Thank you very much to the committee for this invitation to deliver the 8th Annual Eric N Schocket Memorial Lecture on Class and Culture, and thank you especially to Professor Christoph Cox for setting it all up! Today, we are not only celebrating spring time, we are honoring Eric Schocket. While I never had the privilege of meeting Professor Schocket, I learned about his exemplary scholarship, engaging and passionate work as a teacher here at Hampshire College, his care for family and comrades, his work with Rethinking Marxism, and the influential roundtable on class that he convened in Youngstown, Ohio.
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Digital labor touches all of us, whether you are browsing Tinder profiles in your spare time, searching for “Jersey Shore” on Google, or ordering an Uber taxi.
In this afternoon’s talk, I will highlight what is and what could be successful about 21st century work and what are some tendencies that are worrisome. Once we gain an understanding of that, we can examine how to work around the concerning dispositions and promote positive trends. In the first five minutes, I will walk you through a few cases that I find troublesome.
So, digital labor touches us all in many ways.
Let’s start by asking for a show of hands: who has ever purchased anything from Amazon.com? It is incredibly convenient but, as I will show, in the shadows of this convenience linger the social costs for Amazon’s workers. Behind the screen: wage theft and total workplace surveillance.
This is one of Amazon’s so-called “inactivity reports.” These documents are issued by the company to its warehouse workers. The example here is from Germany; I translated it for you.
Colleague … was inactive 07:27 am to 07:36 am (9 minutes). [Worker] … and [worker] … were seen standing in between shelves 05-06 and 05-07. Already on [date], 2014 [worker] was seen inactive from 8:15 am-8:17 am (2 minutes). Also on [date], 2014 [worker] was inactive from 07:13 to 07:14 (1 minute).
In Leipzig, Germany, one logistics worker in an Amazon “fulfillment center” was accused of having been inactive on two occasions. Consequently, he was fired five minutes after his second “digression.”
Such densification of labor, to use labor scholar Ursula Huws’s term, is possible because workers are carrying scanners that can be tracked and supervisors constantly monitor warehouse workmen. It’s Taylor’s scientific management on steroids.
Also part of the Amazon story, just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that workers in these warehouses have no right to be paid for the time that they are waiting for mandatory security screenings, when they are leaving the warehouse.
Since 2005, Amazon also operates an online labor brokerage: Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT). Workers log on to the website and pick tasks from long listings. Similar to traditional piecemeal work in the garment industry, Mechanical Turk allows for a project to be broken down into thousands of bits, which are then assigned as individual tasks to so-called crowd workers.
On AMT, like in many crowdsourcing environments, inexperienced, novice workers are making between two and three dollars an hour. Just like migrant workers, barristers, or workers in the fast food industry, they are working long hours, are underpaid, are insufficiently protected by labor laws, have few or no benefits, and are often treated poorly by their bosses.
On Mechanical Turk, wage theft, while explicitly tolerated by Amazon, is a daily occurrence. Some consigners reject accurately executed work to avoid payment. Rejecting it, does not, however, stop these “black hats” and scammers from still using the work.
AMT’s conditions of use clearly state that consigners own the work immediately upon receipt, which means that they can do whatever they please with it. In a further twist, they don’t even have to explain their rejection of already performed work. Wage theft is a feature, not a bug. Consequently, it is not surprising that the turnaround among Turkers is roughly 70% every six months, according to Turker Rochelle LaPlante.
You might object: wage theft, payments below minimum wage — how is that even possible? After all, there is the Fair Labor Standards Act and many other legal protections for workers that would immediately power down such operations. A democratic society would not stand for exploitative work environments, right?
For now, such violations are tolerated by a broad coalition of silence. In 2011, the Department of Labor had just 1000 inspectors who were responsible for 130 million workers in 7 million enterprises. Such strategic understaffing of the Department of Labor means that employers who violate labor regulations in terms of wage or safety only have a very small chance of getting caught and even if they get caught, all they have to do is give workers what they owe them. It’s like robbing a bank with the only disincentive being that they might have to return the loot when they are caught.
Startups cleverly sail around the definition of employment by restructuring work in such a way that the people who are executing the tasks can be categorized as independent contractors instead of employees.
Amazon Mechanical Turk is relatively small; the actual number of active workers might be closer to 10,000. There are no conclusive studies about the size of the workforce in the crowd sourcing sector overall and Amazon treats these numbers as a trade secret. I am using Mechanical Turk as an example because it is an infectious business model that is mirrored on countless other upstarts. Now that the cruel genie is out of the bottle, the business logic of Mechanical Turk has been adapted by companies like 99designs and countless others.
Amazon‘s reputation is, of course, not solely built on micro wages and total workplace surveillance; it is also widely appreciated for its low prices and convenience (and that even before drone delivery). But this consumptive advantage comes at a price. To understand this, we can remind ourselves of last year’s face-off between Amazon and publishers. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, told a group of publishers, including Hachette, that “Amazon should approach … publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”
A few days ago, Amazon announced a new venture, called Home Services, which installs them as an online middleman when you are hiring an electrician or plumber. In cooperation with TaskRabbit, Amazon aims to enter this sector to collect rent on your home repairs and services, interestingly also including “academic services.”
So far, based on the evidence from Mechanical Turk and the labor practices in Amazon’s warehouses, there is no reason to believe that the company would understand its relationship to digital laborers any differently than that of a predator pursuing its vulnerable prey.
Next, I will explain why digital labor must be addressed in terms of paid and unpaid forms of work online alongside all the labor practices occurring along the supply chains of Silicon Valley.
I’ll also demonstrate the unprecedented scale of this real-time, global labor pool.
In the third segment, I’ll go into more detail about Mechanical Turk and the “sharing economy” such as the willful falsity of Uber’s and airbnb’s marketing campaigns. The mantra of entrepreneurship and the Zugzwang of precarity, trying to bust the myth of choice and autonomy that is in the water supply of platform capitalism, polluted by the anti-collectivist spirit of Ayn Rand. Under the worn-out jeans of the Uber executive, The Fountainhead. (In his film All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis reveals that Silicon Valley investors and startup hotshots even named their children after Rand.)
I will end with theoretical and practical ideas about what I call “platform cooperativism.”
With 30 minutes to go, let me think with you about digital labor in context.
Digital labor, I suggest, is the shiny, sharp tip of a gargantuan neoliberal spear that is made up of de-regulation, increasing inequality, the shift from employment to low-wage temporary contracts, and union busting.
Along with exploding financial products and the construct of student loans, digital labor companies like Uber and Mechanical Turk are among America’s most harmful exports.
Many researchers have focused on optimizing this little spaceship, these platform ecosystems: trying to make them run more efficiently, more frictionless and with a better understanding of the motivations of the workers. I’d add the building of alternatives, outrage, conflict, and worker organization to the list of options. We can’t leave society to platform owners and developers: to Microsoft, CrowdFlower, or Google, and most definitely not to Amazon.
But before we are talking about alternatives, let’s take one step back.
Since the late 1970s, the productivity of American workers steadily increased while their real wages stagnated. More and more Americans went to college but despite their skills, their pay remained low. The overall burden of the debt crisis and changed work regimes meant that a regular paycheck is increasingly unlikely to include legal protections, decent pay, or benefits.
The overall burden of changed regimes of work and the debt crisis meant that a regular paycheck is increasingly unlikely to include legal protections, decent pay, or benefits. Today, 76% of Americans have no savings. In the case of an emergency, they don’t have any financial fall back.
Young people are increasingly asked to “pay their dues” by working for free as interns. Seventy-five percent of unpaid interns are women and, no, that is not a victory for feminism. According to NYU professor Ross Perlin, unpaid internships contribute 2 billion dollars to corporate profits every year. Sometimes, the “carrot is just the stick by other means,” as anarchist Bob Black would have it.
Anything that becomes digital can eventually get exploited. Developments like self-driving cars, apps-based taxi companies, and crowdsourcing systems can be beneficial but are also introducing new vulnerabilities for workers. Digitization allows for new business models, novel chains of value extraction and forms of division of labor — most of which are obstructing its emancipatory and humanizing potential while undermining social security.
Digital labor is a child of the low-wage crisis. Ever larger parts of the economy are being reengineered to move away from the employment relationship and closer to freelancing and independent contract work. Online platforms, built on the affordances of cloud computing, are key to the reorganization of work. These platforms become digital labor bottle necks: to get a gig you need to go through one of them.
Growing numbers of workers no longer pursue a career path, a job for life. “Whereas traditional employment was like marriage,” legal scholar Frank Pasquale writes, “with both parties committed to some longer-term mutual project, the digitized workforce seeks a series of hookups.” In this labor market of one-nighters, people are working short–term or just casual hours. A closer look at templates of 21st century work that are currently put in place reveals a trajectory of workers now taking on many gigs at once. For some, this is a choice but most are forced into such “atypical work” by economic circumstance. A few weeks ago, I met with my tax accountant and the guy before me handed in fifteen 1099 forms. Welcome to the 1099 economy.
Demands for qualifications are getting ever higher and anxiety, the fear of unemployment, and poverty have become central life themes for many young people today. They are moving down the one-way street from unpaid internship to underpaid creative work.
Such a start into work life then, leads to a lifelong “precarious career,” which also makes life planning impossible and old-age poverty a certainty.
A 2010 study by the American software company Intuit found that 80% of large American corporations are planning to increase their use of flexible workers substantially in coming years.
We are living in what the German/South Korean author Byung-Chul Han called a Fatigue Society. This is no longer a disciplinary society, Han writes; instead, we are living in an achievement-oriented society that is allegedly free, determined by the call of “yes we can.” Initially, this creates a feeling of freedom, but soon that freedom is accompanied by anxiety, self-exploitation, and depression. Han writes that depression, exhaustion, attention deficits, and burnout are not caused by negativity but by an excess of positivity, which can bypass all immunological defenses. Too much positivity about 21st century work leads to anxiety, depression, and exhaustion.
Platform owners play a central role in this Fatigue Society. With their seductive interfaces, they make it hard not to participate.
We are already 15 minutes into the talk, and I still have not really defined digital labor. Here are a few statements to that end:
- 1. 21st century work has become more intensive, denser. Amazon’s inactivity reports showed that much. Time has become more central as an instrument of oppression.
- 2. The definition of digital labor has to reflect an intricate understanding of both paid and unpaid forms. Generalizing one emerging trend, be that uncompensated emotional labor or paid crowd work, as the sole tenor that has overtaken the entire economy fails to capture the reality of many other modes of digital work. It fails to account for the far crueler treatment of workers in the industrial sector that produces the hardware, all along its supply chains.
- 3. Thinking about digital labor means contemplating global patterns of connection and accumulation that facilitate and promote such production. This means that all related processes need to be included in this definition; everything from the assembly of iPhones, the Xbox, cables, wireless installations, Foxconn’s factories in the Longhua Science and Technology Park in ShenZhen, China (which bring us Apple, HP, Dell, and Sony products), and the mining of rare earth minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and China’s Nancheng County, without which you could not boot up our laptops and mobile devices. The supposedly “weightless economy” would sink to the bottom of the ocean would not it be for all the workers in Foxconn’s suicide mills.
- 4. A definition of digital labor needs to divorce itself from the rhetoric of flexibility, choice, and autonomy. Remember Ryan Bingham’s pitch to the soon-to-be-unemployed in Up in the Air? Another one of Ryan Bingham’s favorite lines is: “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it is because they sat there that they were able to do it.”
So, it is the ideology of forced entrepreneurship, the channeling your inner “micro-entrepreneur,” the inner freedom-loving artist who wants to cut loose, that I’m questioning.
Digital labor needs to be discussed at the fold of intensified forms of exploitation online and older economies of unpaid and invisible work — think of Silvia Federici, Selma James, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “Wages for Housework” campaign and, in the 1980s, cultural theorist Donna Haraway discussing ways in which emerging communication technologies allowed for “home work” to be disseminated throughout society.
Digital labor is also marked by an ever more pronounced power asymmetry between the class of owners, what I call the digital economic surveillance complex — crowdsourcing firms and services like CrowdFlower and Amazon Mechanical Turk — that hold all four aces, and the abundantly available workers that hold none, as David Graeber put it.
The word “labor” has an image problem. Over and over, authors have disavowed the term because it’s just not adequate anymore given the blur of leisure and labor. In contrast, I argue that giving up on the language of labor means losing the connection to the history of labor — the fight for the eight-hour work day, employer-paid health insurance, sick leave, and pensions.
Historically thinking, there are the Haymarket Riots, Lordstown (Ohio), the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike in 1912, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory protests, and the young labor feminist Karen Silkwood who lost her life in the process of delivering secrets about health and safety violations at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in 1974. You might remember the film Silkwood where Meryl Streep portrayed this brave activist. This isn’t about some romantic attachment to the past; this is about the language of labor and living within it, its cardinal lesson, which is that in confrontation with the power of the employing class, individual solutions are not working.
And lastly, for me, non-labor is still alive and well. Not all of life is financialized, as Paolo Virno and others have claimed — there are still billions of people without Internet connection, and that includes people in America’s inner cities.
So far, halfway through this talk, I offered you a few examples of the cruelty of digital labor, reflections on platform capitalism and the fatigue society, and a few points toward a definition of digital labor.
Now, let me discuss the invisible workforce of Amazon Mechanical Turk, before I move on to the “sharing economy.”
The original “Mechanical Turk” was designed by the Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769. A small-bodied chess player who controlled the mechanical hands of the Turk operated this “automaton,” hidden in a wooden case. The spectacle of the seemingly complex, mechanized chess-playing machine, complete with a turban, put small technical details on display as distraction while keeping the actual human labor out of sight. The operator-worker remains hidden in the black box, quite literally. It was a mega-hit in Europe at the time with dignitaries like Catherine the Great, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe coming to experience it. In 1940, Walter Benjamin references Mechanical Turk in Theses on the Philosophy of History. Already in 1814, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote about the Mechanical Turk in a short story entitled “Automata.” The name “Amazon Mechanical Turk” pays homage to this 18th century machine.
Where the historical Turk showed off technology to draw attention away from the human laborer, today, Mechanical Turk’s and CrowdFlower’s and Handy’s and oDesk’s crowd sorcerers work with coolness and the spectacle of innovation to conceal the worker.
As Alex Rivera put it in his film Sleep Dealer: owners are getting “all the work without the worker.”
Crowdsourced micro-tasks are paid between one cent and several dollars each. Tasks include the description or categorization of products, the filling in of surveys, the filtering out of pornography on social media, the removal of stuff that violates the terms of service, the tagging and labeling of images, and the transcription of audio and video recordings or receipts.
About 18% of Turkers are treating AMT as a full-time job, based on their reports that they are “sometimes or always” relying on Mechanical Turk to “make basic ends meet” (Ross et al.).
In 2014, various articles appeared with headlines like “How Crowd Workers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine,” “On-Demand Workers: ‘We Are Not Robots’,” “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers want to be treated like humans,” and “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers protest: ‘I am a human being, not an algorithm’.”
While I have my doubts, the tenor of some of these articles is that if employers would just understand that they are dealing with human beings instead of algorithms, they’d pay them more fairly and treat them respectfully.
Artists and designers understood black box labor already in 2008. Andy Baio, in “The Faces of Mechanical Turk,” tasked Turkers to describe their motivations to work on Mechanical Turk. Jeff Crouse, along a similar vein, recorded CROWDED, a podcast where Turkers talk about their hopes and dreams.
Amazon describes AMT as an “artificial artificial intelligence” service. One of the most striking illustrations of the different ways in which workers can be embedded in software is Soylent, “a Word Processor with a crowd inside.” In short, this MIT project, which has stalled in its Beta stage, is an add-in for Microsoft Word that “embeds” Turkers in a Word document. For the characteristically low fee, they will proofread or shorten your text — just highlight text and specify what you want to get done. Senior Microsoft Research scholar Mary L. Gray refers to this as “crowds as code.”
Going beyond the examples of Soylent and Mechanical Turk, expert and UCSD labor scholar Lilly Irani analyzes the importance of digital black box labor: the hiding of very real workers when it comes to attracting venture capital:
By hiding the labor and rendering it manageable through computing code, human computation platforms have generated an industry of startups claiming to be the future of data. … Hiding the labor is key to how these startups are valued by investors, and thus key to the speculative but real winnings of entrepreneurs. Micro-work companies attract more generous investment terms when investors perceive them as technology companies rather than labor companies.
The cheaper and better hidden a workforce promises to be, the higher the speculative fortunes of these companies will rise.
The term digital black box labor works well to describe this disguise of workers. The metaphor makes sense here. In his book Blackbox Society, Frank Pasquale reflects on the cultural meaning of the black box:
The term “black box” … can refer to a recording device, like the data-monitoring systems in planes, trains, and cars. Or it can mean a system whose workings are mysterious; we can observe its inputs and outputs, but we cannot tell how one becomes the other.
In online systems like Amazon Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower, it is mysterious where the labor is coming from, who is requesting it, and what they are intending to do with it. The workers are tucked away. The concealed workforce is not reflected in their business plans; they only show direct employment. Thanks to this concealed labor pool, it is now possible to build a large company while keeping the number of salaried employees to a bare minimum.
If this work would really be exploitative, nobody would do it, I heard consultant and net critic Clay Shirky argue at one point. But for some workers, there simply is no other option than toiling on this crowd working platform. The necessity to take up a low-wage gig is like “Zugzwang” when playing chess: no matter the next move, the player will always be worse off than before. Here is what one Turker said about what free choice meant for them.
I don’t know about where you live, but around here even McDonald’s and Walmart are NOT hiring. I have a degree in accounting and cannot find a real job, so to keep myself off of the street I work 60 hours or more a week here on mTurk just to make $150-$200. That is far below minimum wage, but it makes the difference between making my rent and living in a tent. — (Posted on the Turker Nation Forum and sourced from Felstiner, Working the Crowd.)
On the surface, it appears as if Turkers have flexibility when it comes to the days and even hours of the day that they wish to work. At the same time, however — just like TaskRabbits — they need to be glued to their computers all day long to catch higher paying tasks and respond to them immediately. But they could pass up such opportunities without losing the ability to continue to work on Mechanical Turk.
The global climate change of labor that we are witnessing right now is alarming, but the future is on fire. Inequality will increase ever more and paths of resistance are uncertain. I can’t make myself sign on with the Accelerationists who urge us “that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, critique, or détourne it, but to accelerate and exacerbate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.”
I will dedicate the remaining 10 minutes to my theoretical and practical proposal for platform cooperativism. It’s a call to workers, designers, and developers. It’s up to you: the blue pill or, well, you know the Matrix story — the red.
There has been backlash against unethical labor practices in the “collaborative sharing economy” because of an utter lack of concern for the workers.
Take, for example, Uber’s app, with all its geo-location and ride ordering capabilities. Corporate owners and shareholders do not have to be the main benefactors of such platform-based labor brokerage. How to dodge Uber and put a worker-owned cooperative or unionized labor pool in their place? Imagine, just for one moment, that the algorithmic heart of the citadels of anti-unionism could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model.
Apps-based, worker-owned labor brokerages that allow workers to exchange their labor without the manipulation of the middleman are possible. They are possible for transportation and they are feasible for micro work, specifically on Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower, as well as other sectors.
Entities like Uber, Ola, TaxiForSure, or Lyft are vulnerable because their technology can be duplicated.
Every Uber has an Unter; every above has a below.
Taxi drivers and technologists can coalesce to build an open source app that equals or outperforms their corporate equivalent. It could offer workers dignity, financial stability, and higher social standards. This is, no doubt, a challenge of a high order.
Developers, in collaboration with local, worker-owner cooperatives can design such a self-contained program for mobile phones, cross-platform of course — Android and iPhone.
I’m suggesting the marriage of badge technology with the marketing of FairTrade coffee. Here, it would not be skills that are certified, but ethical labor conditions. Online, badges could advise consumers that a given platform operates based on ethical labor standards.
Despite its meteoric rise, $300 million in venture capital backing (and its $41 billion evaluation bubble), as well as massive international reach, there is nothing inevitable about Uber becoming the unchallenged winner in that market, on a local level. It’s time intensive and by no means simple, but hey — there is no magic when it comes to software development. Technology is only one part, arguably the smaller part, of the equation. I’m not willing to give an inch to techno-determinism here; platform cooperativism is about apps, yes, but it is mostly about workers organizing in cooperatives, ideally worker-owned. It’s about “apps-workers” — the 21st century solo workers, associating with unions or associations; it’s about innovative forms of worker solidarity that also include design interventions like Turkopticon and Dynamo.
Worker-owned cooperatives could design their own apps-based platforms, fostering truly peer-to-peer ways of providing services and things, and speak alternatives to the new platform capitalists. Cooperative might then be able to use regulatory templates, created by companies like Uber, created at the frontiers of regulation.
Startup hotshots suggest that there is a logical step from the sharing of content through social media to the rental of goods, space, and the provision of transport through de facto labor companies like Feastly, Carpooling, Handy, Kozaza, EatWith, Kitchensurfing, TaskRabbit, and Uber.
The narrative of the sharing economy is incredibly smooth: the aesthetics, design, and algorithms. Neighbors can sell the fruit from the trees in their gardens, you can rent an apartment in Rome, a boat, or tree house or yurt in Redwood Forest. In Berkeley and Oakland, you can pay your neighbor to cook you a wholesome dinner, and now you can even listen to your own Spotify account in an Uber taxi.
Consumers, raised with an appreciation of low prices above all else, welcome many of these market incumbents. And, of course, all of these developments play out against the background of deliberate shockwaves of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crash. The sharing economy is portrayed as harbinger for the post-work society and path to ecologically sustainable capitalism, Google will conquer death itself, and this brave new “disruptive” economy will rid us of Jurassic forms of labor, which might well include what David Graeber refers to as “bullshit jobs.”
But by now, only few people still fall for the solidarity theater of the “disruptive sharing economy,” its deceptive “peer” rhetoric when referring to individual workers and consumers, and its underhanded talk of changing the world (HBO’s Silicon Valley, anyone?).
Occupations that cannot be off-shored, the pet walkers or home cleaners, are now subsumed under platform capitalism. Baby boomers are losing sectors of the economy like transportation, food, and various other services, to millennials who fiercely rush to control demand, supply, and profit by adding a thick icing of business onto apps-based user interactions. Companies like Uber and airbnb are enjoying their Andy Warhol moment, their $15 billion of fame, in the absence of any physical infrastructure of their own. They didn’t build that, not unlike Facebook — they are running on your car, apartment, labor, and importantly, time. They are logistics companies where all participants pay up the middleman: the Financialization of the Everyday v.3.0.
Legacy taxi companies have undoubtedly seen better days. Ride ordering apps are making transportation easier and also bit more accountable as passengers can give dreadful drivers devastating reviews. Some taxi drivers report that they appreciate not having to commit to a company full-time. They enjoy the flexible hours that they cannot get with legacy taxi companies. Ecological concerns about single driver occupancy are also real when thinking about these labor companies. It’s a no-brainer, the medallion system could use an update and at far over $800,000 for a single medallion in New York City, the system is completely impenetrable for taxi associations trying to build a small fleet of their own.
The medallion cartel prevents such worker-owned organizations from taking hold. With innovative ride rental software, organizing the taxi business is easier for the various types of worker cooperatives.
In the last 5 minutes let me build out the importance of thinking about cooperatives.
I have been part of cooperatives all my life; I lived in communes, I work in a cooperative now. I experienced firsthand how they can put people at the center of the equation but, at the same time, obviously there is nothing paradisiacal about them. They are not the silver bullet for capitalism. Silicon Valley’s platform capitalists are zipping ahead while social movements, cooperatives, unions, and regulators are sluggish. But strengthening cooperatives is something that I and we can do right now.
It is true that some millennials might rather stress their individual careers instead of swearing allegiance to any given co-op. For hackers, “long tail workers,” and labor activists, now is the time to step up their efforts before the network effect chisels brands like Uber into stone. The network effect is part and parcel for platform capitalists. We’ll not have three or four taxi apps on our phones.
Instead of counting down to next month’s apocalypse — instead of polishing the bannister of the sinking Titanic — let’s make the idea of apps-driven worker-owned cooperatives, of design interventions, and other new forms of worker solidarity more plausible.
Cooperatives are facing copious amounts of challenges on the level of competition from dominant players like Uber, in terms of public awareness and allocation of work, as well as wage levels.
But I am asking: is real social change only thinkable if you have Big Money on your side? Being faithful to that logic would mean that there would never be a chance for gubernatorial incumbents like New York’s Zephyr Teachout.
The inability to imagine a different life is capital’s ultimate triumph.
Teachout recently proposed that one of the pathologies of the current system is that it trains people to be followers. And I add, that it conditions people to think of themselves as individual workers instead of collective owners.
Why bother handing over the revenue to Uber, the middleman? Lyft and Uber have serious issues with attrition; the pay rates for drivers can (and have been) lowered from one moment to the next, workplace surveillance in the form of reviews is constant, and drivers can be “de-activated” (Uber’s lingo for firing workers) at any time for digressions as small as criticizing the Uber mothership on Twitter.
In New York City, there is a coalition of 24 worker-owned cooperatives, almost exclusively operated by women. Over the past few years, low-wage workers who joined these cooperatives saw their hourly wage increase from $10 to $25. In the United Kingdom, there are currently 200,000 people working in more than 400 worker cooperatives.
Mondragon, an often-cited example, is a corporation and Federation of Worker Cooperatives that was founded in 1956 in the Basque region in Spain. In 2013, it employed 74,061 people. We might mention a party like PODEMOS.
In NY, there is the Transunion Car service, a unionized apps-based driver company.
Let’s do justice to what we know. Platform cooperativism can invigorate genuine sharing, it does not have to reject the market, it can serve as a remedy for the corrosive effects of capitalism and should not be mistaken for a Marxist fantasy.
It can be a reminder that work can be dignified rather than diminishing for the human experience. Platform cooperatives are not a panacea for all the wrongs of capitalism but they could help to weave some ethical threads into the fabric of 21st century work.