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Digital platforms reshape social division of labor

CHEN SHENGXING and GUO FENGRONG | 2022-06-16 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A drone developed by e-commerce giant JD.COM carries a package and arrives at a goods delivery landing site in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Machines have become a crucial component of labor division in the digital economy age. Photo: XINHUANET

As an important force driving economic and social development in the digital era, digital platforms are gradually reshaping the social division of labor in terms of subjects, value principles, and organizational models, exerting profound influences on social production and life. In the broader context of digital globalization and global digitalization, deep analyses of the impact of digital platforms on the social division of labor are of great significance to scientifically formulating development strategies, effectively coping with the digital alienation of man and the digital divide, practically avoiding digital monopolies and preventing their spread, and advancing harmonious socioeconomic development. 

Diversifying the subject 
The rapid development of digital platforms has imperceptibly anthropomorphized data and machines, promoted the digital alienation of man, and diversified the subject in labor division from solely humans to multiple subjects including machines. 
For many years, humans were the only subjects in the division of labor in society. As digital platforms thrive, subjects have evolved. Through their outstanding features and social efficiency, and with the comprehensive use of digital technologies, digital platforms bring together the physical world and digital space, generating a high degree of online and offline fusion and extending human life from the simple physical world to a parallel with the digital realm.  
The dual physical-digital world constructed by digital platforms is based on the principle of supply-demand integration with algorithms at the core and data as the key production factor. In algorithmic data rules, humans and objects are unified as data, becoming data elements in the digital world to receive the same discipline of algorithms. 
In social activities constructed by digital platforms, platforms organize the activities and algorithms represent the law of labor division. As data, both humans and objects participate in the division of labor and collaborate through information exchange to complete production activities. In this process, data is formally anthropomorphized, while humans are alienated into digital instruments and audience symbols.
The increasingly deepened integration of digital platforms into social life and production have continuously given rise to new businesses and models, and superseded old ones. Amid the supersession, the scope of machines’ participation in the social division of labor keeps expanding, from replacing human manual and brain work to supplanting human intelligence. As their value and roles grow, machines have become a crucial component of labor division in the digital economy age. From a dominant-dominated relationship, human and machine interactions have progressively evolved into relationships with labor division and cooperation, and machines have been endowed with human characteristics. 
The “humanization” of data and machines, and the digital alienation of man, have presented new challenges and opportunities to the development of human society. 
On one hand, multiple subjects in the social division of labor and the supersession of humans by machines have emancipated humanity and offered people more options and free time. On the other hand, individuals pushed out of labor division by machines have unavoidably become “surplus.” Although the development of digital platforms will create more new businesses to digest the surplus, the time needed for this digestion poses grim challenges to the survival of surplus laborers. 
While the digital alienation of man brings individuals richer and more flexible paths to social existence and job choices, digital platforms’ feature of transcending time and space forces laborers to face more types and larger numbers of competitors. Under such circumstances, human employment and re-employment will scale up and accelerate. 
Altering value principles
Flourishing digital platforms have been altering value principles for the social division of labor, making it more component-based, fair, voluntary, and interest-oriented. 
Human society is, by nature, about the division of labor and organization. According to the logic of historical development, engaging in labor division and organization is a voluntary choice for human survival and development, essentially reflecting the human wisdom of progressing together through collaboration. 
Through the division of labor and cooperation, with each individual as a component of humankind, the resultant joint forces are far greater than the combined strength of all individuals, thus driving humanity steadily forward. 
However, in human society’s development, role choices in the division of labor are constantly transformed, which gradually evolves into tools for individuals to oppress each other as the competition between man and nature extends to involve rivalry between individuals. It also becomes a principle guiding the division of labor and organization in social development as well as a root cause for social inequality and an underlying constraint of human and social growth. 
The digital revolution led by artificial intelligence is fundamentally characterized by digitalization, network orientation, and intelligentization, in which such fields as physics, data, and biology interact and integrate. As the social division of labor is extended into cyberspace, individual participants in labor division contend with the dual attributes of the physical world and cyberspace. In other words, subjects in labor division are not only biological beings in the physical world, but are also sources of data in cyberspace and nodes in “digital chains” along which they empower each other. 
Digital chains have the basic feature of data homogeneity. Each node along the chain consists of independent, equal, interdependent, and mutually empowered individuals. Therefore, in the virtual world established by digital platforms, mutual empowerment and equitable cooperation are primary value criteria for the division of labor and organization. 
The physical and digital worlds reflect each other. Principles for the division of labor in the digital world will certainly be mirrored in the real, physical world, and drive thinking on labor division to evolve from a linear pattern to a networked one, and from macroscopic to microscopic, to ensure fairness, justice, and transparency of the division of labor. The faster digital platforms develop, the more profound the digital world’s influence will be on the principles for labor division in the physical world. 
With the continuous deepening and widening of digital platforms, principles for the division of labor will shift more quickly towards fairness and efficiency. Countries and societies that are more digitalized will see faster shifts. In parallel, countries and societies that are guided by networked thinking and by value principles focusing on microscopic rights for the division of labor will witness an accelerated digital revolution, alongside healthier and more rapid socioeconomic development.  
Reshaping organizational model
The development of digital platforms will buttress the coexistence of bureaucracy and the market system with the platform system, ultimately creating a fair, cooperative joint system. 
Through the lens of history, labor division’s organizational model is ever-changing. Since its beginning, human society has successively gone through the development stages of agriculture, industry, and services, with the according organizational models being: bureaucracy, the market system, and the platform system. 
Digital platforms’ reconstruction of the physical and digital worlds has changed the path of information exchange between man and nature, between individuals, and between individuals and organizations. As a result, social production has begun to value both scale and elaboration, and has reached out from the temporally and spatially limited physical world to the borderless digital world which transcends time and space. Amid these changes, digital algorithms have become a core element of the social division of labor and a remarkable feature of the digital economy era. 
With digitalized division of labor, existing organizational models can hardly adapt to the supply-demand synergy across time and space, and to the diverse, personalized needs of this age. Models with platform system characteristics, such as equality-based collaboration, value co-creation, interest sharing, openness, no boundaries, a horizontal nature, flatness, decentralization, and de-intermediation, are badly needed. 
The platform system crystalizes operational and organizational digital platform models. It is a new type of organizational model based on labor division by others and by autonomous subjects themselves on digital sharing platforms. Compared with bureaucracy and the market system, the platform system is more conducive to reinforcing the integration and reconstruction of complementary resources inside and outside of organizations, enhancing organizational management efficiency and flexibility, enabling individuals to innovate and thus empower organizations, realizing a high level of integration between the “invisible hand” and the “visible hand,” and improving efficiency and fairness. 
First, the open, borderless platform system increases individuals’ suitability and choices in labor division. It is more capable of meeting diverse, personalized needs and makes the social division of labor more reasonable, thus reducing resource misallocation and raising professional levels and efficiency of production.  
Second, restraints on digitalized subject role positioning within labor division turn moral norms into a conscious choice, and further rationalize labor division, which is more favorable to improving social management efficiency. 
Third, the flat, decentralized platform system can help lower costs of exchange and generate complementary and synergic effects. In addition, the platform system observes the principle of interest sharing, giving  individual participants in labor division a high degree of autonomy. Hence, it will facilitate cooperation among labor division subjects, unleash passion for innovation among members of society, and contribute to harmonious and healthy social development. 
All in all, digitalized division of labor and platform-based organizational models are more advanced, effective, and compatible with digitalized social production. The degree and speed to and at which it is applied to society and the economy have a great bearing on reforms in national and social life and production. Quickening the building of a social division of labor model, with platforms as the mainstay and featuring the coexistence of the platform system, bureaucracy, and the market system, is a vital measure for effectively enhancing the capacity for and level of social organization, and boosting productivity. 
Chen Shengxing is from the School of Marxism at Shaanxi Normal University. Guo Fengrong is executive vice secretary-general of the China Association of Labor Economics.