The dangers of the Sharing Economy (3): A Platform for (Cooperative) Revolution

by Trebor Scholz for THE NATION

In the past few months alone, you’ve probably read or listened to at least one story about the unethical labor practices of Amazon Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit, or CrowdFlower, to name a few crowdsourcing labor platforms. To get gigs, workers must go through the bottleneck of the platforms, where thousands of invisible, novice workers are paid between $2 and $3 an hour, workplace surveillance is rampant, and wage theft is a feature, not a bug. I do find these tendencies troublesome. But I also know they are not the only possible future of work. Silicon Valley loves a good “disruption,” so let’s give them one: Platform cooperativism.

Platform cooperativism is about experimentation with good digital work and new forms of solidarity. It is about innovative unions, worker associations, and cooperatives building their own labor platforms and design interventions, rooted not in greed but the needs of workers. It is about labor history’s cardinal lesson, which is that in confrontation with owners, individual solutions don’t work. The future of labor need not be defined solely by venture-capital funded, Silicon Valley ringleaders but by worker cooperatives and inventive unions.

Rather than leaving the economy exclusively to the productivity imperatives of owners like Amazon or Microsoft, platform coops could set an example of good digital labor. They do, however, have to act fast. Social movements, regulators, and cooperatives move slowly, while tech-entrepreneurs are rapidly creating realities on the ground. The future is seeded now; the network effect is chiseling prospective global monopolies like Uber into stone and that is why workers, organizers, designers and developers have to get their act together.

Workers need to be clear about their principles and values. The principles of platform cooperativism must include job security, good pay, transparency, a pleasant working atmosphere (acknowledgement and appreciation), co-determined work, a protective legal framework, weekly work time of 30 to 40 hours? (depending on the life stage of the worker), and protection against arbitrary mandates. Platform cooperativism rejects excessive workplace surveillance, along the lines of Upwork’s worker diaries or customer reviews on Uber and TaskRabbit.

In addition, workers need to have a right to log off. Platform cooperatives need to leave time for relaxation, lifelong learning, and voluntary political work. Good digital work has clear boundaries. While such lofty goals are difficult to achieve, it is important to articulate them. Our inability to imagine a different life would be capital’s ultimate triumph.

Demanding higher wages is one thing. But structural change, the creation of alternative models of social organization, is more fundamental. Worker-taken factories from Argentina to Ecuador are not the prime model here. This is not about creating a branch of UberX with gracious permission from Travis Kalanick. Instead, let’s rip out the algorithmic heart of the “sharing economy,” clone it, and bring it back to life with a cooperative ownership model or a unionized labor pool.

Platforms that allow workers to exchange their labor without the manipulation of a corporate middleman are possible. Democratically controlled businesses, such as worker-owned cooperatives, could target smaller, local niche markets without having to focus on scaling up. A freelancer-owned cooperative like the San Francisco-based Loconomics could even benefit from the regulatory templates established by the “collaborative sharing economy.”

Let’s also make sure that the responsibility of family-friendly work is not solely transferred to the worker. Uber, TaskRabbit, and Handy are creating conditions that are not compatible with the family (or most other arrangements of domestic life) as the core unit of society. Platform cooperativism is about family-conscious shaping of work and life.

As for the user’s experience, alternative, open-source platforms would have to rival the habit-creating seductiveness of Uber. Cute penguins are no longer sufficient. Every Uber has an Unter, and the interface of platform-coop apps could instruct users about fair labor standards and the failing social protections in the “sharing economy.” Such platforms could give a face to the cloud workers who are?—?for all practical purposes?—?anonymous, isolated, and tucked away between algorithms.

Technologically, building coop apps is by no means a walk in the park. In the transportation sector, for example, we are talking about at least four apps. There is one app for the passenger and one for the driver, on both Android and iPhone; and both would have to be updated constantly and remain usable as operating systems and phones change. Scott Rosenberg taught us that many large software projects have failed or run dramatically over budget. Open-source developers could publish core protocols and APIs and then allow various independent, open-source projects to build their own different backend and front-end components.

Even now, there are already various examples of platform cooperativism. The Freelancers Union, for example, could place itself at the center of one such virtual hiring hall. There are also emerging forms of worker solidarity with forums like /r/mturk/ and design interventions such asTurkopticon. In Israel, La’Zooz is a distributed peer-to-peer ride rental network, and Fairmondo is a German cooperatively operated version of eBay. Projects in this area also include Blue Ridge Labs, an incubator for apps for the bottom 20 percent and FairCareLabs, which innovates for the Domestic Worker Movement. The Transunion Car Service in New Jersey and the California App-Based Drivers Association (CADA) are linking platform workers to unions.

It will not come as a surprise when I say that platform cooperativism is faced with enormous challenges, ranging from the self-organization and management of workers, to technology, UX design, education, long-term funding, scaling, wage scales, competition with multinational corporate giants, and public awareness. To make good digital labor a reality, it is essential for like-minded people to organize, form kernels of self-organization, and fight for basic democratic rights for cloud workers. But the future of work is not solely determined by slide shows in Silicon Valley board rooms; it is about a democratic society that does not tolerate exploitation and encourages cooperation.

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