The “on-demand” economy is built upon company strategies of arbitrage between worker autonomy and worker control. Using ethnographic and interview data, I show how these strategies undermine the economic theory that justifies the on-demand business model. The increased freedom and flexibility on offer to workers is countered by “softer” and less visible forms of workforce surveillance and control. These take hold through information asymmetries, which narrow workers’ decision-making capacities and thus undercut arguments for workers’ designation as independent contractors. However, I also show that these forms of control ultimately hinge on workers’ willingness to conform to the calculative rationalities that companies project onto them, and that workers’ motivations diverge from these company assumptions. I conclude by countering the notion of calculability with that of “qualculation,” an affective style of reasoning that workers employ in response to algorithmic workforce management and which highlights how on-the-job decisions are made within a shifting moral economy of work.
Published online November 10, 2017