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Platforms as if People Mattered

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In his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful, economist E. F. Schumacher observed that an ascendant ideology of “bigger is better” industrialism was driving humans to become the servants of machines. “If technology is felt to be becoming more and more inhuman,” he reflected, “we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better—a technology with a human face.” Taking up Schumacher's call, this article considers the possibility of “small” digital platforms in the context of China's contemporary ride-hailing industry. Through an ethnographic study of V Taxi, a grassroots community of taxi drivers, it explores how a human-centric platform for transportation services emerged, developed, and survived in a rapidly shifting economic and political landscape. The beauty and resilience of this platform lie in its ability to harness local social networks, enabling individual actors to share economic opportunities, skills, and knowledge. Through these practices of sharing, V Taxi members produce relational value, which strengthens community bonds. Drawing upon analytic frameworks from economic anthropology in conjunction with insights from science and technology studies, this article argues that “small” digital platforms can empower economic actors by enabling the production of relational value, thus protecting human agency and expanding human capabilities.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEconomic Anthropology
Pages (from-to)134-146
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019

    Research areas

  • platforms, Digital innovation, Ride-hailing, China, economic anthropology, Community-based development

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