The Future of Work: Owning What We Share

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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(Photo: Twin Design/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Twin Design/Shutterstock)

The culture surrounding the Internet has a way of changing the meanings of common words. “Democratizing” now means that more people can book air travel or buy stocks online, rather than the older connotations of jury trials or ballot boxes. “Disruption” is suddenly an unabashedly good thing—referring not to the cataclysmic layoffs and displacement that occur when one industry undermines another, but only to the happy story of a David beating a Goliath. Then there is “sharing.” We used to share common resources with the people in our communities. Now sharing is the word we use for paying a tech start-up to connect us with people who, in turn, we can pay for using their house, car, or Legos.

Nathan Schneider writes about technology and the economy for publications including Vice, the New Republic, and the Nation. He is co-organizer of "Platform Cooperativism: The Internet, Ownership, Democracy," a convergence at the New School on November 13-14.

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The so-called sharing economy was barely born before many people began to recognize its slogans about trust and relationships as a rent-seeking ruse. But this ruse is still transforming how we work. Labor-sharing platforms like Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk have used the fact that they are on the Internet to bypass both customs and laws about what constitutes fair employment. They’re poised to set workers’ rights back a century or more. But, thanks to that very same Internet, there has never been a better time to build an economy in which participants can share real ownership and real control.

Imagine how Mechanical Turk, a digital clearinghouse for short-term gigs, would be different if the thousands of people working on it were also co-owners of the platform. They could use decision-making apps like DemocracyOS or Loomio to determine the policies that employers would have to follow. They could manage their shares online. When the platform does well, they could decide how much to pay themselves in dividends and how much to invest in R&D. They would have every reason to be enthusiastic advocates of the platform with potential clients. Its success would be their success. How, too, would Facebook be different if its users owned it and could decide what is done with their data? What about Uber?

All of this is possible. The Denver-based worker cooperative Green Taxi, for instance, has its own app for hailing a cab—the convenience of Uber, except drivers aren’t at the mercy of rules set by a faraway company that takes a hefty cut. A little more sci-fi is La’Zooz, an Israel-based ride-sharing system that uses the technology underlying Bitcoin to make co-owners of drivers and riders alike. As the on-demand “gig economy’’ leaves us with jobs that are lower-paying and more precarious than their predecessors, cooperatives are a way of putting participants first. With the help of the Bay Area’s Sustainable Economies Law Center, a company called Loconomics is creating a worker-owned alternative to TaskRabbit.

For just about every old-fashioned corporate platform we rely on, there’s a more cooperative way of doing things. The Amazon-like marketplace Fairmondo, based in Germany, is owned by its users rather than by a near-monopoly waging war on book publishers. Federated social media networks like Diaspora and Friendica show that we can have all the functionality of Facebook and Twitter without losing control over the personal information we share.

There are offline reasons why the big online platforms are not generally like this; it’s not for lack of technology. The most popular financing model among tech companies is to sell ownership and control to moneyed investors, whose primary interest is in a big, fast profit. Venture capitalists like companies that can grow quickly without having to worry about a lot of workers demanding to be treated humanely. Uber's investors can’t wait to replace its drivers with self-driving cars.

Walk into the offices of a leading tech company, and one might think that the egalitarian utopia has arrived. Developers scooter around on open floor-plans, choosing how to spend their time in ever-evolving project groups. They talk about “do-ocracy” and “holacracy.” Internet culture has taught us a lot about working collaboratively. But—except for some stock options here and there—this utopia doesn’t extend to ownership or control. In the end, the company’s purpose is to maximize profits for investors who may or may not have any relationship to what it actually does in the world. The Internet’s equalizing front-end obscures a depressingly familiar back-end business model.

We have a choice. We can veer toward Uber and Mechanical Turk, where work is insecure, impersonal, and on someone else’s terms. Or we can create online workplaces that a democratic society deserves. This means that the people who work to cultivate them—whether they’re users at home or programmers in an office—can help make decisions and reap the benefits. This means financing projects through resources that we manage together as a commons, rather than relying on inequality-producing markets. This might also mean deflating a dot-com bubble or two.

A more cooperative Internet can only happen if we re-align our culture and incentives—as well as changing the meanings of the words we use. Governments, for example, can give priority to contractors that practice real democracy in their own governance. The tech press can refuse to celebrate disruptions that don’t give workers more control over their lives. And sharing-economy boosters can insist that sharing must extend to ownership.

This is a practical challenge more than an ideological one. The goal is not to enforce a rigid orthodoxy. Rather, it’s to have a world in which a can-do young entrepreneur—the kind who wants nothing more than to create something new and excellent—will conclude that the best way to proceed is to practice democracy.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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