Posts Tagged ‘sharing’

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Finally, after years of near-orgiastic celebrations of the internet of things—including, of course, Jeremy Rifkin’s extravagant claim that it would move us beyond capitalism and usher in the “democratization of economic life”—commentators are beginning to question some of its key assumptions and effects. What they have discovered is that the internet of things is, “in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Nathan Heller, for example, finds that, while the gig economy can make life easier and more financially rewarding for many “creative, affluent professionals,” it often has negative effects on those who do the actual work:

A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.

On top of that, the fact that the so-called sharing economy has become a liberal beacon (including, as Heller makes clear, among many Democratic activists and strategists) has meant the displacing of “commonweal projects that used to be the pride of progressivism” by acts of individual internet-based exchange.

Perhaps even more important (or at least more unexpected and therefore more interesting), Adam Greenfield focuses on the problematic philosophical assumptions embedded in the ideology of the internet of things.

The strongest and most explicit articulation of this ideology in the definition of a smart city has been offered by the house journal of the engineering company Siemens: “Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service … The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind all of this: that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, this is effectively an argument that there is one and only one correct solution to each identified need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something that can be encoded in public policy, without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

As Greenfield explains, “Every aspect of this argument is questionable,” starting with the idea that everything—from users’ habits to energy consumption— is perfectly knowable.

Because that’s the promise of the internet of things (including the gig economy): that what individuals want and do and how the system itself operates can be correctly monitored and measured—and the resulting information utilized to “provide optimum service.” The presumption is there are no inherent biases in the monitoring and measuring, and no need for collective deliberation about how to solve individual and social problems.

The ideology of the internet of things is shorn of everything we’ve learned about both epistemology (that knowledges are constructed, and different standpoints participate in constructing those knowledges differently) and economic and social life (that the different ways the surplus is produced and distributed affect not only the economy but also the larger social order).

It seems the conventional ways of thinking about the internet of things are merely an extension of mainstream economists’ ways of theorizing the world of commodity exchange, allowing a definite social relation to assume the fantastic form of a relation between things.

That’s where metaphysics and theology leave off and the critique of political economy begins.

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Posted: 28 June 2016 in Uncategorized
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No, Uber is not a path to personal freedom and financial independence.

Far from it.

According to internal Uber calculations, provided to BuzzFeed News, based on data spanning more than a million rides and covering thousands of drivers in three major U.S. markets—Denver, Detroit, and Houston—drivers in each of the three markets overall earned less than an average of $13.25 an hour after expenses.

Uber says it doesn’t know how much drivers on its platform actually earn per hour, after expenses. Still, Uber’s internal pricing models, found in the spreadsheets provided to BuzzFeed News, do generate rough estimates of driver net pay. But in internal communications seen by BuzzFeed News, Uber explicitly discourages employees from comparing these estimates to the minimum wage.

A BuzzFeed News review of the rough internal net pay estimates contained in the leaked documents determined that the models Uber used are highly abstracted and oversimplify certain key calculations. Rather than relying on Uber’s figures, BuzzFeed News conducted an independent analysis of the raw trip data and driver data. Uber subsequently recalculated BuzzFeed’s estimates using a broader and more detailed set of internal data — which it declined to share directly with BuzzFeed News. The company did, however, conduct this recalculation according to BuzzFeed News’ methodology — which it said was “solid” — and did so in the presence of a BuzzFeed News editor and reporter.

Based on these calculations, it’s possible to estimate that Uber drivers in late 2015 earned approximately $13.17 per hour after expenses in the Denver market (which includes all of Colorado), $10.75 per hour after expenses in the Houston area, and $8.77 per hour after expenses in the Detroit market, less than any earnings figure previously released by the company.

What this means is that Uber drivers (at least in Denver, Houston, and Detroit) earn about the same as or less than the average for “taxi drivers and chauffeurs,” which in May 2015 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) was $13 an hour.

And just so we understand how little drivers make—inside and outside the so-called sharing economy—the average hourly pay for production and nonsupervisory workers in May of last year was $20.99.

Or just compare that to the net worth of Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber Technologies: $6.2 billion.

Clearly, the only sharing going on in Uber is from the bottom up.

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We know that the so-called gig economy—in the form of such online platforms as Uber and Airbnb—offers more alternatives in terms of finding transportation and renting property. But it doesn’t overturn the unequalizing dynamics of contemporary capitalism. In fact, it probably makes things even more unequal.

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What about the online platforms for workers, like TaskRabbit and HourlyNerd? They, too, represent a new kind of freedom—and, at the same time, a new way for employers to take advantage of workers.

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A June 2015 report from the McKinsey Global Institute makes clear the advantages for employers: more output (by up to 9 percent), lower costs (by up to 7 percent), and higher profits (by up to 5.4 percent). The idea is that digital platforms enhance recruiting and personalize various aspects of talent management (including training, incentives, and career paths) in the case of high-skilled workers, and improve the screening and assessment of job candidates (thus allowing them to “make better predictions about candidates’ ability to perform tasks as well as the likelihood of their timeliness, reliability, and commitment”) for companies with large low-skilled workforces. It also makes it easier for employers to contract workers for particular projects and then let them go, until the next project (requiring a different group of workers) comes up. So, with better matching, screening, and flexibility, workers produce more, cost less, and create more profits for their employers.

It sounds like a dream come true for employers.* And it is!

The problem, of course, is to sell the new digital labor platforms to workers, both blue-collar and increasingly white-collar. Here’s how McKinsey does it:

Online talent platforms can bring a new dimension to profiles of individual workers: their soft skills, traits, and endorsements from colleagues and superiors. The accumulated ratings and feedback provided to contingent workers through online marketplaces could be valuable, particularly for young people with little other work experience as they seek permanent employment. Accumulating and codifying these reputational elements can help individuals distinguish themselves in the job market and can help employers identify people who are a better fit for the positions they are filling.

In other words, it’s all about freedom and control.

And that’s important to recognize, because capitalism does represent the birth of a new freedom—for example, compared to feudalism and slavery. Under feudalism, workers (serfs) were tied to their employers (lords) in order to gain access to land (and, if the serfs violated those ties, for instance by attempting to attach themselves to a different lord’s demense, there was always the blacklist). As for slavery, workers (slaves) were owned as human chattel by their employers (slaveowners) and could not work for anyone else unless they were rented or sold by their owners (and subject to torture if they didn’t work hard enough).

Capitalism, in contrast, means that workers own their ability to work and are free to sell it to any employer. But it also mean, because their ability to work isn’t worth anything to them unless they sell it to someone else for a wage or salary, workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to another group, their employers. (And the employers, of course, appropriate the surplus those workers create—just as their predecessors did from their workers under feudalism and slavery.)

Nothing in the new digital platforms changes that. Workers are still forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work (and to produce a surplus for someone else, or they won’t be hired). The only thing that’s changed is the amount of data and the kind of analytics that are available to their employers (concerning the positions employers are filling, the skills required, and the paths workers have followed in education or previous positions).

But workers beware: “As data collection and analysis become more sophisticated, users will have to be mindful that every online interaction can affect their professional reputation.” What’s new for workers is they’re now forced to have the freedom to also watch what they do online.

And that’s why workers—both on and off the job—are increasingly being turned into jack rabbits.

 

*It’s also the fulfillment of a dream for neoclassical economists, who in their models spend a great deal of time on issues of job search, screening, and matching—for them, when those issues are solved, the perfect labor market.

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Throughout American history, whenever workers try to organize, they’re opposed by their employers.

That was true in the period of manufacturing, and then with the growth of the service sector. Now, it’s true in the so-called sharing economy.

Seattle [ht: sm] was the first city in the nation to allow drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as taxi and for-hire drivers, the right to collectively negotiate on pay and working conditions.

Back in January, Uber tried to stop workers from organizing by having their customer service representatives engage in union-busting by reading anti-union statements to drivers.

“Drivers choose Lyft to earn extra money when, where and for however long they can work,” a company spokeswoman told PCMag. “We continue to share concerns raised by city officials that the ordinance threatens the privacy of drivers, conflicts with longstanding federal labor and antitrust law, and may undermine the flexibility that makes Lyft so attractive both to drivers and passengers.”

Now, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suing Seattle over the new ride-sharing ordinance.

“This ordinance threatens the ability not just of Seattle, but of every community across the country, to grow with and benefit from our evolving economy,” Amanda Eversole, president of the Chamber’s Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, said in a statement.

“Technology companies are leading the charge when it comes to empowering people with the flexibility and choice that comes with being your own boss, and that is something to be championed, not stifled,” she added.

Seattle’s ordinance—approved unanimously by the city council but opposed by Mayor Ed Murray—threatens the viability of that economy, the Chamber said.

The U.S. economy today is radically different from what it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And, yet, some things have not changed: Workers are exploited and they try to organize unions to bargain over their wages and working conditions. Meanwhile, their employers do everything they can to try to stop them.

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