From programmers at Internet companies to self-employed workers for e-commerce platforms such as DiDi and Meituan, to the influencers who broadcast on video-sharing networks, the image of digital labor has become more and more specific as new media technologies advance, making it increasingly difficult to associate it with “wage labor” in the conventional sense. Meanwhile, upgrades in the industry and investment in artificial intelligence are threatening workers with the possibility that “machines will replace people.” The so-called last mile that cannot be achieved through automation creates these “ghost workers.” They are the data labelers behind artificial intelligence—the invisible people who operate the “omniscient” robots of the Global North from behind the screens of the Global South. Technology has lost all incentive to "accelerate” in the face of global inequality. After all, the cost of walking the last mile is much higher for investors than the cost of hiring cheap, invisible labor in the Global South.
Internet companies and other high-tech industries have not reduced labor exploitation with technological development. While Tencent and other major companies announced the dismissal of employees over 35 years old, the “996 working hour system” (in which workers work from 9am to 9pm, six days per week) discreetly fell under legislative protection. Forty years after the establishment of Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, an “illegitimate child” of the PRC, received another significant gift. “Guide Shenzhen to make good use of the Special Economic Zone's legislative power, and guide it to demand the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress for instructions on the Labor Law and the Labor Contract Law on matters of adapting or adjusting the application of the Labor Law,” stated the Guangdong Provincial Department of Justice in its “Response to Proposal No. 202200848 of the Third Session of the Twelfth Session of the Provincial CPPCC,” issued on July 17, 2020. 1 Capital in this high-tech, experimental field continues to carry out new experiments to escape legislative constraints. In this context, Shenzhen made pilot reforms to manage working hours to adapt to the development needs of new technologies, new ecology, new industries, and new models. If the “996” model is legalized at Internet companies, will a 24/7 work week be next? Either way, programmers or laborers will be forced into the dead-end of overwork by the capital of the digital industry.
Under the banner of the “sharing economy,” platform capitalism has transformed workers into self-exploiting freelancers with no contracts and no labor protections. And UGC (User Generated Content) platforms such as YouTube, Pornhub, Bilibili, TikTok, and Kuaishou have eliminated the boundary between consumers and producers. It is almost as if they have created a flattened imagination for the collaborative economy, silently turning everyone into digital labor: While you are consuming (membership subscriptions, ad traffic, etc.), you are also providing free work in an endless exploitation, as the platforms effortlessly reap what they have not sown. The utopian ideals of the twentieth century gave birth to one monstrosity after another, along with capital and technological integration.
(Translated by Fiona He)
-  Shenzhen was one of the special economic zones established in the 1980s and gradually became the third developed city in China. Nowadays, many internet companies establish themselves there. As a result, many migrants and well-educated laborers choose to work and live in Shenzhen. The adjustment of labor law and labor contract law will strengthen the privilege of entrepreneurs in Shenzhen while weakening labor rights, including the extension of working hours, the growing number of unstable laborers, etc.