Tacit Urban Research Network: Interview
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Full interview at this link
Niyati Dave: I’d like to start by talking about how the project itself started and how it came to be a part of TURN?
Aditi Surie: My project had started at IIHS through the Internal Research Grant in 2015 with two other colleagues, an economist and a mixed media professional. At that point, the focus wasn’t necessarily on the informal economy but it definitely informed our decision to start the project. I think all of us were just struck by how everyone was calling Uber and app-based economies very new.
There was a lot of hype around these platforms, so we really wanted to figure out how to gauge the newness.
That was really our question– looking to ask an employment transition question around this economy.
What does it mean to be part of this new economy?
Is this model new, for the city of Bangalore and for India?
At that point we didn’t really know anything about what the transition meant, and then as we progressed, we started to learn just how important it was going to be for us to understand how these apps were changing the nature of employment in the informal economy, to think through how the entry of these apps affected the existing job market.
One of the main reasons we started looking at this was because, discursively, precarity or precarious work is one of the major concepts that gets tacked along with Uber or any kind of gig work. And it really struck us how the discourse of the informal economy and app-based precarious work were very similar in many ways.
But, it seemed like–as so many gaps in knowledge-making and discourse-making are–a northern and southern difference.
It’s only in about 2016, 2017, did we start to find scholarship that was trying to bridge these two conceptual worlds. This conceptual inquiry is an interest area for me as well.
I think the precarious work discourse doesn’t take into account what’s been happening in the rest of the world. It doesn’t want to. I think people in the Global North don’t want to learn how people in the South live– which is to live adaptively, which is to live in this very agile form.
I think these questions of theory, and the question of the kind of employment and work Uber was creating really hit upon how these economies and societies are set up.
As I started getting into these questions, the project fit very well with the framing of TURN, which was looking at what forms of informal employment were hiding in the incumbent industry of how services in the city worked before they got digitized onto apps. Additionally, what is the technology model or model of digital capitalism also keeping hidden, because there is very compelling evidence to say that there’s a lot of unpaid labour, that takes place on these platforms, the true kind of employment relationship is hidden. That’s how the project materialized and it continues to tackle these questions.
Dave: So, conceptually, do you think that thinking through the idea of tacitness, helps in some way to make those north-south connections or contrasts between say, precarity and informality? This is something that’s been coming up with other people’s work, in that informality has a very specific way of coding things within a binary, whereas, the idea of ‘tacitness’ perhaps allows for some more nuance or grey areas between? Do you think that’s something that you found coming up in your work?
Surie: It’s been really difficult for me to think about how the tacit frame is going to work for this project. In my mind makes complete sense, because I think it works in a complementary fashion to the technology question and to what I am going to call the ‘older’ informal economy (though it exists at the same moment as these technology companies do). I think the way I am trying to answer that question of what is tacit and what does the conceptual universe of tacitness do, is by contrasting it with how digital capitalism works. This might be a frame that I drop later, might be a frame that I keep. I’m also thinking through these questions.
The whole premise of how digital capitalism works is that relies on networks and nodes of information which is nothing new for an economy like ours, or for that matter for economies in general. Especially when we try to understand city economy, we expect all sorts of social, educational, political capital to work through networks and nodes and to spread in this fashion. So, I have been trying to understand how that informal economy tacitness parallels digital capitalism in terms of the networks that are created through the apps or through the kind of relationship that the app in that network is creating.
I am looking more at what’s intangible and, codified, because I think, it also works well with the metaphor of technology since it’s equally hard to break down what is happening with these technology companies as it is. Part of what I’m trying to understand is what kind of processes are codified into the platforms because the app is creating its own economy, its own marketplace which is, right now, completely unregulated by any force other than what the company and their venture capitalists want.
The idea is to also look at whether we can make similar claims about the informal economy.
For example, one of the questions I have been trying to grapple with is, how was the wage set for a service worker in the informal economy and how does that factor in for the driver, if he’s comparing the kind of labor markets he has available to him, both digital or offline.
Basically, I have been trying to read what tacitness by trying to look at what information flows, how that information flows, how the networks update, how those prices are set. More at