The Digital Freelancer's Dilemma

Authors: Nancy Ettlinger*, Ohio State University
Topics: Economic Geography, Urban Geography, Cultural Geography
Keywords: freelancing, digital economy, precarity, governance, resistance
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 1:45 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Plaza Court 1, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Although freelancing has long been a precarious form of work because it is unstable while often paying below a living wage, the digitalization of solo work compounds usual problems with the deception of increased choice in the context of constraints that guide and constrain agency. Based on a critical synthesis of research on digital freelancing, I identify mechanisms associated with a mode of governance that presents solo workers in the digital economy with choices and enlists them in self-governance, as well as with another mode of governance that dictates terms of work and punishes. In addition to material precarity regarding unstable work with insufficient wages, another, immaterial precarity forms in the continual slippage between these modes of governance. The shifting of modes of governance produce extreme uncertainty coupled with threats to one’s capacity to earn a living wage, in turn producing anxiety, paranoia, and even addictive behavior as workers try to establish their identities and reap rewards in a digital regime that invites choice-making while stripping individuals of their individuality. That said, digital freelancers as well as other workers in the digital economy have been organizing in cities worldwide to protest injustices of the new regime of work, and if successful, workers’ demands will be met through a pact with firms and the state through new legislation. The paper closes with thoughts about alternative means of organizing that could render workers independent of the constraints of corporate-state oversight on their daily lives.

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