Tech and Social Responsibility
What does the new pace of innovation mean for companies who care?
This month in New York City, The New School hosted a conference billed as “a coming-out party for the cooperative Internet,” a weekend of discussion sessions, screenings, and workshops focused on how the internet might be owned and operated differently and maybe more fairly. A great deal has been written on the subject, the idea of a liberating internet, a free and open environment of unlimited access to information and creativity that has been supplanted by proprietary systems and the dominance of a few huge firms.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of the sharing economy with startups like Zipcar and Airbnb, a new type of business model that seems to deliver on that original premise of collaboration and community. This shift from individual ownership to collaborative consumption, has not been met without criticism however, and the different types of platforms popping up daily raise some interesting questions about the future of business and how tech companies might navigate a shifting landscape.
A recent article took a critical look at the type of ratings systems used by platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Handy, claiming that these systems turn customers into unwitting and sometimes ruthless middle managers. The rules: drivers must maintain a relatively high rating or risk automatic deactivation. The question is whether this is fair—inviting the general public to determine people’s livelihoods, especially considering the fact that ratings are doled out based on any number of factors outside of the drivers’ control, such as the route taken, price fluctuations, traffic, refusal to speed, or even subconscious biases about race or gender. Regardless, there is a big difference between being fired and “deactivated,” mainly that the latter can be accomplished without any need for human interaction.
Of course the system is also effective, helping these companies achieve scale at a very low cost while managing vast numbers of untrained workers. But for drivers who are already in the uncertain position of contract labor, a fate subject to the whims of every single customer is an unsettling reality.
On the other hand, if we look at marketplaces like Etsy, SoundCloud, UpWork, and Behance—they have given workers newfound agency, what Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar calls “people-centric partnerships, opening up the possibility of a new localized, customized, specialized economy as delivered by the people.” These spaces allow genuinely creative people to connect directly with an audience on a scale they would have no way of achieving otherwise.
But in terms of the marketplaces of convenience offering anything from laundry to dog-walking, many things are left uncertain. As in the highly publicized case of Uber, the on-demand economy transforms the role of employer and employee in ways that regulators are only beginning to understand. “A Los Angeles driver had a particularly clear-eyed view, saying that ratings were essential to ‘dealing with the weak link, the driver’s personality, until the self-driving cars come.’”
One of the major draws of these platforms is of course their superior efficiency and as they evolve and become increasingly automated, they will employ less people and greater technology. As Robin Chase describes, “A more efficient economy is also an economy that creates fewer jobs and does away with job security.”
Despite the alarmist tone, when we consider the pace of business innovation (Chase points out that a company in 1937 had an average tenure of 75 years as opposed to 15 today) and the fact that over the last few decades, the richest 1% of families received 70% of the increase in average household wealth, perhaps we should examine how the gains of all this productivity and efficiency are to be distributed (Uber recently hiked up their commission rate to 30%).
It was a question discussed last week at the previously mentioned New School’s coming-out party for the cooperative internet, where developers, scholars, and designers discussed working towards structural economic change in the form of platform cooperatives. Alternatively, Robin Chase advocates for tax initiatives that would allow the government to provide greater security for people navigating more fluid and responsive work environments.
It seems that sustainability is an idea we can probably all get behind and a situation in which the gains from an increasingly efficient economy go almost exclusively to the platform owners doesn’t seem very stable. It’s hard to find fault with David Bollier’s description of “the commons” paraphrased in The Nation, which “arises whenever a group of people decides to collectively manage a resource with a special regard for equitable access and long-term stewardship. Much preferred to ‘a few guys manage a resource with a special regard for making billions of dollars.’”
Whether the solution lies with government or private efforts, there are many people invested in seeing a different model than the one Uber currently offers. It seems that working in digital environments might mean considering how we can build business models that generate dignity, creating spaces where self-interest might exist alongside the common good.
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