Meet the activists who would co-op(t) the tech industry

As it represented the third in a series of gatherings on digital labor, guests at the New School for last weekend’s Platform Cooperativism conference didn’t need much convincing that the state of platform-enabled work is… not great. More and more it seems as though companies are only hiring contract workers, which makes for unstable incomes and a lack of worker protections. Meanwhile, the business model behind much of the online economy relies on surveilling its users. Having followed its progress online, I can say that last year’s digital labor conference sounded exceedingly dark.

And yet, this year there was a heady mix of optimism in the air. For all the reservations and anxieties that speakers and participants expressed about the future of work in the “sharing economy,” there was more or less an agreed-upon answer: workers should own the platforms. Uber, for example, should belong to its drivers (and not the other way around). The real question – instead – focused on how to get there.

Considering the size and might of today’s industry dominants like Amazon, Uber and Airbnb, that’s a big question. Valued at about $250 billion, $70 billion and $24 billion, respectively, it is difficult to imagine anyone challenging their market position. Still, these valuations are based largely on projection — particularly the projection that a service like Uber will assume total control over the ride-sharing market and more, even while it currently hemorrhages money. Still, as fast as these companies are burning through cash, they continue to pull in investment capital even faster.

Trevor Scholz, via Flickr

Trebor Scholz, via Flickr

That gig economy giants owe their success to speculation was not lost on many attendees. And as Uber and Airbnb attempt to mobilize their users as a political constituency, it becomes clearer every day that a certain political calculation is baked into their value. As New School faculty member and one of the conference’s organizers Trebor Scholz said in his opening remarks, “the on-demand economy is Reaganism by other means.” Union busting, peeling back regulation and normalizing flexible work have all been accelerated by these new platforms, even if their size relative to the economy as a whole remains small. “For millennials,” Scholz said, “their career path looks like a self-driving car heading towards the job-ocalypse.”

Arguments about the actual viability of a services-based online economy as “the future of work” permeated discussions inside and outside the lecture halls. Yochai Benkler, co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, framed the general mindset in strong terms: “The drive to cooperativism is the idea that, after 40 years of wage stagnation; unsustainability; and boom and bust; capitalism is actually inefficient.” He likened the model co-ops could follow to the free software movement’s, arguing to “build our own things and shift power through changed ownership structures.”

The crowds flocking into overbooked seminar rooms ranged from young techies, freelance workers, students and academics to activists and agitators. Attendees probably skewed whiter and maler than your average subway car, but it was evident that each panel was consciously balanced. There was even a Student Town Hall that brought together recently-unionized grad students and Black Lives Matter organizers (very likely not the case at Silicon Valley’s concurrent Next:Economy event). While the variety of different constituencies was apparent, the ideological diversity present made for interesting and meaningful encounters (those not debating the relative merits of capitalism and socialism were, likely, busy tweeting).

Speakers floated ideas from the radical to the accepted and respectable. Dmytri Kleiner talked about his books, Venture Communism and The Telekommunist Manifesto, while Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, spoke to the financial challenges of building a viable platform: the not-inconsiderable funds they require, and the importance of network effects in determining which ones succeed (for a while at least, the ones that show up first). Building a platform is so much more than developing an app.

Leveraging network effects became a dominant theme throughout the weekend, to the extent that it became a kind of metaphor for the whole gathering. Yochai Benkler concluded his talk by saying that “the most important thing is to be here… the only thing that will make platform cooperativism work will be a shift in ideologies.” To hear them tell it, it was as if consciously coming together and talking about these ideas would unleash untold events down the line. That the major platforms have succeeded by controlling the flow of information between supply and demand while extracting rents from that exchange oddly reinforces this point. With the Internet and the on-demand service economy, it has never been quite so clear how, at a fundamental level, the markets respond to and are shaped by messages being relayed back and forth over the networks, be they telegrams, stock prices on Bloomberg dot com or AP wires out of the Central African Republic. Surge pricing is an obvious and illustrative example of this.

In the beginning there was data. Only after that was there supply and demand. But to admit this would be to suggest that the economy is something political, and (perhaps) that to demand something is to generate demand for it.

At times the atmosphere reflected the can-do spirit and solutionism associated with Silicon Valley in ways that were rather surprising. At others, the labor and activist contingent took a markedly different stance. In her closing speech for the conference, while Astra Taylor talked about creating a financial ecosystem for cooperative development, she also brought up the importance of non-cooperation. Taylor has been instrumental in organizing debtors and in forcing the US Department of Education to cancel debts for some former students defrauded by the now-bankrupt for-profit Corinthian College. “I want my platform cooperativism confrontational,” she concluded.

Given the way the conference billed itself as “a coming out party for the cooperative internet,” Taylor’s sentiment held even more truth than many of those gathered had even realized. Coming out, after all, comes with major cathartic release, but even then is often followed by years of struggle and confrontation.

Those who would seek to challenge the tech industry giants can expect as much, and they just might have to look forward to an awkward Thanskgiving.

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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