Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy
(revised Schocket lecture, Rosa Lux, MSR, Paris)
Thanks for coming out so early on this crisp late-summer morning in Paris.
Poem: ‘Visions of Labour’
I will have writings written all over it in human words: wrote Blake.
A running form, Pound’s Blake: shouting, whirling his arms,
his eyes rolling, whirling like flaming cartwheels.
Put it this way, in this language:
a blow in the small of the back from a rifle butt, the crack of a blackjack on a skull, face beaten to a pulp, punched in the nose with a fist, glasses flying off, ‘fuckin’ Wobblie wop, hit him again for me,’ rifle barrel slammed against the knees, so much blood in the eyes, rain, and the night, and the shooting pain all up and down the spine, can’t see.
Put it this way: in the sense of smell is an acrid odour of scorched metal, in the sense of sound, the roaring of blow torches.
Put it in this language: labour’s value is abstract value, abstracted into space in which a milling machine cutter cuts through the hand, the end of her thumb nearly cut off, metal shavings driven in, rapidly infected.
Put it at this point, the point at which capital is most inhumane, unsentimental, out of control: the quantity of human labour in the digital manufacture of a product is progressing toward the economic value of zero, the maintenance and monitoring of new cybernetic processes occupied by fungible, commodified labour in a form of indentured servitude.
Static model, dynamic model, alternate contract environments, enterprise size and labour market functions, equilibrium characterisation, elasticity of response to productivity shocks: the question in this Third Industrial Revolution is who owns and controls the data.
That’s what we’re looking at, labour cheap,replaceable, self-replicating, marginal, contracted out into smaller and smaller units.
Them? Hordes of them, of depleted economic, social value, who don’t count, in any situation, in anyone’s eyes, and won’t count, ever, no matter what happens, the truth that, sooner than later, they will simply be eliminated.
In Hanover Square, a freezing dawn, from inside bronze doors the watchman sips bourbon and black coffee in a paper cup, sees a drunk or drugged hedge fund boy step over a passed-out body.
A logic of exploitation.
A logic of submission.
The word alienation.
Eyes being fixed on mediated screens, in semiotic labour flow: how many generations between these States’ age of slavery and ours? Makers, we, of perfectly contemplated machines.
So, digital labor touches on all of us in many ways.
…. , not just on Mechanical Turk, but also when you are browsing Facebook profiles in your spare time, search for “The Office” on Google, or use app-accessible services like TaskRabbit or Postmates.
In this morning’s talk, I will highlight what is and what could be successful about 21st century work and what are some tendencies that are worrisome. Once we gained an under-standing of that, we can examine how to work around the concerning dispositions and promote positive trends. I will speak for roughly forty minutes, and dedicated the second half to platform cooperativism and our upcoming conference.
In the first 5 minutes, I will walk you through a few cases that I find troublesome.
As we are in Seattle, let’s start by asking for a show of hands: who has read the recent expose about Amazon.com’s white collar workers in the NYT?
While it was shocking to read about the abysmal conditions for Amazon’s white collar workforce, it is still incredibly convenient to use the company’s services, is not it. It’s easy to forget that in the shadows of this convenience lie the social costs for workers.
Behind the screen, wage theft, exploitation, and total workplace surveillance. You may remember from the NYT expose: Bo Olson, who worked in book marketing, stating that
“Nearly every person I
worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
Later, Katie Benner of the NYT and many other commentators responded to the story with an utter lack of sympathy, empathy, or compassion. Benner wrote:
The ideology of choice would deserve an entire talk in itself.
This is one of Amazon’s so-called “inactivity reports.” These documents are issued by the company to its warehouse workers. The example here is from Leipzig.
In Leipzig, Germany, one logistics worker in an Amazon “fulfillment center” was accused of having been inactive on two occasions. Consequently, he was fired five minutes after his second “digression.”
Such densification of labor through extreme workplace surveillance is reminiscent to Taylor’s scientific management, of course.
Also part of the Amazon story, just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling, stating that workers in these warehouses have no right to be paid for the time that they are waiting for mandatory security screenings, when they are leaving the warehouse.
Since 2005, Amazon also operates an online labor brokerage: Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT). Workers log on to the website and pick tasks from long listings. Similar to traditional piecemeal work in the garment industry, Mechanical Turk allows for a project to be broken down into thousands of bits, which are then assigned as individual tasks to so-called crowd workers.
On AMT, like on many crowdsourcing environments, inexperienced, novice workers are making between two and three dollars an hour. Just like migrant workers, barristers, or workers in the fast food industry, they are working long hours, are underpaid, insufficiently protected by labor laws, have few or no benefits, and are often treated poorly by their virtual bosses.
Like I mentioned, Amazon claims that Mechanical Turk has a labor pool of 500,000 workers. Other crowdsourcing companies, like CrowdFlower, point to an even larger invisible, global workforce that remains anonymous, for all practical purposes.
These are the people who Lawrence Joseph referred to in his poem:
“Hordes of them, of depleted economic, social value, who don’t count, in any situation, in anyone’s eyes, and won’t count, ever, no matter what happens, the truth that, sooner than later, they will simply be eliminated.“