The inequalities of the digital society

Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, Marion Fourcade invites us to better understand the mechanisms of the digital economy and its impact on individuals. Through her diagnosis, she calls us to become aware of the extent of the effects of digital technology on inequalities. Interview conducted by Lauriane Gorce.


- As the pandemic affects North America as well as Europe and Asia, what is your sociologist's perspective on the management of the pandemic in the coronavirus?

Containment is the main strategy used to obtain this famous "flattening of the curve" of coronavirus cases. It is necessary to avoid hospital overcrowding and thousands of additional deaths. But if the people stay at home, the economy comes to a standstill. That's why a large number of countries have also implemented policies of "flattening recession", by preventing layoffs and evictions, supporting the wages and incompressible expenses of enterprises, and by prohibiting firms from benefiting from State aid to distribute dividends. This is what the France,Great Britain, Denmark, Germany. The United States is for the moment very backward in these two areas. On the health side, the government the federal government is refusing to assume its role as coordinator of the health crisis. It is the States, or even counties or cities, which impose containment. But if the borders between states are porous, everyone remains at the mercy of contagion from States with high levels of contamination and also from those with the most lax policies. In addition, they are forced to give themselves a fierce competition for medical supplies(masks, respirators). It is possible that these inconsistencies and lack of leadership at the national level considerably prolong the epidemic. On the economic side, the US Congress has also voted a major programme to support the economy, but without offering any employment guarantees.The result is that the economic crisis is already much more than just an economic crisis destructive in this country. The number of unemployed people has increased by almost 10 million over the last two weeks (normally around 200.000 new unemployed per week). This is partly due to the fact that the main support programme for workers is through unemployment insurance, but even taking this into account, these figures are absolutely unprecedented. Moreover, the big industries, through the lobbies, seem to be the main beneficiaries of the US tax "package". None of this was necessary. It's an abominable waste.

The coronavirus pandemic also raises interesting questions in relation to my own work on the digital economy. For example, the urgency has already greatly accelerated public acceptance of the health system digital surveillance. Often the transition takes place without many guarantees democratic (the Israeli government, for example, has authorised the use of a tool originally designed for the fight against terrorism, without parliamentary debate). For example, applications for tracking infected people by geolocation are becoming a standard tool in the fight against the epidemic, used in many countries and very popular with individuals terrified of the risks of contamination.

- What does an individual look like, given what you call the market?

The post-war period was dominated by mass production and consumption, where the profits depended mainly on economies of scale. Since the 1970, there was a gradual shift to more flexible, specialised and more efficient production often niche. As the marketing and the knowledge of consumers, we have started to extract profits by working each market segment differently, based on (among other things) the willingness to pay of individuals. Small variations on a product or service can lead to wide price variations in market segments different.

The digital economy pursues this logic in an even more extreme way and even more disaggregated. Personal digital data allows companies to (as well as the States) not only to know people's consumption profile, but also their risk profile (financial, medical) or citizenship. The organisations seek to understand the individual based on the slices of the behaviour that concerns them... It then becomes the sum of all its "dividus" : those restricted parts of his person that each institution, public or private, will work in depth and manipulate - either to extract value from it, or to make savings, either to optimise the distribution of resources, etc.... Often, this work involves assigning a score, or a mark, which makes it possible to position the dividu relative to the others. In my research with Kieran Healy we use the term "übercapital" or "eigencapital" to refer to the commensurability of people as a result of their interactions with the economy digital. The term capital refers to the profits - material or symbolic - that are made from the use of digital technology that individuals can possibly derive for themselves from these positions.

- What happens to the individual in the digital society?

Target of incessant calculation of scores that impact every area of his life, the individual must above all be active, committed. Take Instagram or Facebook: your "position" will only be visible to other users if the system considers you to be a "job" as a priority over the hundreds of other possibilities. This score of Priority depends on the frequency and intensity of your past interactions with other users and with the system. If you neglect these services, they will not also neglect. We have the same principle with credit rating in the United States : you can manage your finances in a very conservative way, by never borrowing for example. If you do this, the credit system will not know you, you will be invisible (like the person who does not interact with others on Instagram). This means that he or she will have no other "value" to represent you other than the one calculated by its algorithm. In uncertainty your credit rating, if never need a loan (e.g. caror property), will be very bad and you will pay this loan more. The best way to improve it is to generate a credit history, i.e. to use regularly one or more credit cards. Basically, you have to let yourself "financialiser", just as you must allow yourself to be "digitised", if you want to"financialise" legitimately exist in these systems. You have to be constantly interaction on terms imposed by the organisations, and let you get to know them and measured by algorithms that remain for the most part a secret commercials. The production of personal data becomes essential for access to a number of things: insurance, credit, online social life ... and also increasingly determines access to certain jobs or promotions at work. If you refuse this rather forced "exchange", your exclusion will not be total but the terms of your inclusion will be less advantageous, socially or economically (e.g. some health insurance companies in the UnitedStates offer preferential rates to Fitbit users). All these mechanisms of commensuration and prioritisation order the company in a very particular: I use the term 'ordinalisation' to describe this process.

- The younger generations, you will notice, live in a different moral economy. How does this translate?

Without having carried out systematic research, here is what I perceive. In the generation of my children, many of them act as if the measures produced by social networks reflected their value in society in a way. The number of followers is very important to them. The ratio between subscribers and people being followed is even more so: it is essential to be followed by more than people you don't follow, at the risk of being seen as uninteresting, unattractive or pathetic."Members of the so-called "Generation Z" are developing often very complex strategies for influencing these measures: they use management and advisory platforms (sometimes for a fee),management and advisory mechanisms, and reciprocity ("my girlfriend follows me, I follow her,but if she doesn't like my publications, I follow her, but if she doesn't like my publications, I follow her"). It is in my interest to dissociate myself from it"), strategies for mutual enrichment between social media (such as going to Tinder or TikTok to gain subscribers, Instagram) ... This is not simply an "ordinalisation" of individual reputation: the market offers algorithm bypass strategies that create or reinforce reputation inequalities. Everything can be monetised, including the number of subscribers and the promotion of profiles and publications. For their part, firms use interaction gaming strategies to retain the users and capture more value: this is called technological"persuasion". »

- Does digital rhyme with inequality?

Sociology traditionally thinks of inequalities as being mainly anchored in economic capital, cultural capital, and categories such as the gender or race. But it is clear that today we are facing a plethora of systems that produce capital and use it to differentiate between the individuals from each other. How then to think about inequalities? It is complicated. Some vectors of inequality are weakening, and others are emerging. Take the example of banks: in the 1960s, women as well asAfrican-Americans had great difficulty accessing credit. The reason? To manage risk, one excluded entire categories of people. A married woman in France does not could not take out aloan without her husband's consent. All this has been fortunately swept away, for the most part, by anti-discrimination laws. Today, the risk calculation is mainly based on numerical data and is individualised. The result is that not only are we "financializing" much more of people, but there is also much less discrimination between categories of people identity and identification (such asgender or ethnicity). On the other hand, one creates a new way of stratifying the company, based on the behaviour (and rating) of credit, which partially overlaps with these categories. Instead of a clear boundary between included and excluded, there is a sliding scale between good and bad credit, or between those who exercise and those who don't, those who lose weight and those who lose time on the internet and those who use it productively. Those who are all at the bottom of these scales will obtain very unfavourable terms of trade, whereas that they will be very favourable for those at the very top. This is why it is necessary to really think about the digital economy (and insofar as it is based on digitally collected data, the financial economy is part of the economy digital) in terms of inequality - not only in terms of privacy.

- Under these same influences, how is the state transforming itself?

Vast subject! The State is both closer and further away: it is immediately in my computer via the internet, but if I want to talk to it, talk to a real person, it becomes difficult. The state is more visible and less visible. Virginia Eubanks the well described in his book Automating Inequality : by automating the decisions of the social services, for example, the state may be able to improve the speed of delivery, become more efficient. The problem is that these decisions are all the more difficult to challenge because no one understands how the algorithms. If they find themselves refusing services or social benefits to particularly vulnerable populations, who is responsible?Indeed, many administrations have reverted to methods of treatment after disastrous experiences in which inequalities, particularly in the racial discrimination, were greatly enhanced by the application of these technologies.

That said, the digitalisation of state services is making good progress everywhere. At the same time because the state itself is collecting a lot of new data, and because the market offers him some. The interpenetration of the State and the market has always existed, but the abundance of data creates new possibilities. In the United States in particular the flow of data between the state and private companies is lacking a lot of clarity. For example, the State does not normally have the right to know geolocalised movements of individuals without a judicial warrant. But nothing prevents it from using private companies to do so. Recently, the Internal Revenue Service has negotiated a contract with the Palantir company, to detect tax fraud using geolocation. There are also many situations where private companies or foundations are involved philanthropic organizations offer platform solutions to replace the basic public services, such as education. All this is sometimes very attractive for local governments, especially in times of fiscal crisis. (For example, the Zuckerberg Foundation provides American schools with a platform of online education). However, the consequences of this are not yet clear these dynamics - what they mean for the future of the state and forms of solidarity that it represents.

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