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Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Runway Journal, Gusher magazine, and The Guardian, amongst others. She is an editor at Liminal and the reviews editor at Meanjin.


Cher Tan

‘The native must realise that colonialism never gives anything away for nothing. 1

The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon


‘This paradox — this drive to grasp what we do not know through what we do not entirely understand […] does not undermine, but rather grounds software’s appeal. Its combination of what can be seen and not seen, can be known and not known — its separation of interface from algorithm, of software from hardware — makes it a powerful metaphor for everything we believe is invisible yet generates visible effects, from genetics to the invisible hand of the market, from ideology to culture.’2


Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

What’s it like to be playing a video game? Imagine living in one. You’re jumping from quest to quest to quest, trying your darndest to collect all the money and health possible — so you can arrive at a new level, closer to something like paradise, like luck. On the way you come across obstacles; you defeat adversaries either through fisticuffs or mental games; you stop and rest (but not for too long).

You can stop if you wish, but your character goes into stasis. It lies dormant until you pick up where you left off. Nothing happens then: no level ups, no money,  no extra health. It may as well be non-existent.

Roll back. If you find the cheat code — amongst a slew of cheat codes, each varying in benefits — you get access to a platter of riches that enables you to get ahead. Ring-a-ding-ding! A whole menu opens up for you to choose from at leisure: level seventy; twenty million coins; unlimited full mana. Cheating is shameful. It was all hard work. I put in a hundred hours to get here.

But I looked it up and found that the answer was impenetrable; there were no codes to be found. So back I go; jumping from quest to quest to quest, trying my darndest to collect all the money and health possible. Ring-a-ding-ding! I arrive at the destination point and check in. Something is whirring behind me, but I can’t see it. I check in again. The game pulls me in.


In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon presents a warning: ‘They finally come to understand that the changeover will not be a reform, nor a bettering of things. They come to understand, with a sort of bewilderment that will from henceforth never quite leave them, that political action in the towns will always be powerless to modify or overthrow the colonial regime.’3 Decentralisation!’ they said. ‘We have a vision!’ they said. ‘Revolutionise!’ they said. What is being decentralised and how? Whose vision(s) are we foregrounding? And what kinds of revolutions are we seeing? It depends on whom you ask.

Discover new worlds. In Turkey, a delivery start-up named Getir is rapidly displacing the age-old, local ecosystem of bakkals (grocers).4 Look to Sri Lanka, and the ride-hailing company PickMe sees a driver on its roster: a sixty-one-year-old single mother with three school-age children working from 6.30am to 9pm each day, paying about twenty-five per cent in commissions to the company.5 Hop on over to Uganda, and what we see is eerily similar: called ‘SafeBoda’,6 this is a motorcycle-hailing company that offers on-demand food, pharmacy, and other essential services, and which is currently booming with many drivers reporting high bonuses. But these are still early days (incentives help with hiring after all); it was recently discovered that the company had also been selling user data to a US company.7

Of course, many techno-optimists have argued that the platform economy empowers women, who are traditionally locked out of the workforce in the Global South. But because these same women still take on disproportionate roles when it comes to caregiving and child-rearing, they are ‘unable to meet the demands of the algorithm’.8 Further away, in the eye of the tiger, feminism seems to have won: in Chicago, a woman decides to drive herself, via her Lyft vehicle, to the hospital after experiencing contractions,9 and many female rideshare drivers report instances of sexual harassment or assault while on the job.10 All around us a slew11 of human rights violations12 continue to occur;13 the wealth divide continues to widen — between cities and towns, between suburbs and metropolitan areas.14

We know the hegemony trickles down. In a recent exposé on the conditions for Gojek15 riders in Indonesia, journalists report that riders ‘say their life in Gojek is like a drug addiction’,16 with others stating that labour standards remain poor.17 Zoom out into the Colony™ — despite workers winning a landmark case that now see Uber18 (and shortly after, Deliveroo19) workers rightly entitled to paid leave and employee benefits, other companies have not followed suit. Closer to ‘home’, in so-called Australia, Amazon builds its sixth warehouse in Western Sydney, a sprawling 200,000 square metre complex — double the size of Bondi Beach — promising to deliver jobs to the community, as is their modus operandi.20 We won’t see the effects of these expansions until years later. Meanwhile, Chinese ventures swoop into various African countries, vultures for untapped opportunity: we see the expansion of ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing21 and the encouragement of ‘digital sovereignty’ funded for nefarious means,22 as well as the transformation of Zambia into a (tax-free) start-up hub.23 Who wins? Zoom out again, and we see freelancers in various low-income countries toiling24 for peanuts25 — while major companies’ share prices soar26 — in a kind of Mechanical Turkinisation27 of piecemeal work: need a sixty-minute transcript for USD$5 in twenty minutes? Consider it a done deal. On YouTube, ‘business influencers’ give tips on how to make more money on Fiverr. How to hack Uber surge pricing? This man tells you how. In Birmingham, four Uber drivers are accused — by the algorithm — of fraud.28 Elsewhere, someone comes up with a Chrome extension that can be installed on your phone should you want to see if Uber has ripped you off.29 Six months later, Uber succeeds in getting it pulled from Google.30

Globalisation, but make it hot. So hot that the surface of the earth is melting. Borders blur yet tighten. In the meantime, data centres whirr on, hidden away and unseen. Out of sight, out of mine: bitcoin mines31 thrive,32 abetted by the exchange of money and power. In The Wretched of the Screen, Hito Steyerl writes that ‘In our dystopia of negative freedom in our atomized nightmares nobody belongs to anybody (except banks). We don’t even belong to ourselves.’33 I reach into my memory and unlock recollections of Kiva:34 a slick rebrand of the payday loan popularised during the early 2010s, its services purporting to help those without access to conventional banking. Like eBay, but for microcredit! We are only seeing its effects now.35 As our margins of refusal continue to shrink, everyone hits play. One day you may win. Game on. Game over. Game on. Game over. Game on.

  1. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 142.
  2. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (London: MIT Press, 2013), 2.
  3. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 126.
  4. Kaya, Genç, ‘Delivery Wars’, Rest of World, 11 August 2020,
  5. Zinara Rathnayake, ‘The Global Gig Workers’, Rest of World, 21 September 2021,
  6. A boda is the Ugandan equivalent of the ojek.
  7. Christine Kasamiire, ‘SafeBoda illegally shared users’ data with US company’, Monitor, 8 February 2021,–3283228
  8.  Zuha Siddiqui and YouYou Zhou, ‘How the Platform Economy Sets Women Up to Fail’, Rest of World, 21 September 2021,
  9. Bryan Menegus, ‘Lyft Thinks It’s “Exciting” That A Driver Was Working While Giving Birth’, Gizmodo, 22 September 2016,
  10. Ellen Huet, ‘Why Aren’t There More Female Uber and Lyft Drivers?’, Forbes, 9 April 2015,
  11. Luke Savage, ‘Gig Companies are Taking Their War on Workers Beyond California’, Jacobin, 13 October 2021.
  12. Lawrence Mishel, ‘Uber and the labor market’, Economic Policy Institute, 15 May, 2018,
  13. David Streitfeld, ‘How Amazon Crushes Unions’, New York Times, 16 March 2021 (updated 21 October 2021),
  14. Pew Research Center, ‘Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality’, 9 January 2020,
  15. For the uninformed, ‘gojek’ is a neologism derived from ‘ojek’, an informal system of motorcycle taxis that have existed in Indonesia since the late 1990s. Today we see many more gojeks than ojeks.
  16. Karen Hao and Nadia Freischlad, ‘The gig workers fighting back against the algorithms’, MIT Technology Review, 21 April, 2022,
  17. Fairwork Indonesia Ratings 2021: Labour Standards in the Gig Economy, December 2021,
  18. Sarah Butler, ‘Uber drivers entitled to workers’ rights’, US supreme court rules’, The Guardian, 20 February 2021,
  19. Natasha Lomas, ‘Deliveroo defeats another workers’ rights challenge in UK courts’, TechCrunch, 24 June 2021,
  20. Kaveh Waddell and Maanvi Singh, ‘“Warehouses in their backyards”: when Amazon expands, these communities pay the price’, The Guardian, 9 December, 2021,
  21. Onke Ngcuka, ‘Didi’s arrival is more bad news for South Africa’s taxi drivers’, Rest of World, 28 May, 2021,
  22. Yinka Adegoke, ‘The real reason China is pushing “digital sovereignty” in Africa’, Rest of World, 1 December, 2021,
  23. Abubakar Idris, ‘Tech leaders are pushing to transform Zambia into Africa’s low-tax startup hub’, Rest of World, 13 January, 2022,
  24. Sumeet Keswani, ‘The things Indians are willing to do for $5’, The Times of India, 28 June, 2015,
  25. Devi Lockwood, ‘Witty Captions: $5’, Rest of World, 7 July 2020,
  26. Shoshanna Solomon, ‘Fiverr to raise $700 million in New York share sale after value surge’, The Times of Israel, 3 March 2021,
  27. Launched in 2005, the Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing website for businesses to hire remotely located ‘crowd workers’ to perform discrete on-demand tasks that computers are currently unable to do, its name inspired by ‘The Turk’, an eighteenth-century chess-playing automaton which was later found to be controlled by a human. This service is operated by Amazon Web Services and is owned by Amazon.
  28. Natasha Bernal, ‘They claim Uber’s algorithm fired them. Now they’re taking it to court.’, Wired, 2 November 2020,
  29. Called ‘UberCheats’, this Chrome extension was created by Armin Samii, who launched it in August 2020. When operable, it was used to help drivers and riders figure out if they’d been underpaid by Uber.
  30. Stephanie Mlot, ‘Uber Gets UberCheats Pulled From Google’, PC Mag, 20 February 2021,
  31. Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat, ‘Thai companies splurge on Bitcoin mining as crypto boom expands’, Nikkei Asia, 13 January, 2022,
  32. Gian M. Volpicelli, ‘As Kazakhstan Descends Into Chaos, Bitcoin Miners are at a Loss’,  Wired, 12 January, 2022,
  33. Hito Steyerl, “Freedom From Everything: Freelancers and Mercenaries”, The Wretched of the Screen (London: Sternberg Press, 2013), 135.
  34. Timothy Ogden, “Kiva: A Cautionary Tale for Social Entrepreneurs?”, Harvard Business Review, 19 October 2009,
  35. Gavin Finch, David Kocieniewski, ‘Big Money Backs Tiny Loans That Lead to Debt, Despair and Even Suicide’, Bloomberg, 3 May 2022,


Still from DESTINY (2021) by APHIDS.

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