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Social and Cultural Geographies Research Group Annual Lecture 2018

A002 Ellison Building



Northumbria University - Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences


Social and Cultural Geographies Research Group Annual Lecture 2018

Platform Economies: Cultural, Political and Work Futures 


The Social and Cultural Geographies research group are delighted to announce our 2018 annual lecture. This year we have selected the theme of platform economies and digital work as a cross-cutting research interest that brings together much of the research group’s work. The rise of so-called platform capitalism has been heralded as part of a fourth industrial revolution and is transforming production systems, labour relations and consumption of products and services across the economy. It has had an impact across the arts, humanities and social sciences as academics explore and conceptualise such transformations. This year’s lecture brings together academics from cultural and political theory, digital media and communication studies and economic geography.

We are pleased to welcome Dr Yujie Chen (University of Leicester) and Dr Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London) for this event, who, with Dr Jon Swords from the research group, will consider the nature of platforms themselves, the changing landscapes of culture and work associated with platforms and the political possibilities and tensions provided by platform technologies.

All welcome.

Please contact Dr Paul Griffin with any inquiries (


Day structure:

15.30 - 16.00: Meet and greet in The Hub – Ellison Building, 2nd floor, B Block (coffee and tea available)

16.00 - 18.00: Ellison Building, A002, Panel lecture and discussion (contributors and abstracts below)


Lecture information:

The lecture will include three contributions detailed below and time for discussion and reflection.

Chair: Dr Kathryn Cassidy (Northumbria University)

Web platforms are becoming part of everyday life for internet users. They come in many forms, offering a range of products and services for both producers and consumers as they (re)produce multi-sided markets. Platforms act as key intermediaries, bringing together third parties and shaping the provision of access to information, finance, content and networks. They operate within an ecosystem, connected through technical service provision and operational logics that van Dijck (2013) terms interpenetration. This article explores how interpenetration with and from two crowd-patronage platforms – Patreon and Subbable - is co-constitutive of their intermediary functions. Both sites connect(ed) artist-creators with patrons, offering an alternative means of income generation in the face of declining advertising revenues and digital piracy. Through this examination I propose the expansion of the interpenetration concept to include analysis of where in a platform’s ‘stack’ interpenetration occurs, and how power asymmetries between platforms enables or constrains their adaptive capacity when faced with change. In so doing I argue interpenetration through shared operational logics transforms cultural work as it is enrolled into a calculus of web metrics that allow algorithmic curation.

Through the examples of ride-hailing platforms in China, this paper demonstrates how on-demand service apps in the platform economy not only develop new labor management mechanisms but also precipitates new types of digital labor in the platform economy. The analysis hinges on two axes—1) the platformization of driver’s work process and 2) drivers’ lived labor practices. I argue digital apps decontextualize the work process by setting the start and finish points that do not necessarily correspond to workers’ actual completion of the job. Though it seems to offer standardized service from a passenger’s point of view, the arbitrarily platformized work process and the absence of occupational trainings exploit and aggravate the long-standing lack of institutional social support for Chinese platform laborers. This leaves workers to learn to work by practice and trial-and-error. Specifically, becoming platform workers involves communities of practices (Wenger, 2000) to co-produce and share vernacular knowledge, for which they rely on individual’s digital literacy as well as collective wisdom from the extended social networks. Their worker subjectivity takes shape in sharing mundaneness and collaborative production of practical knowledge. The persistence and pendulum of informal practices among drivers on ride-hailing platforms lay bare the inherent contradiction in the platform economy in general—that is, constant and heavy reliance on extra/surplus (informal) labor from outside the platform. The paper concludes with discussions on how this inherent contraction may inspire new framework to develop a fairer and sustainable platform economy. 

It is increasingly apparent that the post-Fordist epoch of ‘flexible accumulation’ has given way to a new era in which the ‘leading-edge’ of capital is constituted by the platform monopolies of Silicon Valley (Google, Facebook, Youtube, Amazon, Apple). Although many current interpretations of the situation focus on its dystopian implications, it is also clearly true that the age of platform communications has created significant new opportunities for democratic organisation and mass politics. The complexities of the moment cannot be well understood in terms of any simple or teleological narrative, but they can be very usefully analysed by focussing on the emergence of ‘Big Tech’ as a specific class fraction, closely related, but not identical, to finance capital, increasingly intent on securing its own position as the hegemonic element of the global ruling elite. This paper will argue that the problem of maintaining the consent of ‘subaltern’ groups to their rule is as much of a problem for Zuckerberg et al as it has been for the ruling classes of previous generations, and that recent controversies in the world of ‘tech’, from the bitcoin craze to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should all be understood in this light. 


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Additional Information

Event Details

A002 Ellison Building
Northumbria University


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