The Future of Work: The People's Uber

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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Platform design would have to rival the habit-creating seductiveness of Uber. (Photo: mikedotta/Shutterstock)

Platform design would have to rival the habit-creating seductiveness of Uber. (Photo: mikedotta/Shutterstock)

You have probably read or listened to at least one story about unethical labor practices in the sharing economy. To get gigs, workers must go through the bottleneck of Internet platforms where thousands of novice workers are paid $2 to $3 an hour, workplace surveillance is rampant, and wage theft is a feature, not a bug.

Trebor Scholz is an associate professor at the New School in New York and co-convener of Platform Cooperativism: The Internet, Ownership, Democracy.

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The economist Liran Einav gives all of this a sense of inevitability. Recently, he argued that “these markets are going to take over our lives whether we like it or not,” making it sound as if there is little that social movements or policymakers can do to shape the future of work. I disagree; there is not only one possible future.

A serious transformation of capitalism will surely require grave changes in the organization of work. But, hey, Silicon Valley loves a good “disruption.’’ So let’s give them one: platform cooperativism.

What I call platform cooperativism is about experimentation with ownership; governance; and flexible, fair, and dignified digital work, as well as new forms of solidarity. It is about multi-stakeholder cooperatives, inventive unions, public infrastructure, worker associations, and cooperatives building their own labor platforms rooted not in greed but the needs of workers. It is about labor history’s cardinal lesson, which is that, in confrontation with owners, individual solutions don’t work. The future of labor need not be defined solely by venture capital-funded Silicon Valley ringleaders but by countless civic stakeholders.

Rather than leaving the economy exclusively to the productivity imperatives of owners like Amazon or Microsoft, platform co-ops could set an example of good digital work. They do, however, have to act fast. All too often, social movements, regulators, and cooperatives move slowly, while tech-entrepreneurs are rapidly creating realities on the ground. Labor advocates, organizers, workers, designers, investors, and developers—we all have to get our act together because the future is seeded now and the network effect is chiseling prospective global monopolies like Uber into stone.

Workers need to be clear about their principles and values. The principles of platform cooperativism include job security, good pay, transparency, a pleasant working atmosphere (acknowledgment and appreciation), co-determined work, a protective legal framework, weekly work time of 30 to 40 hours, and protection against arbitrary mandates. It rejects excessive workplace surveillance, along the lines of Upwork’s worker diaries or the constant reviews on Uber and TaskRabbit. No, the sharing economy is not a self-regulating Shangri-La of freedom and democracy.

In addition, workers need to have the right to log off; decent digital work has clear boundaries. Platform cooperatives need to leave time for relaxation, lifelong learning, and voluntary political work. While such lofty goals are difficult to achieve over the short term, it is important to articulate them. Our inability to imagine and speak of a different life would be capital’s ultimate triumph.

Demands for the right to collective bargaining, higher wages, or better benefits are important. But structural change, the creation of alternative models of social organization, is more fundamental. Worker-taken factories from Argentina to Ecuador are not the prime model here. This is not primarily about creating a worker-owned branch of UberX with gracious permission from its chief executive, Travis Kalanick. Instead, let’s rip out the algorithmic heart of the sharing economy, clone it, and bring it back to life with a cooperative ownership model.

Platforms that allow workers to exchange their labor without the manipulation of a corporate middleman are possible. It is about adherence to democratic values like accountability and co-governance. Democratically controlled businesses, such as worker-owned cooperatives, could target local niche markets without having to focus on scaling up. A freelancer-owned cooperative like the San Francisco-based Loconomics could benefit from the regulatory templates of the sharing economy that will be established on the city level. Municipal laws could mandate that ride-sharing companies operate as worker-owned cooperatives. And why could not New York City own and run a business just like Airbnb?

Let’s also make sure that the responsibility of family-friendly work is not solely transferred to the worker. Uber, TaskRabbit, and Handy are creating conditions that are not compatible with the everyday life of families or most other arrangements of domestic life.

Platform design would have to rival the habit-creating seductiveness of Uber. Design for platform co-ops would have to integrate worker training and consumer education. Every Uber has an Unter and such open-source design could contrast its ethical labor practices against the failing social protections in the dominant sharing economy. Cooperative platforms could give a face to the cloud workers who are—for all practical purposes—anonymous, isolated, and tucked away between algorithms.

On the technical side, building co-op apps is by no means a walk in the park. In the transportation sector, for example, we are talking about at least four apps. There is one app for the passenger and one for the driver, on both Android and iPhone; and both would have to be updated constantly and remain usable as operating systems and phones evolve. Open-source developers could publish core protocols and APIs and then allow various independent, open-source projects to build their own back-end and front-end components for the various sectors.

Scott Rosenberg taught us that many large software projects have failed or run dramatically over budget. An international consortium could oversee the development of the kernel and secure ongoing funding.

Already now, we are witnessing the formation of a movement around platform cooperatives. What would it be like if the Freelancers Union, for example, placed itself at the center of one such virtual hiring hall? There are also emerging forms of worker solidarity with forums like /r/mturk/ or TurkerNation as well as design interventions such as Turkopticon and Dynamo. The Transunion Car Service in New Jersey and the California App-Based Drivers Association are linking platform workers to unions.

In Israel, La’Zooz is a distributed peer-to-peer ride rental network. In Germany, Fairmondo is a cooperatively owned and operated version of eBay. In Seattle at Microsoft Research, FuseLab is spearheading a collaborative project aiming to support platform cooperatives of the most vulnerable workers. At MIT, Sasha Costanza-Chock is pursuing a similarly ambitious agenda. At Stanford, Daemo is a self-governed crowdsourcing marketplace under development.

It will not come as a surprise when I say that platform cooperativism is also faced with enormous challenges, from the self-organization and management of workers, to technology, UX design, education, long-term funding, scaling, wage scales, competition with multinational corporate giants, and public awareness. To make good digital labor a reality, it is essential for like-minded people to organize and fight for basic democratic rights for workers. The future of work is not solely determined by slideshows in Silicon Valley boardrooms; it is about a democratic society that does not tolerate exploitation and encourages cooperation.

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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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