The uberization of academic work

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The term “uberization” it is often use to describe how the logic of technology, and mainly, the platformization of society, has pervaded our everyday activities: from ordering a car, to book hotels, and to buy/order food But its use has extended to the educational and academic real, among others. In the daily slang, it refers to the disattachment of any activity from traditional structures.

My 15 year experience in the entrepreneurs’ world and my academic experience showed me that both had in common conditions of uncertainty and even risk-taking decisions. . I thought the knowledge and education world would be safer, but I found the same conditions of building your own path. When starting a Project or business ins an option, sure it’s fun, and in the tech industry, if you count with funding and you play the game, cool. The thing is, today, more and more industries are presenting this logic.

In “The Uberification of university”, Gary Hall denominates “para-academic” to those professionals who teach part time in the shareeconomy and look for other ways to support their research, in the same way that musicians look for stable jobs due to the lack of money in the music industry (Hall, 2016, p. 21). This involves doing creative work, living a fullfilling life and comparatively free of the postwelfare capitalism” surveillance and control. These kind of professionals involve a small sector of the population that is still interested in ideas and research, but now, from an “outside” or position of exteriority. They are “critical of institutions that employ them but pressured to make of their work an expression of who they are and market it, and at the same time have little time to think what that actually means”. It’s really concerning, and I can’t even tell you when you understand this after doing a PhD.

In particular, beacuse there is fine line dividing the market world, ruled by money, and the educational/academic. But this innovation does not only bring consequences for education workers, but also for the education world in its whole.

The italian Silvio Lorusso talks about an entreprecariat, which describes a “new low creative classin which entrepreneurship is not an option, but rather, an answer to precarization and to new social atmosphere This new condition has been characterized by entrepreneurs such as Reid Hoffman, Linkedin founder, as being your own entrepreneur (he wrote the book “The Startup of You”), or thinking of yourself as a startup Each person turns into a Brand, a business in itself and needs to get funding for its own project (true), in an environment in which risk is the new normal

Silvio Lorusso
“Homo creative” charachteristics

Guy Standing refers to this as “precariat”, and its relation to the current configurations of capitalism, mainly the inequality in the distribution of wealth. While this concentration in little hands occurs, the labor force has quadrupled, giving birth to a majoritary social class that lives and works in precarious conditions. Standing argues that these people has “no work narrative in their life” meaning, they can’t say “i’m becoming this”. It’s the people that work in conditions of total inestability and uncertainty, much of their work is not payed or acknowledged. The thing is that, in its majority, are people more qualified than the work they can get. Some refer to this as “laboral flexibilization”, but is actually the struction of work as such, as an activity of 6-8 hours. Companies are worried about this, and governments don’t know if they are because they are actually promoting frameworks to teach abilities with a “fast laboral possibility”.

Richard Sennet has been studying work for a long time, and says tthe following “Learning a skill in any craft is a long and slow process” To this points the famous “10000 hours rule”, according to which, practicing during a sustained period of time (3 to 4 hours a day, during 5 to 7 years), you can master an activity such as playing an instrument or programming.

The Guardian

Another example are those abilities that are built as a byproduct of a job: like speaking a new language, like the indians at call centers, that after having those precaious job could actually build something on their own (cause they could speak another language). In that way, they could add value to the service economy of their country, and get off a basic job answering calls Organizations of all type should aim at this , not only learning for a new job but for incorporating a skill that will help them beyonf the current context (is only about programming?). . Sennet also criticizes that employers now look for a quick fix, in the sense that they teach they workers new tools that won’t turn into new skills, because they don’t understand or care about such process. This is directly related with the conditions of the current capitalism –yes, he talks about “neoliberalism”, just like Standing-. But, developing this kind of talent and abilities for the work force requires not only money but long term thinking, something that governments and companies are not willing to do. The consequence, Sennet says, is the inevitable “deskilling” of society.

Now, going back to precarization in academy, it certainly is a restraining framework that makes harder the construction of academic identities, crystallized in the ( scarcity of call for stable jobs Castilllo also mentions a brief from the US congress of 2014, which revealed that the number of “just-in-time” professors, meaning, on demand hired professors, with no stable or contractual relation,) were half of faculty In this point technology and online teaching platforms are now crucial. This is why I put the title “uberization”, due to the lack of calls for stable jobs, the downsizing in institutions, inevitably new options to universities emerge.

Doctoral, postdoc studenst and staff at Uuniversity of California, NYU and the New School, on strike

These two images show how precarization happens in two developed and top cities with universities of high prestige. Maybe it is a characteristic of the current economy and education, which correlates with the scarcity of well payed Jobs in the sector.

But even when this scene is concerning the amount of people that keep joining academy is growing, and doubling each year Therefore, even with adverse conditions, it is still a desirable place to work. I don’t know if we could say “ideal”, but at least better than others Maybe some don’t understand why, but even in companies there are things that can’t be done, and which are part of an identity that the academic and scientific world offer. Let’s remember that in this industry (science, academy, universities) here where the «knowledge economy» (I hate that word, but..) started.

In the United States, since the 2000s, the amount of people of +25 years that start a PhD program doubled to 21 millions; and also the number of doctorates (4.5 millones,according to an oficial census data of that country) In Argentina, the increase of programs studies in recent studies, according to the news outlet Infobae, was 400% (I don’t have more data at this momento regarding phd programs in the country).

Royal Society (2010)

On the one hand, this increase in a profession that is having less and less opportunities (doctorates and masters to teach), for its unique personal fullfillment leads to what Judith Butler characterized as a problem in placement, at Brown University in 2021 She argued that in the questions she received regarding professionals that afford their own masters and doctoral programs, like the European Graduate School where she teaches (also my case here, though here is half payed by the University and half by myself as I graduated there as BA in 2006). On the other hand, the growth of the para-academic, just as Standing said, is inevitable, as it is the proliferation of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS) or independent platforms to teach. MOOCS were higly criticized untill two years ago, when the sudden panemic forced universities to accelerate their digitization process For those of us who are outside institutions, some of these platforms allowed us a certain work path, and converting our expertise in knowledgeable “content” During 2021 I saw how universities begged their teachers to adopt online tools for teaching, in order to think their classes outside the classroom[On this subject «By the Numbers: MOOCs in 2020]

Class Central

To conclude, the current situation of academy and work in general paves the way for uberization in almost any field. Also, to get a place in academy you need to do many non remunerated activities just to get papers and winning your place in the cue. You would think that this helps you or at last gives you a guarantee to enter to a department or a job, but it doesn’t Many times, is just for waiting the confirmation that you just have no place, like Butler said You would think that this was just my case, as someone who had experience in the digital/tech world and decided to enter a PhD, but it is broader. This is something that I don’t understand in Argentina, the science and technology system can afford to pay someone for 10 years doing a doctorate (not me), and then give them no place, and not taking advantage of that “skills”. Inversely, they have no mechanisms to include someone used to work independently like me. You just need to be part of the burocracy. I can’t understand it! I don’t get it, i see so many people here and abroad that enters that precariety loop. I can’t think that big companies or institutions can afford to loose that talent In higher education , even though is more frequent, it happens a lot in social sciences. But let’s remember that today social scientists also master technology and interdisciplinary experience. I don’t think our politicians and managers are thinking seriously about this, or presenting alternatives to make it better Untill that moment, no policy regarding the “knowledge economy” in this country will be effective.

References

Butler, J. (2020) Debt, Guilt, Responsibility, Obligation. Universidad de Brown (FECHA) https://events.brown.edu/event/208521

Castells, M. (2010). The Information Age: Culture, Economy and Society. Vol. III End of Millenium. Blackwell Publishing

Castillo, J.J. (2018) La precariedad del trabajo académico en la Universidad (UcomplutenseMadrid) publicado en Papeles de relaciones ecosociales y cambio global 75 Nº 140 2017/18, pp. 75-84

Hall, G. (2016). The uberification of university. Minnesota, USA: University of Minnesota Press. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-uberfication-of-the-university

Silvio Lorusso Entreprecariat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8b-yLp9AN-M

Guy Standing Precariat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnYhZCUYOxs

The Royal Society (2010) The cientific century: securing our future prosperity https://royalsociety.org/~/media/royal_society_content/policy/publications/2010/4294970126.pdf

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