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.
Excerpted from Trebor Scholz:
“The backlash against unethical labor practices in the “collaborative sharing economy” has been overplayed. Recently, The Washington Post, New York Times and others started to rail against online labor brokerages like Taskrabbit, Handy, and Uber because of an utter lack of concern for their workers. At the recent Digital Labor conference, my colleague McKenzie Wark proposed that the modes of production that we appear to be entering are not quite capitalism as classically described. “This is not capitalism,” he said, “this is something worse.”
But just for one moment imagine that the algorithmic heart of any of these 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.
Take, for example, Uber’s app, with all its geolocation and ride ordering capabilities. Why do its owners and shareholders have to be the main benefactors of such platform-based labor brokerage? Developers, in collaboration with local, worker-owner cooperatives could design such a self-contained program for mobile phones. Despite its meteoric rise, $300 million in VC-backing (and its $18 billion evaluation bubble), as well as massive international reach, there is nothing inevitable about Uber’s long-term success. There’s no magic sauce when it comes to developing such a piece of software; it’s not rocket science. Of course, technology is only one part of the equation and instead of letting techno-determinsim run its course, I’d rather point to the long history of worker-owned cooperatives, EP Thompson and Robert Owen.
There isn’t just one, inevitable future of work. Let us apply the power of our technological imagination to practice forms of cooperation and collaboration. Worker–owned cooperatives could design their own apps-based platforms, fostering truly peer-to-peer ways of providing services and things, and speak truth to the new platform capitalists.”
After describing how this would work for ride-sharing and replacing Uber and Lyft, Trebor makes a number of interesting concusions:
Taxi drivers and technologists can coalesce to build an app that equals or outperforms their corporate equivalent. This movement has already started with a driver-owned ride rental service and Fairmondo, a co-op-based version of eBay. Worker-owned cooperatives can offer an alternative model of social organization to address financial instability.
Platform cooperativism equals a more humane workplace equals real benefits. They say that big money talks, but I say that platform cooperativism can invigorate genuine sharing, and that it does not have to reject the market. Platform cooperativism can serve as remedy for the corrosive effects of capitalism; it can be a reminder that work can be dignified rather than diminishing for the human experience. Cooperatives are not a panacea but they could help to weave some ethical threats into the fabric of 21st century work.