Do Digital Platforms Have Politics? Making Airbnb’s Ethics and Politics Visible

Shaked Spier

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The notions of digital ethics, ethics by design, etc. raise fundamental questions: What does it mean to embed values in technology? Where and how do we find them? Do technologies actually have politics?
My research uses technical investigations and philosophical analysis to make the ethics and politics of digital platforms—as technologies—visible.

Digital ethics, ethics by design, etc. are gaining increasing attention from companies, legislators, researchers, and activists. But what does it mean to build values into a technology’s design? Where and how do we find them? And do technological artifacts actually have politics (as argued by Langdon Winner)?

A lot is at stake in the platform and sharing economy: advocates highlight the positive economic and environmental potential, while critics point out mainstream platforms’ controversial practices in terms of working conditions, impact on local communities, and neoliberal ideology. Responding to this, platform companies often claim they are merely intermediaries and therefore not responsible for the platforms’ social and political consequences. This is an argument with a striking similarity to the old “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument (aka the neutrality thesis).

In my research, I am interested in the ethical and political implications of digital platforms both as technologies and institutions. By using technological investigations together with philosophical analysis, I uncover (disclose) the moral and political values embodied in digital platforms (what I term their ethical and political operations) and how they relate to the mechanisms, operations, rationales, narratives, and ideologies of the platform and sharing economy. As a result, digital platforms (as technologies) prove to be anything but neutral tools/intermediaries.

In the session, I will present my research on Airbnb’s ethics and politics as a paradigmatic case study. I will discuss my research findings, how they help us make sense of digital technologies’ role in society and politics, and what could be technology’s role in pursuing political change.