Digital Utility: Datafication, Regulation, Labor, and DiDi’s Platformization of Urban Transport in China
journal contributionposted on 31.05.2019, 10:17 by Julie Yujie Chen, Jack Linchuan Qiu
This article develops the critical concept of digital utility through studying the case of DiDi Chuxing and the platformization of transport services in urban China. By examining DiDi’s business model, its datafication strategies, its relations with the Chinese government, and its labor management systems, the article demonstrates how the platformization of transport is emblematic of a private company becoming a digital utility provider. With technological imagination and practical inconsistency, this process remediates service delivery while reworking infrastructures and redefining the access to public and private services. We argue that platform companies are able to become digital utility suppliers because of their capacity to straddle the public and the private sectors, their aspiration to become “ecosystem builders,” and their heavy reliance on the constant intensive labor of users, particularly drivers, to produce data. However, these factors also make instability a definitive feature of digital utility companies in their present condition. Morphing into the terrain of utilities is a common undertaking by DiDi and similar platform companies. To problematize the logics of digital utility, especially its labor intensive datafication processes and its complex relations with regulators, provides a conceptual anchor for further debates on the infrastructuralization of platforms and the platformization of society.