellow Uber and Lyft workers to establish that, strapped for time, drivers are rarely able to lobby for their interests, even when the circumstances of their work are plainly exploitative. For Campbell, it is imperative that regulators elicit gig workers’ perspectives and listen to their experiences in crafting much-needed legislation.
In addressing an audience of law and policy studies scholars, Beyond the Algorithm provides a valuable supplement to what is known about the plights facing gig workers; however, the edited volume offers less insight to ethnographers themselves, even as it makes a forceful case for the importance of qualitative research. While not intended for an anthropological audience, Beyond the Algorithm can nonetheless be a useful resource for ethnographers who want to understand the economic, regulatory, and ethical challenges facing today’s gig laborers and to play a part in the development of policies and laws that address them.
Emanuela Guano is Professor of Anthropology at Georgia State University. Her current research entails an ethnographic exploration of the role of aesthetics in the resistance to redevelopment in the postindustrial peripheries of Genoa, Italy. Her previous work has been featured in Cultural Anthropology; City and Society; Gender, Place and Culture, and Ethnos; she is also the author of Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).