Jordan, Tim. The digital edonomy. Polity Press, 2020. viii, 200 p. ISBN 978-1-509-51756-5. £17.99.
Already for some time we use the term of information economy, which lately has been painlessly trasformed into digital economy as if it means exactly the same, though neither of these concepts have been explained in the same terms by different economists or polticians. If we check several reports with 'digital economy' in the titles (e.g., OECD, 2020; Unctad, 2019), we will see different concepts, varying scope and sectors included, and discrepancies in indicators, not to speak of discussions of global and local consequences. The main thing that unites these reports usually are numbers used in assessing the progress or impact of penetration of digital technologies.
Therefore, it was very intriguing to find a book based on qualitative studies written by a British professor of digital cultures at the University of Sussex Tim Jordan. The author characterises it as a result of teaching-led research, stimulated by the discussions and questions of the students. Most probably this is the reason why the book projects the impression of deep sincerity and meticulous clarity in the applied concepts and approaches.
The book consists of ten chapters exploring several types of digital economic practices (chapters 2-6) and then generalising the findings on different levels of abstraction (chapters 7-10). The first introductory chapter is devoted to the explanation of the main problems existing in the definition and conceptualisation of digital economy and the approach that the author employs throughout the book. This approach can be shortly characterised as exploration and analysis of digital economic practices as the main unit of analysis. Digital economic practices are defined as ’repeated and patterned habits of creating, exchanging and consuming a huge range of goods and commodities that make up the wealth of society.‘ (p. 13).
In the subsequent five chapters (2-6) we are introduced to extensive case studies of different economic practices, four of which deal with profit making cases and one is devoted to economic practices without profit (chapter 5). Each case is regarded as a complex of different economic practices involving different actors and actants. The actors have a varied range of purposes and motives to engage in a certain economic practice, but the whole case is hold together by the red thread of profit earned (or rather an enormous wealth acquired) by the major participant of the case. This focus on the leading actor, usually a large corporation, however, does not mean that it engages only in one type of economic practice. The author also does not loose the sight of other participants and their role in the process. All this complexity is presented in a coherent narative about a particular case with real and useful examples and helps to understand the digital economy much better than any other economic text. At least, that what has happened to me and I may assume that it is related to the fact that I am engaged with a Department of Digital Cultures and Communication at Vilnius University.
The first case explored profit making through offering searching and advertising services. It involves practices (or the initial point of views, from which practices emerge) of the searchers, advertisers and the corporation offering the services. In this case, as one can expect, we meet Google as a typical representative of the lot. The author follows up how the practices appear and are engaged in by each actor and how two distinct practices of search and advertising are bridged by search engine corporations (p. 31) and turned into monetization practices, preceeded by capitalising on surveillance of the search activities and data analysis. The case also brings up the issues of trust and privacy and the main practice leading to profits - reading communities to target ads. Of course, it is acknowledged that this practice is not the only economic practice of the Google, but this corporation is used to explain this particular practice. A similar monetization practice is characteristic of different social media, which also derive profit from 'selling the audience to advertisers'. In this case, the bridge is built between the ways social media users build their identities and communities, which are then alienated from the users' social practices and monetized through ads. This case is again exemplified by Facebook as a typical and most successful corporation, but the author presents other actors applying the same practice. The value sold to advertisers is much more sensitive than the one offered by the Google, so it involves much more sophisticated methods in attracting and maintaining the audiences so as not to alienate them. All social media platform owners are aware of the danger of compromising users' experience and put efforts into visualising regulatory contexts in which they operate.
A different type of economic practices is presented in the case of disintermediation related to such platforms as Uber or Airbnb, which promise an easy and direct contact between a service provider (a taxi driver or a landlord) and a user without mediating institutions (taxi companies or hotels). Platforms take the place of the disintemediated institutions and derive income from commissions for their services. This type of making profit is quite problematic as many such platforms need to attract enough self-employed service providers and their clients to be able to make profit and to find the loops to avoid existing regulations applied to the particular service industry. As recently was proved, this type of disintermediation causes different types of problems for their workers (Bernal, 2021), for competition and for the communities, in which they operate.
The author presents digital economic practices of online gaming as a particular case that is different from the other three as it clearly capitalizes on the gaming activity and creativity of the players in a variety of ways. The author presents this case in Chapter 6, immediately afte the fifith one, in which he explores the economic practices without profit, as gaming industry combines 'free' and 'paid' access to games and capitalize on the voluntary activities of the players developing various aspects of games. This raises an interesting issue of labour in digital economy.
As I am myself involved in several digital practices without profit and have investigated some of them from a different perspective, I was very interested in chapter 5, explaining economics of free stuff, starting with free and open source software, looking into the activities of the World Wide Web Consortium, and wikis. The author has introduced the confusion of such categories as labour, play, activity, leisure, voluntary and paid (p. 87), which he tries to disentangle quite successfully in the final chapters of the book.
Chapter 7 is devoted to the analysis of these concepts that have become intertwined and confused in the digital economy, when the borders between different activities and roles have disappeared. When buying digital products on the internet, we only get a temporary and limited right of use. It is sometimes quite impossible to decide where the production ends and consumption starts and how consumption turns into production. New names for the activities on the internet have been coined, such as produsage, playbour and co-creation (p. 123), and new theories about the digital capitalism and exploitation have emerged.
The author makes sense of all this confusion using the concepts of digital economic practice and value, property and profit (p. 139). People and institutions engage in various actions using digital technologies for the value they derive from them in whatever form. In the process they use and create information intentionally or not, working as volunteers, or having fun and spengind leisure time or being employed. More value is created as a result of their interactions with each other. This information and value become the foundation of property and provide possibilties of monetization and profit, or remain in the realm of non-profit. Though the author has produced a neat model of digital economy, the whole chapter 9 is devoted to the sore problems of it. These problems emerge in several speres: jurisdiction, taxation, labour, exploitation, and commons.
The book is not the ultimate or final word in the digital economy, but it definitely provides a convincing picture of present day digital economic practices. They have not emerged outside general economic contexts of capitalism and are governed by its principles. But many forms of control have been found already and others will be created in the future. At the end of the book we read: 'The digital economy is ultimately a vampire and must be staked by a democratised digital culture.'. This seems to be a good direction for action.
The book is targeting academic audience, lecturers, students, researchers of several disciplines in social sciences and technology. As it is written without using excessive jargon of any kind and is a rather readable text, I hope that it will reach wider audience and make more people reflect on their digital economic practices.
- Bernal, N. (February 19, 2021). Uber has lost in the Supreme Court. What happens next? Wired.
- OECD. (2020). Digital economic outlook 2020. OECD.
- UNCTAD. (2019). Digital economy report 2019. Value creation and capture: Implications for developing countries. United Nations.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2021). Review of: Jordan, Tim. The digital edonomy. Polity Press, 2020. Information Research, 26(2), review no. Rxxx [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revsxxx.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.