Dealing with Credits, Gambling with Data: Digital Piracy in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and Its Potential for Urban Labor Struggles in Digital Capitalism.

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 17:30
Oral Presentation
Hannah SCHILLING, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany
The spread of new information technologies is praised as tool for development, centered in urban hubs worldwide. The digital transformation produces work arrangements that are characterized by their temporariness and ambivalent work status (Nachtwey/Staab, 2016). Scholars in African urbanism stress the creative appropriation of these technological devices by the population in informal activities (Cheneau-Loquay 2012). This paper goes beyond a discussion of the inventiveness of “the African dweller” and uses recent debates on the gig economy (Scholz, 2016) as lenses to understand the political economy of these new forms of informalized work. Starting from here, this paper problematizes the potential for struggles that popular digital economies in cities give rise to, on the basis of an empirical case study of practices of young dwellers in mobile phone economies in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. It suggests the notion of piracy (Simone 2006) to embed these “workers’” mundane practices in the political economy of digital capitalism. To what extend does their reassembling of materials and resources illustrate forms of “quiet encroachment” (Bayat, 2010) and an appropriation of these infrastructures (Hentschel/Angelo, 2015)?

At the one hand, the phone credit sellers, online scammers and smartphone traders in Abidjan rely upon the multiplication of ID’s and recycling of numbers and data, which can be understood as techniques to re-insert themselves in circuits of wealth by hijacking logics of capital and conventions of work and exchange (Newell, 2012; König, 2014). At the same time, these ‘workers’ enable through their practices an infrastructure for ICT firms to diffuse their services and devices. These capitalize on the precarious workers’ labor and capital and make use of their social infrastructure as dwellers to increase benefits (Mann/Meagher, 2016). To reveal this tension is an important step to understanding workers’ struggles that take place beyond registers of legal rights and formal organization.