The digital economy is not working.

Democracy, freedom, and prosperity were the original promises of the internet. The world wide web was a game changer; people could now collaboratively build and create the world they desired. The gains would be universal, and in the new internet economy, everyone would have a place. Those who faced barriers in the offline world along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity or ability would find new opportunities. Indeed, these digital technologies would enable people to transcend the geographic boundaries that constrained their ability to pursue the lives they valued, enabling them to acquire more social, economic, and political power.

However, current reality is miles apart from that vision. In place of a democratized world wide web, we live in a winner-take-all digital economy, where the gains of the winners only get larger and the losers are progressively more immiserated. A level playing field—as promised by tech founders and investors alike—has failed to materialize. The challenges working people have long faced have been compounded in the digital economy. Indeed, promises of economic mobility, access, and flexibility which underpinned digital imaginaries of future work and security ring hollow. Disruptions in the world of work have instead delivered economic precarity, employer overreach, and the normalization of endless hustle for many. Platform work has calcified structural inequalities around the world, particularly relegating women workers, especially from the Global Majority World, to the lowest labor market segments. The digital economy thus has not only failed to deliver, but has exploited racial/ethnic, gender, and geopolitical hierarchies in the process.

Towards a More Responsible Digital Innovation Regime

As countries in the Global South have long been plundered for labor and precious natural resources, today’s digital economy is extracting data from its citizens. And as the new dirty jobs of the digital economy are outsourced to the Global South—for instance, content moderators and data labelers in Kenya and the Philippines scouring the dregs of social media to protect the public from extreme and graphic material—we are witnessing the construction of a new age of digital sweatshops, where the most dangerous work is offshored to be performed by workers with the fewest protections.

The tech industry likes to present itself as presiding over a new industrial revolution that will change the world forever. It’s a more apt comparison than they might realize. As Dr. Onoho’Omhen Ebhohimhen of the Nigeria Labour Congress explained to us, noting that the effects of the digital economy, such as algorithmic management of workers, “is akin to reproducing the first Industrial Revolution, where workers were bonded and locked up, worked for 20 hours or more in a day, and had no right to a family life.”

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Digital innovation can disrupt economies in favor of collaborative, solidarity-based forms of decent and quality work, where all can flourish. So, how might we democratize the digital economy so workers have agency and are able to shape the future alongside the technologists and venture capitalists of Silicon Valley?

Here are three ways to build a future of work we want in the digital age:

  1. Build New Standards for Decent Work in the Digital Age
  2. Build A Feminist Digital Economy
  3. Build Better Tech by Listening to Working People

Read the full article about fixing the digital economy by Ritse Erumi and Anita Gurumurthy at Stanford Social Innovation Review.