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Go-Jek as a Sociotechnical Imaginary: The emergence of an Indonesian ride-hailing app

Bronwyn Frey

MA Student in Sociocultural Anthropology, University of Toronto

· Peer Review

Introduction

The relationship between Western technoscience and different knowledge systems is increasingly of interest in the field of science, technology, and society (STS). Scholars such as John Law (2015) and Aihwa Ong (2016) have examined the imbalances and syntheses of “global North/global South” and “East/West” technoscience, and journals such as East Asian Science, Technology, and Society aim to facilitate conversation between East Asian and Western scholars. This paper focuses on how these technoscientific encounters manifest in the “gig economy”, a semi-formal, digitally enabled form of flexible labour. Although many scholars acknowledge that flexible labour has long existed (Roseberry 1997; Hewison and Kalleberg 2012; Tran and Sokas 2017), academic interest in precarious labour in Indonesia has so far examined flexibilization as a recent phenomenon. In fact, the emerging technologies of Indonesia’s gig economy can be better understood as contemporary translations of long-standing social and technological structures.

I will address the emerging gig economy in Indonesia by looking at Go-Jek, an Uber-style ride-hailing app for motorcycle taxis (ojek). I will specifically examine current media and promotional representations of Go-Jek, and scholarship on technology in Indonesia to show how the technological aspirations surrounding Go-Jek draw upon longstanding colonial and state structures. I frame these aspirations in terms of Sheila Jasanoff’s “sociotechnical imaginaries”, that is, desirable futures that support and are attained through technology and are collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed (2015, 4). I argue that, as part of an emergent sociotechnical imaginary that draws on colonial methods of population tracking, Indonesian nationalism, and globalized neoliberal approaches to economics and labour, Go-Jek questions the hierarchy of Western technoscience over its non-Western adaptations. This essay, by examining how Go-Jek builds upon earlier sociotechnical imaginaries, illuminates a new iteration of a longstanding encounter between Western and Indonesian technoscience.

Go-Jek’s Sociotechnical Imaginary

Go-Jek, which began as a call centre-based ojek taxi startup in 2010, followed Uber’s lead by launching a smartphone application in January 2015 (Chilkoti 2015). By the time Uber launched its own motorcycle taxi service in Indonesia in April 2016 (Freischlad 2016), Go-Jek was already threatening the older-style ojek system. Although less comfortable than a car taxi, ojek taxis have long been a popular form of transportation in Indonesian cities because they can easily weave through the notoriously congested urban traffic (Chilkoti 2015). Ojek drivers work in informally organized, territorial networks called pangkalan. They usually congregate around the periphery of cities and ends of bus routes, where they approach disembarking commuters. Go-Jek drivers, meanwhile, concentrate near city centres and position themselves in favourable relations to the cell towers that link them to passengers (Joshua Barker, personal communication). The new smartphone-based business model created immediate and stiff competition for older-style ojek drivers. Like taxi and Uber drivers elsewhere, older- and newer-style ojek drivers clash in physical conflicts, intimidation tactics, and public protests (Budiari and Amirio 2016). Still, Go-Jek appeals to Indonesian urbanites who enjoy the newness, efficiency, and optimism of this local company, which is the first Indonesian start-up to achieve “unicorn status,” i.e. a value of over US$1 billion (Pratama 2016). I argue that Go-Jek’s success stems, at least in part, from its ability to build upon and translate older social and technological assemblages.

I draw on Rudolph Mrazek (2002) and Joshua Barker (2017) in understanding how Go-Jek relates to these established Indonesian technological assemblages. The kind of assemblages that I examine here are what Sheila Jasanoff describes as “sociotechnical imaginaries”, or “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology” (2015, 4). In other words, sociotechnical imaginaries are technoscience-oriented aspirations that have buy-in from a particular group or groups, are recognized by institutions (e.g. media, governments) and regulated through policy, and whose public appearances have a calculated effect. In a way, a sociotechnical imaginary resembles Sarah Franklin’s redefinition of genealogy as a social order and economic consolidation that links to the past and whose imaginary dimensions lead to real-world technoscientific innovations (2008, 157). Keeping Franklin’s historical and economic foci in mind while employing Jasanoff’s imaginaries as a frame of analysis allows us to understand Go-Jek as a recent technological innovation with economic motivations that has been translated from older sociotechnical imaginaries.

A theme of Mrazek’s exploration of technology in the Dutch East Indies is “the insistent sense of late-colonial culture overgrowing into the post-colonial period and the present” (2002, xvi-ii). He links the too-efficient reports of road fatalities in a colonial motorcycle periodical to the impatient complaints about animal-drawn vehicles as “unruly, the cause of accidents, and a threat to drivers” among the late-colonial Indonesian driver community (41). He also sees an attitude of jolly insularity that continued from colonial to Indies radio which served to “loosen the ties between sound and voice, between word and deed” (190). Similarly, Barker (2017) considers how the sociotechnical imaginaries of the New Order extend into present-day Indonesia. In examining the difficulty of building new infrastructures in Indonesia today without New Order-style, top-down government support (97), Barker notes that new projects survive by aligning their aims with those of existing structures. For example, a Singaporean DNA analysis firm was able to successfully embed itself in Indonesia’s international timber trade as a tester of illegally logged wood by framing its biolegal services as supplementary to the government’s established regime of social legality and illegality (95). Meanwhile, in poor Jakartan neighbourhoods, private water providers offload the responsibilities and financial risks of supplying water to community-based organizations, thereby building upon existing community ties and values of mutual obligation and transforming them into tools of neoliberal self-governance (97). In light of these observations, the value of understanding Go-Jek as a contemporary translation of colonial and 20th-century sociotechnical imaginaries is that it shows how new technologies, although they emerge in global and regional neoliberal contexts of labour flexibilization, are most often successful when they build upon established, local sociotechnical imaginaries. With this framework in mind, I argue that colonialism, Guided Democracy, the New Order, and American internet and communication technology (ICT) are adopted and transformed by Go-Jek’s sociotechnical imaginary.

My argument is based on promotional material and news media about Go-Jek. My main news media source is the English-language version of The Jakarta Post. I also draw on English-language news and editorials from The Financial Times, Tech in Asia, and others. I chose to rely on The Jakarta Post because, as an English-language Indonesian newspaper from the nation’s capital, it shows how a community of journalists and their investors wish to represent their nation to the world. This kind of mainstream discourse is central to the creation and maintenance of sociotechnical imaginaries.

My other mainstream, official source of media was Go-Jek’s website. Some of its content is published in English as well as Indonesian, but the “Driver Stories” and driver recruitment content I examine below were published only in Indonesian, which I roughly interpreted using online resources. I understand the Indonesian-only content as intended primarily for Indonesian audiences, and there are telling differences between these and bilingual media that are distinguishable, even with my limited Indonesian skills. Online news media and promotional representations of Go-Jek offer rich data in terms of how the nation and the company seek to disseminate particular views of themselves to Indonesians and to an international public.

Transportation and Technoscience in Southeast Asia

This article contributes to current considerations of motorized transportation and flexible labour in Southeast Asia, as well as a more general scholarly discourse on encounters between Western technoscience and different knowledge systems. Just after the fall of Indonesia’s authoritarian New Order regime, John Sidel (1998) considered flows and disruptions of traffic in the city of Surabaya as a metaphor for General Suharto’s three-decade presidency and its collapse in 1998. While Suharto had orchestrated one-way circulations (sirkulasi) of “bank loans, oil drums, export containers, high school and university graduates, parliamentarians, bupatis, and Army officers” for three decades (160), the 1997 Asian financial crisis and its political fallout in Indonesia resulted in a complete traffic jam (macet total) of these flows. Allison Truitt (2008) also examines Southeast Asian traffic as a symbol of social and economic order. In her analysis of motorcycle mobility in Vietnam, she analyzes the freedom of movement offered by the now-ubiquitous vehicles, which became symbols of monetized and motorized power following the economic reforms of the mid-1980s. The motorcycles resist attempts at traffic regulation, which, for Truitt, represents their embodiment of the social and economic freedom promised by trade liberalization reforms. As I describe below, Indonesia’s ojeks resist market regulation not symbolically but literally.

Whereas Sidel looks for the causes of the demise of the New Order (i.e. “in terms of the logics of sirkulasi and macet” [1998, 162]), more recent publications from Doreen Lee (2014) and Aiwha Ong (2016) instead take historical and current infrastructural failures and inequalities as the starting points of their analyses. Accepting that Indonesia’s notoriously congested urban traffic is a “technopolitical problem of failed infrastructure” (2014, 234), Lee proceeds to consider how this disrupted mobility governs lives, leisure, and desires, as well as how city dwellers negotiate and disrupt traffic. Oddly, ojeks, the vehicles that most efficiently outmaneuver traffic jams, receive only sporadic mention in her analysis of art, sociality, activism, and other ways that people change the meaning and impact of macet. Similarly to the individuals in Lee’s study but on a larger scale, Go-Jek takes macet as a given, inserting itself into macet and changing its meaning from infrastructural failure to economic opportunity.

 

Ong, meanwhile, examines translations of cosmopolitan science in Biopolis, a biomedical research centre in Singapore, to show how boundaries between “Eastern” and “Western” scientific knowledge are both destabilized and reified. She also shows how colonial biopolitical structures are repurposed in the hands of Biopolis researchers, where “[e]thnicity is delinked from its colonial moorings and resutured in its relationship with ancestry, genetic predisposition to hereditary disease, civic duty, social status, and health in an emergent region” (2016, 58). Ong’s analysis of technoscience and entrepreneurship point to trends in which, I will show, Go-Jek seems to participate: the use and modification of colonial sociotechnical imaginaries and the redefinition of any assumed hierarchy of Western over non-Western technoscientific knowledge.

 

Although this review of vehicular and international technoscience is limited, it indexes how seemingly globalizing forms of transportation and knowledge manifest in stubbornly local translations. It also suggests a shift toward analysis that looks for how beings survive in irreparably damaged landscapes (similarly to Anna Tsing’s [2015] exploration of “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins” where “ruins” do not imply the ruin of capitalism but the ruins capitalism has caused), instead of untangling the contributing threads of a problem. Ong and Lee proceed in this manner as they examine how their interlocutors (Biopolis scientists and urban commuters) capitalize on and transform entrenched problems (colonial legacies and endemic traffic jams). As I will show, Go-Jek also localizes failed traffic infrastructure and enduring forms of colonial social order to gain power in Indonesia and the international community.

Go-Jek and the Gig Economy

The term “gig economy” was coined by journalist Tina Brown (2009) to describe the rise of piecemeal and freelance work among middle- and upper middle-class Americans. It has since become strongly associated with the digital marketplace, thanks in part to the rise of online platforms such as Upwork, AirBnB, and Uber (Manyika et al. 2015). The US Department of Commerce has recently turned its attention to the gig economy, defining “digital matching firms” as services that facilitate peer-to-peer transactions through web-based platforms, rely on user-based ratings for quality control, offer workers flexibility in terms of their working hours, and require workers to use their own tools and assets in providing services (“Digital Matching Firms” 2016). Although the buying and selling of piecemeal work online and across many socioeconomic levels of work is a recent development, precarious labour has long been common among lower- and middle-income earners (Tran and Sokas 2017, 63).

Before the “gig economy” emerged in popular parlance, scholars were examining the idea of “flexible” and “precarious” employment as “paid work characterized by limited social benefits and statutory entitlements, job insecurity, low wages, and high risks of ill-health” (Vosko et al. 2009, 2). Because digital matching firms do not directly employ the workers but hire them as independent contractors, they evade labour laws such as the provision of health benefits, workers’ compensation insurance, and other statutory entitlements. Unlike other independent contractors, however, those who work for online platforms cannot negotiate rates or contracts but are required to accept the company’s terms in order to access work (Tran and Sokas 2017, 63).

The gig economy has been studied to some extent in a Western context, especially its implications for labour law (Aloisi 2016; De Stefano 2016; Sanders 2016). Again, despite the apparent newness of this flexibilization, many scholars recognize the long history of precarious labour (Hewison and Kalleberg 2012, 396; Tran and Sokas 2017, 63). For example, Roseberry (1997, 37) points to Marx’s description of the “disposable industrial reserve army” (1887, 444), the population of under- and unemployed workers that can be easily absorbed into new areas of production (online ojek services and Indonesia’s digital economy, for example) so that other areas of production need not be scaled back. These workers are easily employed and dismissed according to the demands of economic cycles. The idea of the industrial reserve army indicates that large populations engaged in precarious labour have always been not just endemic but essential to the functioning of capitalism. In this light, the recent normalization of flexible labour by governments (see Tjandraningsih below, for example) and of the gig economy by private enterprise (e.g. Uber, Go-Jek) can be seen as the latest step in the progressive entrenchment of capitalism.

In the context of South and Southeast Asia, flexible labour has been examined by Kevin Hewison and Arne Kalleberg (2012), who argue that patterns of precarity in these regions run against Western modernization theory in which flexible labour is seen as a response to international economic competition. Instead, because South and Southeast Asian industrialization has been unfolding in an globally competitive context, workers are moving from agricultural labour to already-flexibilized industrial and service sectors. Because a flexibilized workforce is more cost-efficient, governments enable precarious forms of work through legislation and/or fail to enforce existing labour laws. The idea of “deregulation” is therefore specious, as governments actually re-regulate the economy to encourage the flexible labour that attracts investment.

Indrasari Tjandraningsih (2013) examines this governmental deregulation/re-regulation in the context of the Indonesian manufacturing sector and labour outsourcing. In 2003, as a result of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the Asian financial crisis, the Indonesian government legalized labour outsourcing in which workers are awarded nonpermanent positions, often through exploitive labour agencies. As observed elsewhere, this labour flexibilization “reduces job security and benefits, decreases wages and welfare, removes workers’ protection, and weakens unions and diminishes their influence” (404). The government is reluctant to enforce labour laws because they fear driving away foreign investment. Through such strategic withdrawals and implementations of regulation, at least half of all factory workers are nonpermanent, with 70 to 100 percent of workers being nonpermanent or short-term in some companies (413-14). The government’s promotion of precarious labour has prompted Tjandraningsih to identify a “labor flexibility regime” (403).

 

Generally, Go-Jek aligns with gig economy and flexible labour trends. Its drivers follow a precarious work regime in that they set their own hours and are hired as “partners,” or independent contractors (“Terms of Use” n.d.), and as such are not awarded statutory benefits like accident insurance (Wicitra 2017). The precarity of ojek taxi labour is not a new phenomenon – the older-style drivers that predate Go-Jek work in informally organized pangkalan, and having accident insurance is not the norm for many Indonesian motorcycle drivers, professional or otherwise. However, government de/re-regulation of Go-Jek is not unequivocally neoliberal in that municipal governments are considering implementing caps on online ojek fleets and fares as well as ojek safety standards (Susanty 2017b), and its drivers are not so fragmented that they cannot collectively organize (“Go-Jek drivers protest performance policy” 2016). Go-Jek’s sociotechnical imaginary is capable of straddling the divide between free and regulated markets, flexible labour and worker solidarity.

 

Although many scholars understand flexible labour as a longstanding phenomenon, academic interest in flexibilization in Indonesia thus far focuses on its newer aspects. Tjandraningish examines the rise of nonpermanent labour in factories since the legalization of labour outsourcing in 2003. Although Hewison and Kalleberg acknowledge that “various forms of precarious work are not especially new” in Southeast Asia (2012, 396), they focus on contemporary forms of flexibilization that are linked to economic liberalization (399). Meanwhile, Michele Ford and Vivian Honan (2016) explore the recent timespan of Go-Jek’s effects on ojek taxi labour in their piece for the mainstream quarterly Inside Indonesia. While these authors offer valuable insights on current developments and recent history surrounding precarious labour in Indonesia, Go-Jek’s emergent sociotechnical imaginary can be better understood as building upon and translating long-established, local sociotechnical forms.

Translating Colonialism: Social fantasies to tracking gig workers

Late-colonial methods of administration emerged on the frontier between Dutch and indigenous East Indies societies, and between economic interests and imaginaries of social control. The early colonial economic measures of tax rolls and levy lists were economically motivated technologies designed to extract value and military manpower (Anderson 2006, 168). From the 1850s onward, European colonizers attempted to realize their fantasies of building a complete, parallel, colonized society of “differential schools, courts, clinics, police stations and immigration offices” (169). These methods, according to Benedict Anderson, involved the census, the map, and the museum, which rendered everything in the colonial domain classifiable, countable, and serializable (184). Beyond these forms of triangulation, the Dutch colonial imaginary included a never fully realized yearning to individually track native populations through the emerging technology of fingerprinting, allowing them to filter out undesired workers from the flow of migrant labour into Java (Mrazek 2002, 102-03). Go-Jek adapts the census and map in its translation of drivers into GPS-located, personally identifiable data, and in doing so it fulfills the late-colonial dream of tracking and controlling the movements of populations on an individual scale.

 

As Ong (2016) has demonstrated, colonial categories in Southeast Asia can be repurposed to serve new ends. Go-Jek departs from the overtly racial divisions of colonial biostatistics and relies instead on other types of census data. The app translates drivers into a photograph, name, phone number, and driver identification number, as well as the customer-generated data of a rating out of five stars and a brief comment (Fig. 1). Unlike older-style ojek taxi drivers whose personal identity was not necessarily known to customers who could express their approval or disapproval to company managers, drivers are now personally identifiable to both Go-Jek customers and managers. The former report driver performance to the company in the rating, and the latter terminate their partnerships with drivers whose ratings fall below a certain threshold, which according to one source is 4.2 stars, and according to another, 4.8 out of five stars. In this way, Go-Jek realizes and surpasses Western colonial endeavours of technologically enabled social control.

Go-Jek drivers are further tracked and controlled by their translation onto in-app maps. Drivers become white Go-Jek logos inside green location pins that move along city streets (Fig. 2) and blue lines that designate efficient routes between passengers’ pick-up and drop-off points (Fig. 3). Anderson argues that the Mercator map shaped Southeast Asian imaginations so that a population became bound to a mathematically calculated territory (2006, 174). This colonial technology of giving census data an exact geography is enhanced by Go-Jek’s global positioning system (GPS). Customers can easily track the arrival and route of their Go-Jek driver, who is obliged to take the fastest route as described by the app. Unlike when haggling and feeling uncomfortable with a “smelly” older-style ojek driver (Wardany 2011), customers have the peace of mind of knowing where their driver is, where they should go, and that he (sometimes she) will be polite and smell nice.

Thus, Go-Jek translates late-colonial forms of social control for its own and its customers’ surveillance and economic needs. The company uses census-like data and maps to allow tracking and controlling of drivers’ movements. Despite Go-Jek’s (and more generally, the gig economy’s) claim that workers have flexible (fleksibel) working lives (“Join” n.d.), the app’s tracking of drivers grants them less control over their movements and the price of their fares than older-style ojek drivers. Colonial projects, Go-Jek, and the regime of “on-demand” gig labour translate people into what Heidegger (1977 [1954]) warningly describes as “standing-reserve”, or the ordering of “[e]verywhere, everything […] to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering” (17). Although Go-Jek allows drivers to start and stop working whenever they want, the company’s use of personally identifiable data and map technology recalls and surpasses the colonial projects of tracking and restricting people’s movements, translating them into economic value and manpower, and imposing upon them a social order.

Translating Nationalism: High technology patrimonialism to free market startups

The relationship between technology and nationalism began to flower in the earliest days of the Indonesian nation. Even before the emergence of the nation in 1945, ostensibly through revolutionary effort but due in large part to the withdrawal of the Japanese occupation (Hellwig and Tagliacozzo 2009, 292), a sociotechnical imaginary had taken root on the frontier between Indonesian nationalism and Western technological modernity. Late-colonial nationalists in the 1930s, for example, saw the mastery of radio technology as a way to “improve the fate of our people” (Mrazek 2002, 190). Prominent Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Anata Toer, despite his criticisms of Indonesia’s colonial and sovereign regimes, shared with them an anxious desire to measure up to standards of modernity set by Holland and the West (197). President Sukarno, one of Toer’s mother’s nationalist idols and the leader of Indonesia’s first sovereign regime, the Guided Democracy era that spanned from 1945 to 1965, was a civil engineer (208).

 

Sukarno, however, did not just osmotically inherit a preoccupation with modernism and technology from the Dutch colonists. He explicitly divorced his technological aspirations from Western hegemony with such public statements as,

I am not saying that we do not need technology […] And yet, more than those skills, we need the spirit of a nation, the spirit of freedom, the spirit of revolution […] What is the use of taking over the technology of the Western world if the result of that adoption is merely a state and a society à là West […] a copy state? (Mortimer 1974, 82-83)

This nationalist sociotechnical imaginary, expressed during an Independence Day speech, refuses to let Indonesia’s technology emerge as a poor copy of that of the West. It extended beyond Sukarno’s mind in the form of large-scale technological projects.

Among these projects was the expansion of infrastructure to ensure the success of the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces. These developments involved extending communication and electrical infrastructure as well as building the Senayan stadium and the international-class Hotel Indonesia, all aimed at impressing a cosmopolitan, internationally travelling elite (Barker 2005; 2017). However, Indonesia’s technologically-minded nationalism was also reflected in more confrontational hues. Sukarno’s nuclear program sought not only to stabilize domestic politics but to resist NEKOLIM – his acronym for the neocolonialism, capitalism, and imperialism of the West in Southeast Asia (Cornejo 2000). By the time Sukarno was deposed in 1965, nationalist dreams of international technological renown were deep-rooted.

It was in the New Order regime of President Suharto (1965-1998), however, that the links between technological innovation and nationalism became most explicit. Suharto’s authoritarian regime launched “lighthouse projects,” which were large-scale technological endeavours that aimed to unite Indonesia and overcome its perceived “backwardness” (Barker 2005, 714-15). Most notably, they included a successfully launched domestic satellite (Barker 2005) and commuter airplane (Amir 2004). A central purpose of these projects was that they be developed locally, by Indonesian engineers and with Indonesian materials, to promote pribumi (indigenous) capitalism (Barker 2005, 715-16). Localism in technological developments thus represented both national pride and consolidated economic interests.

Today, these older nationalist imaginaries are used by Go-Jek to win over Indonesian citizens and the international community. In its Indonesian-only recruitment material, the company exhorts potential drivers to “Be part of the revolution of the nation’s work” (Jadilah bagian dari revolusi Karya Anak Bangsa) (“Join” n.d.). This statement alludes to the discourse of revolutionary struggle linked to the establishment of the Indonesian nation; that Go-Jek does not include references to revolution in its English-language content suggests that a narrative of present-day revolution (albeit in a more technological than political context) might appeal more to Indonesians than to the international community. However, Go-Jek represents the Indonesian nation on an international stage as well. Government officials point to Go-Jek and other online companies as evidence that “Indonesia is a hotbed for many internet-based startups” (Amin 2016). Go-Jek and its founder Nadiem Makarim frequently represent Indonesia on international platforms such as the G20 Digital Ministers Meeting (Amirio 2017), and a tour of the United States with President Joko Widodo (Purba 2015). The global competitiveness of this company is a point of pride in media and official imaginings, which link Go-Jek to both longstanding nationalistic imaginaries and the recognition of the international community.

Although a nationalistic imaginary remains salient in technological innovation in Indonesia, the means through which innovation is realized today depart significantly from those of the New Order. This is due in large part to the sociotechnical imaginary of neoliberalism. Sulfikar Amir (2013, 154-56) describes how the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which was a central cause of the New Order’s collapse, meant that Indonesia had to borrow money from the IMF. Conditions for IMF loans and bailouts included neoliberal reforms that severed the economy from state control, as well as ending the government’s massive subsidies to high technology aerospace projects. Many Indonesian technocrats saw further evidence of the IMF’s neoliberalism in its astronomical bailout for Indonesia’s private banks, which far exceeded the aircraft technology subsidies. However, despite protests from the technocracy, a neoliberal economy was established in Indonesia.

Current technological innovation has therefore re-emerged in a markedly different economic milieu. Indonesian innovators now see the neoliberal free market, rather than state paternalism, as essential to technological development. As Go-Jek and other ride-hailing companies such as Grab Indonesia and Uber Indonesia continue to expand, national and municipal governments are struggling to regulate their impact on transportation and work systems. In April 2017, the Transportation Ministry passed a regulation that sets safety standards and market regulations for online taxi companies (Susanty 2017a). Go-Jek, Uber, and Grab banded together to protest these latter regulations, which include vehicle fleet quotas and floors and ceilings for fares. Tellingly, Grab Indonesia managing director Riszki Kramadibrata argued that “the most efficient way to set fares is through supply-and-demand rather than intervention” and that “[t]he revision of the regulation should promote innovation. Sadly we see that some points of the revision have a protectionist vibe […] This [interventionism] is an old and redundant practice” (Susanty 2017b). Kramadibrata seems to imply that the new regulations hearken back to the “protectionist” economy of the older authoritarian regime. Where innovation used to be imagined through centralized government projects, it is now seen as only realizable through the free market.

Go-Jek’s sociotechnical imaginary thus departs from those of past authoritarian governments by forgoing the West-focused antagonism of NEKOLIM, large-scale technological engineering, and top-down government support. Instead, Go-Jek operates as a publicly traded, mature ICT startup in a liberalized economy that presents a nationalist face to its Indonesian market and a cosmopolitan face to the international community. Go-Jek builds upon the authoritarian-era nationalist imaginaries and their emphasis on modern technology and translates them into a neoliberal economic context to establish Indonesia as a technologically powerful nation in its own right.

Translating American Innovation: Uber to Go-Jek

Go-Jek has built upon and surpassed the American technological innovation of Uber. As of 2017, the Indonesian app has been downloaded 147,000 more times than its competition from Silicon Valley (Carew 2017). According to Indonesian news media, Go-Jek initially adopted the American taxi-hailing service model and then revolutionized Uber’s services to cater to local conditions (Al Azhari et al. 2016). Indeed, Go-Jek bears a number of structural and discursive similarities to Uber. Both companies are gig-economy digital matching services that recruit drivers who are “partners,” not employees (Wicitra 2017). Both sell “flexibility” to their drivers (“Join” n.d.; “Sign Up to Drive or Tap and Ride” n.d.) in a reframing of the precarity of gig economy employment. Both companies personalize their fleets through “Driver Stories” (“Blog” n.d.; “Driver Stories” n.d.). In these ways, both Go-Jek and Uber translate drivers into neoliberal subjects – unique, self-determining individuals – to whom states and companies owe declining support.

However, the nationalist imaginaries that Go-Jek builds upon transform Uber’s sociotechnical imaginary. It is telling that the first three values Go-Jek presents on its splash page are kecepatan (speed), inovasi (innovation), and dampak sosial (social impact) (GO-JEK Indonesia n.d.), whereas Uber’s first three most visible values emphasize customer experience: “Easiest way around”, “Anywhere, anytime”, and “Low-cost to luxury” (“Sign Up to Drive or Tap and Ride” n.d.). Go-Jek addresses user experience with their value of kecepatan, but inovasi recalls the emphasis on modernization that inspired the New Order lighthouse projects. The value of dampak sosial seems to dovetail with this kind of nationalism as another way of improving the local. In fact, dampak sosial is a central theme in the Go-Jek Driver Stories, which frequently mention drivers whose “struggle” (berjuang) to make a living (“Ahmad Fauzi” 2016) or support a family (“Bambang Supriyadi” 2015) is mitigated by working for Go-Jek. What this content suggests is that Go-Jek is working harder on developing a nationalist imaginary than Uber. While Uber’s main values are more oriented to customer experience, Go-Jek presents itself as benefitting the nation in which it originated.

Just as important to Go-Jek’s success as nationalist discourse is its adaptation of Uber’s innovations to Indonesian business and traffic infrastructure knowledge. Science and technology studies scholar Bruno Latour defines knowledge as “familiarity with events, places and people seen many times over” that puts the “foreigner” at a disadvantage (1987, 220). Because Go-Jek reworked Uber’s model to deliver ojek instead of car taxi services, it was able to more efficiently navigate the congested traffic of Indonesia’s urban centres. Because it is founded by an Indonesian, Go-Jek is more skillful than Uber in navigating the nation’s bureaucracy and markets (Wailes 2016), allowing it to recruit powerful allies, including mainstream national media and politicians.

National media such as The Jakarta Post provide institutional stabilization for Go-Jek’s imaginary by “according [it] a dominant position for policy purposes” (Jasanoff 2015, 4). Although The Jakarta Post and other media sources sometimes cover Go-Jek drivers’ violence and protests, they also report Go-Jek’s successes, international presences, and hype-building articles like “Guess what? Meisya Siregar [a well-known model and actor] uses Go-Jek to satisfy cravings” (2016). Of course, the positive tone of Go-Jek coverage may eventually dwindle as the hype around the company fades. But regardless of tone, The Jakarta Post has helped to stabilize Go-Jek’s sociotechnical imaginary as the tech company is subjected to regulatory policies.

Indonesian politicians, as covered by Indonesian news media whose English publications help represent the nation internationally, offer additional institutional support. Although Transportation Minister Ignasius Joana banned app-based ojeks in December 2015, this decision was soon overturned by President Joko Widodo (Elyda 2015). Government support for Go-Jek is also clear in the instances where the company or its founder are chosen to represent the nation abroad. The government thus offers institutional stabilization for the desirable future of Indonesia’s international recognition upon which Go-Jek builds its sociotechnical imaginary.

Go-Jek uses the flexible movement of drivers and ojeks and its facility for recruiting local support to deliver an impressive array of services – fifteen at the time of writing, including delivery of packages (Go-Send), takeout (Go-Food), beauticians (Go-Glam), and pharmaceuticals (Go-Med) (GO-JEK Indonesia n.d.). Go-Jek also makes alliances with banks through its cashless payment app (Go-Pay), and with entertainment venues via Go-Tix. Go-Jek has taken advantage of its traction in the Indonesian market to launch Go-Car, its own taxi service, in May 2016 – one month after Uber Indonesia launched its own motorcycle service (Russell 2017). These are only a few of the ways in which Go-Jek has outdone Uber Indonesia, and they show that Go-Jek has succeeded where Uber has lagged. Go-Jek’s success helps to destabilize assumed hierarchies of Western technoscience as superior to non-Western iterations.

Makarim and his supporters have capitalized on their Latourian “knowledge”, i.e. familiarity with local enterprise and society, to create a sociotechnical imaginary for Go-Jek that is stronger than Uber’s in Indonesia. Recalling Jasanoff’s definition, we could say that Go-Jek has created a vision of a desirable future for Indonesia as a digital “hotbed”. The aspirations surrounding Go-Jek are collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed, as evidenced by the government and media support described in this section. Furthermore, Go-Jek’s uses and adaptations of long-established imaginaries from the colonial, Sukarno, and Suharto eras demonstrate that its aspirations are animated by technologically oriented understandings social life and social order. That Go-Jek’s sociotechnical imaginary draws on other imaginaries long-established in Indonesia reminds us that: 1) although it participates in global and regional trends of neoliberal labour, these trends cannot be reduced to a unified narrative of global neoliberalism, and 2) despite the apparent newness of emerging technologies, their success often depends on how well they incorporate established sociotechnical forms.

Conclusion

In sum, Go-Jek translates Uber by transforming this American innovation into an Indonesian nationalist imaginary using knowledge about Indonesian traffic infrastructure and business. Go-Jek’s Driver Stories emphasize the struggles of the drivers and how they support themselves and their families through Go-Jek. The company’s nimble vehicles are able to localize congested urban traffic, and through long familiarity with the nation’s bureaucracy and networks Go-Jek’s founders are able to recruit powerful local allies. Thus, an Indonesian technological innovation has succeeded where its American counterpart has not. Go-Jek’s translations of past and current sociotechnical imaginaries demonstrate that emerging technologies, although they participate in regional and global forms of neoliberalism, are often more successful when they build upon and translate older, local forms of successful technologies.

 

The emergence of Go-Jek is a contemporary example of the relationship between Indonesian nationhood and internationalized technoscience. From early extraction of goods and labour to the realization of fantasies of social control, the colonial sociotechnical imaginary of census- and map-making continue to survive in Go-Jek’s translation of drivers into personally identifiable data visualized on GPS-enhanced maps. From the authoritarian implementation of large-scale lighthouse projects to the promotion of Indonesia as a digital “hotbed”, Indonesian nationalism has remained wedded to technological innovation as a way of securing recognition on an international stage. Since the fall of the New Order regime, a neoliberal economy has reshaped imaginaries of innovation and restructured working lives. Go-Jek has built upon and translated these Western- and Indonesian-originating imaginaries to surpass Uber’s operations in Indonesia. This recalls Amit Prasad’s argument that “we need to move beyond dualist categories of west/non-west, developed/developing, north/south, and so on, which are parasitic to some conception of ‘lack’ of the non-west” (2008, 35). While my analysis does not do much to depart from the west/non-west dualism, it does contribute to Prasad’s larger project of doing away with a perceived “lack” of the non-West. The state and media enthusiasm surrounding Go-Jek is only one aspect of the complex creation of technological value and lack in various local and international contexts, and it provides an example of the insights that could be gained from smaller-scale ethnographic research that corroborates, challenges, or complicates public narratives.

In sum, Go-Jek translates Uber by transforming this American innovation into an Indonesian nationalist imaginary using knowledge about Indonesian traffic infrastructure and business. Go-Jek’s Driver Stories emphasize the struggles of the drivers and how they support themselves and their families through Go-Jek. The company’s nimble vehicles are able to localize congested urban traffic, and through long familiarity with the nation’s bureaucracy and networks Go-Jek’s founders are able to recruit powerful local allies. Thus, an Indonesian technological innovation has succeeded where its American counterpart has not. Go-Jek’s translations of past and current sociotechnical imaginaries demonstrate that emerging technologies, although they participate in regional and global forms of neoliberalism, are often more successful when they build upon and translate older, local forms of successful technologies.

The emergence of Go-Jek is a contemporary example of the relationship between Indonesian nationhood and internationalized technoscience. From early extraction of goods and labour to the realization of fantasies of social control, the colonial sociotechnical imaginary of census- and map-making continue to survive in Go-Jek’s translation of drivers into personally identifiable data visualized on GPS-enhanced maps. From the authoritarian implementation of large-scale lighthouse projects to the promotion of Indonesia as a digital “hotbed”, Indonesian nationalism has remained wedded to technological innovation as a way of securing recognition on an international stage. Since the fall of the New Order regime, a neoliberal economy has reshaped imaginaries of innovation and restructured working lives. Go-Jek has built upon and translated these Western- and Indonesian-originating imaginaries to surpass Uber’s operations in Indonesia. This recalls Amit Prasad’s argument that “we need to move beyond dualist categories of west/non-west, developed/developing, north/south, and so on, which are parasitic to some conception of ‘lack’ of the non-west” (2008, 35). While my analysis does not do much to depart from the west/non-west dualism, it does contribute to Prasad’s larger project of doing away with a perceived “lack” of the non-West. The state and media enthusiasm surrounding Go-Jek is only one aspect of the complex creation of technological value and lack in various local and international contexts, and it provides an example of the insights that could be gained from smaller-scale ethnographic research that corroborates, challenges, or complicates public narratives.

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Meet the Author

Bronwyn Frey is a MA Student in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Contact Bronwyn here.

This piece was anonymously peer-reviewed after submission on April 15th 2017, and accepted on April 19th 2017.

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