Interrogating Digital Platform Workers, Dark Kitchens, and the Right to the City

Dominant Silicon Valley corporations and mobile telephony define the choreography of daily city life. The following text reflects on the interstitial spatial practices of low-wage, itinerant workers in the Global South – particularly motorcycle couriers in Cape Town, South Africa, who facilitate online food orders via delivery platforms – and questions the role of twenty-first century sociopolitical, technological, and design practices. Much like the Internet of Things (IoT), cities amass power structures, intentionally or not. This hegemony, a new monohumanist Imperial Gaze, perpetuates structural violence, social inequality, and environmental injustice.1 In this regard, the reciprocal exchange between human and technology or the physical and the virtual within present-day urban design or placemaking, is blurred – marketing professionals refer to this as a »seamless transition« for customers between virtual and real spaces. The places for human inhabitation or space of human settlement are increasingly delimited by our access to the digital. In this sense not only do social apps like Facebook, Foursquare, or Instagram broadcast our preferred places: public meeting places, private dwelling places, or communal social spaces to other people as highlighted by researchers such as Tim Creswell or Mark Graham.

Maxwell Mutanda — Jun 14, 2021

Geographic information systems (GIS) predetermine the use of space. This change in the built environment is hidden from the users of most mobile applications. However, it is increasingly apparent in the everyday lives of those who facilitate these apps. The labor geographies of digital platform workers express how algorithmic control reaches beyond the screen.

This paper considers the invisible workers of the so-called »gig economy« as a means to analyze the collective city – the commons both digital and physical – and the design of everyday things in keeping with Rudofsky’s argument against architecture »of merchant princes and princes of blood.«2  Labor geographies in the city offer a nonwestern, nonstereotypical approach to spatial injustice and augmented reality as a redress to »White Monopoly Capital« and the colonizing gaze of the »Dot-Com City,« which perpetuates historic land appropriation, discrimination, displacement, and containment. Thereby magnifying Henry Lefebvre’s notion of »the Right to the City« and bidding »farewell to an idea« of benign capitalism, modernism, or utopia as defined by neoliberalism (neocolonialism).3

In »The Order of the City,«  Diana Agrest states, »a design practice must take the city as a point of departure for the development of new critical concepts, which reveal the limits and weaknesses of both the urban ideology of the Modern movement and the simple reversal of this ideology. The city is the source of a new vocabulary, and a more powerful syntax of architecture.«4 However, whether power remains in the hands of established systems is an important consideration in developing any new concepts. As such, how the spatial implications of digital technology in urbanism is seen: that is to say distributed, networked, fragmented, or splintered (to borrow the nomenclature put forward by Steve Graham and Simon Marvin), it reproduces feudalistic divisions that separate the haves and the have-nots. The city is experienced via separate digital dashboards as well as segregated spaces.

Shared Data

The fact that digital technologies have significantly impacted the way in which urban placemaking has developed is not in question, particularly regarding digital platforms that redefine the choreography of daily life and labor geographies. Platform urbanism is a direct

result of the increased distribution of internet-enabled mobile telephones, so-called smartphones, and the proliferation of digital infrastructure. Both have changed the way communities engage with established forms of transit, and commercial or recreational spaces in cities. As Susan Leigh Star points out, digital platforms also reflect how digital technology is built on top of existing foundations.5 For example, when you perform a Google search, its algorithm sits upon an existing archive of electronic information. Equally, we cannot use food delivery platforms like Uber Eats or Deliveroo without there being an established network of restaurants in a pre-existing community. Nevertheless, the city today is increasingly dominated by Silicon Valley corporations, such as the e-commerce website Amazon, which together with the use of mobile technology in communities, delimit everyday places in new ways. Platform urbanism – the collective name given to this new hegemony of private enterprise – is nevertheless not immune to the Imperial Gaze or »structural violence« that has thus far defined the inequality of the urban condition or human settlement in large part due to the price of smartphones or an internet connection.6 As the digital systems that we rely on multiply, proliferate, and become increasingly ubiquitous, the built environment in turn becomes increasingly connected to an augmented reality: as e-commerce adoption in communities rises, footfall in shopping malls decreases, leading to vacancies and eventual dereliction; as ride-hailing proliferates, public transit system usage readjusts while road congestion increases; and as the use of transnational »home-sharing« via platforms like Airbnb, or flexible workspaces like WeWork increases, so too do the disruptions to local real estate and housing markets.7 In other words, every individual user on a digital platform is a participant in urban planning. For better or worse, through the collective decision-making or wisdom of the crowd generated online, communities are upvoting urban design changes with every click-to-buy on platforms.

The ostensible speed, accuracy, and efficiency experienced by the privileged users of digital platforms belies the lack of consideration in urban planning that relegates digital platform workers to fend for themselves in cities ill-prepared to cater to their spatial requirements.8 Although the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a renegotiation of streets and sidewalks to accommodate shifting perspectives on shared mobility, the legislation of space still favors a minority elite class. Moreover, within the communal spaces of what are known commercially as shared kitchens and colloquially as dark or ghost kitchens, restaurants are increasingly streamlining to service off-site customers.9 These so-called virtual restaurants are increasingly never-seen spaces without dining rooms, or even a dedicated commissary staff that are shared among many desperate restaurant cuisines and brands.10 The full-service restaurant segment isn’t predicted to recover from the pandemic until 2025.11

Shared Spaces

The drive to co-opt digital technologies in city making is not limited to the relationship between private individuals and private corporations. Paralell to the rise of platform urbanism, local municipalities and national governments have also been consumed by a state-sponsored appetite for the boldly titled, elusive »smart city,« wherein the day-to-day operations of city life such as asset management, resource distribution, and service utilities are wholly operated electronically through interrelated networks of big data collection and analysis systems similar to those that routinely define digital platforms.12 In this light, smart urbanism is akin to postwar planning principles. Overwhelmingly, most city fathers in sub-Saharan Africa subscribe to the orthodox interpretation of smart cities (as well as platform urbanism), which presupposes that digital technology infrastructure is the progenitor of reordered cities that develop synchronously with the alleviation of social and economic inequality. Particularly in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) where investment in, and instructions for, making cities »smart« indiscriminately pervaded policy and enterprise, as evidenced by the production and delivery of landmark digital infrastructure such as the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable/South Africa Far East (SAT-3/WASC/SAFE) undersea high-speed, fiber-optic cable system and a panoply of fourth generation long-term evolution (4G LTE) cellular base stations.13 This infrastructure network has transformed the urban geography of cities so much so that traffic management for roadworks to facilitate underground cable and duct installation is now quite ordinary. Real-time, location-based systems and services, one of the main properties of smart cities, have affected these investments. However shared data does not automatically result in ideal shared spaces.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Interrogating Digital Platform  Workers, Dark Kitchens,  and the Right to the City

Motorcycle couriers waiting at the intersection of Buitenkant Street and Mill Street, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Maxwell Mutanda

This development during the pandemic, as in the before Times, is a harbinger of nonplaces: spaces for automation, wherein automation is a euphemism for human exploitation. More than just liminal spaces on the sidelines, or rather in the background, this data-driven development of architecture is responsible for what Ian Buchanan describes as »designed and intended for the frictionless passage of a nameless and faceless multitude.«14 Spaces for machines: wherein machines are low-wage laborers or rather the human infrastructure of electronic spaces and urban places.

Urban governance in this regard is still overwhelmingly bounded by capitalism and greed, replicating the development of colonial infrastructures. As Sylvia Tamale highlights, »companies like Facebook and Google are the twenty-first century’s equivalents of the nineteenth-century chartered companies such as the Imperial British East Africa Company, the Royal Niger Company, or the German East Africa Company. All these worked to establish control of different parts of the continent on behalf of imperialist states.«15 A sentiment similar to what Achille Mbembe calls »an explicit kinship between plantation slavery, colonial predation and contemporary forms of resource extraction and appropriation«.16 Therefore, in the fight for urban space, this relationship is still defined by the extraction of human-driven data and the appropriation of human labor.

Maxwell Mutanda is a pluridisciplinary researcher and visual artist whose data visualization and architectural practice investigates the role of globalization, climate, and technology within the built environment. Maxwell studied Architecture at the Bartlett, University College London and is the 2020 MSc in Sustainable Urban Development Sheehan Scholar at the University of Oxford. Maxwell Mutanda is also supported by a 2020 grant recipient of the Graham Foundation.

  1. Johan Galtung: »Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,« in: Journal of peace research, September, 6(3), 1969, pp. 167–191.

  2. Sasha Costanza-Chock: Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015; Don Norman: The Design of Everyday Things, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988.

  3. Timothy J. Clark: Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; Alexandra Lange: The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism, Moscow: Stelka Press 2015. Henry Lefebvre: Le droit à la ville, Paris, Anthropos, 1968.

  4. Diana Agrest: »The Order of the City,« in: Irwin S.Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union, John Hedjuk et al.: The Education of an Architect, New York: Rizzoli 1987.

  5. Susan Leigh Star: »The Ethnography of Infrastructure,« in: The American behavioral scientist, November, 43(3), 1999, p. 382.

  6. Sarah Barns: Platform urbanism: negotiating platform ecosystems in connected cities, Singapore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020; Johan Galtung: Violence, Peace, and Peace Research, 1969.

  7. Ian Brossat: Airbnb, la ville ubérisée, Montreuil, Les éditions la ville brûle, 2018; Niels van Doorn: »A new institution on the block: On platform urbanism and Airbnb citizenship,« in: New media & society, 22(10), October 2020, pp. 1808–826.

  8. Caroline Perkins: »Ghost Kitchen Goals Speed, Accuracy and Efficiency,« in: Foodservice Equipment & Supplies: FE&S, Elmhurst 73(2), 2020, pp. 46–48, 50, 52–53.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Jonah Engel Bromwich: »Farm to Table? More Like Ghost Kitchen to Sofa,« in: The New York Times, December 24, 2019; Mike Isaac and David Yaffe-Bellany: »The Rise of the Virtual Restaurant,« in: The New York Times, August 14, 2019.

  11. Emma Liem Beckett: »Ghost kitchens could be a $1T global market by 2030, says Euromonitor,« in: Restaurant Dive, July 20, 2020.

  12. Dietmar Offenhuber and Carlo Ratti (eds.): Decoding the City: Urbanism in the Age of Big Data, Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2014; Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman: Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.

  13. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin: Telecommunications and the city: electronic spaces, urban places, London: Routledge, 1996; Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin: Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition, London: Routledge, 2001.

  14. Ian Buchanan: »Non-Places: Space in the Age of Supermodernity,« in: Ruth Barcan and Ian Buchanan (eds.): Imagining Australian Space: Cultural Studies and Spatial Inquiry, Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1999; Ian Buchanan: A Dictionary of Critical Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010.

  15. Sylvia Tamale: Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Cantley, Quebec: Daraja Press, 2020.

  16. Achille Membe as quoted in Sindre Bangstad and Torbjørn Tumyr Nilsen: »Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe« in: New Frame, September 5 2019.

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