Review Essay: Platform Cooperativism?

Author:Jacobs, David
Position::Book review
 
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Neil Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfled and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution, New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Trebor Scholz, Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy, Cambridge: Polity, 2016

Local communities around the world are grappling with the 'disruption' created by Uber, a ride-sharing company, and by other so-called sharing enterprises. Uber has recently been embroiled in scandals involving surge pricing and wage cutting, effective scabbing of a New York City taxi strike against the Trump travel plan, and an apparent pattern of sexual harassment at the top levels of management. The City of London has revoked Uber's license over its failure to monitor drivers' criminal records. Uber is increasingly identified with ruthless profit-maximising and social irresponsibility. Uber policies place drivers in direct competition with one another and subject them to arbitrary adjustments in wages and benefits. Many of the drivers are pleased with the relatively easy path to employment Uber offers compared to the substantial investments required in many big cities to join a taxi fleet. They soon learn, however, that the terms of employment are constantly changing. App algorithms are focused on externalising costs.

The phrase 'sharing company' does not accurately describe the reality. The underlying concept is that participants are able to put their unused time to profitable use and benefit from shared projects and resources. Sharing implies cooperation among equals. Uber, Amazon Mechanical Turk (a task-sharing firm), and similar firms are actually highly hierarchical, dictating conditions of work without warning based upon the changing directives of aggressive investors.

The libertarian-minded elements of Silicon Valley have waxed enthusiastic about sharing companies. The ideologues of economic liberty are impressed by the firms' flexibility and entrepreneurialism and by their ability to evade regulatory standards. Mike Lux has written that sharing companies 'are a libertarian's dream in terms of creating economic models without rules.' (1)

The pretense of 'sharing' makes licensing and safety standards appear as an imposition among friends. Modern technology offers its own validation. Sharing company defenders can proclaim their dedication to the interests of the sharing employee while anticipating the profits to come.

Consumers have taken to app-based firms, seeking...

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