Digital platforms in the sharing economy: from matchmaking to boundary making
(London School of Economics and Political Science)
Paper short abstract:
The digital platforms of the sharing economy participate in the reconfiguration of economic relations, and organising in complex ways. We explore the (in)visibilities and ontological politics involved in the reconfiguration of roles, and the distribution of responsibilities, in the case of Uber.
Paper long abstract:
The sharing economy is perceived as a source of empowerment for individuals who can easily participate in direct economic exchanges with each other (Botsman and Rogers 2011), or less optimistically as an expression of economic neoliberalism (Srnicek 2016) or "Reaganism by other means" (Scholz 2016). It is commonly defined as a move towards access rather than ownership (Rifkin 2001) in which digital platforms function as "matchmakers" (Evans and Schmalensee 2016) of offer and demand. Digital platforms are therefore seen as supporting new organisational forms that are reconfiguring economic relations.
While digital platforms tend to be unproblematically presented as the technological infrastructure of the sharing economy, we argue that defining and constituting the boundaries of infrastructures is political and performative, that is, it is implicated in ontological politics, with consequences in the distribution of responsibilities and wealth (Latour, 2003; Mol, 2013; Woolgar & Lezaun, 2013).
Drawing on an empirical case study of Uber, including an analysis of court cases, we examine how the (in)visibility of infrastructure is mobilized (Larkin 2013). We argue that the representation of Uber as a "digital platform", as "just the technological infrastructure" mediating car drivers and clients, is a political act that attempts to redefine social responsibilities, while black boxing important dimensions of the algorithmic infrastructure which remain invisible. It also produces agential cuts that hide the additional layers of infrastructure that sustain Uber, and its business model.
Encounters with and for circular economy initiatives