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Bull Session

Gig Economy Anxiety

December 7, 2018          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we talk about the future of work, the anxiety of the gig economy, and how we might re-imagine digital platforms, inspired by the essay “Do platforms work?” on Aeon.co. In the Gig Economy, work is an on-demand affair, driven by the needs of the moment, whether you’re an Uber driver, freelance marketing expert, or contract product designer. The temporary nature of this work — which is arbitrated by software which matches buyers and sellers — puts much power in the hands of the platform owner. For gig workers, earning a living is dependent on demand, reputation, and ultimately, the whims of a digital overlord. But what if there was a way for these workers to own a piece of that all important platform? Join us as we discuss.

Resources:
Do platforms work?

Jon:
Welcome to episode 286 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings, listeners.

Jon:
This week, we’re going to be talking about the future of work, the anxiety of the gig economy, and how we might reimagine digital platforms, inspired by the essay, “Do Platforms Work” on Aeon.co and encourage all our listeners to check out that essay, which is a lot of fun to read.

Dirk:
Is it fun?

Jon:
Yeah, maybe not fun. Maybe informative is the right way to –

Dirk:
I like it, I like it.

Jon:
-to cover it. Do you like informing yourself? Then maybe it’s fun. So, let’s start with just a little groundwork around the future of work. So, I think probably for at least the past decade, we’ve had lots of discussion and thought about the so-called gig economy. And, you know, it’s a popularized term now, but really got its start, you know, early 2000’s around freelance nation, right? So this idea that you were the arbiter of work, and many employers or companies would be looking for that work, and you would farm it out to the highest bidder. And that was what the future of knowledge work was going to look like.

Then Uber and similar companies sort of rolled out their platforms, and that was sort of the future for the gig economy. But this time for moving people physically. Transportation. There are all sorts of platforms today where you of course can go and find great contractors, like UpWork is one of those. There are all sorts of platforms were you can go find people to code software. In whatever industry you’re in, there are platforms that enable buyers and sellers to sort of come together.

So all of this is fine is good, except that, well number one, the gig economy is just that. It’s piecemeal. So if there is a lot of buyers and very few sellers, and you’re on the selling side, and your skills are in demand, then life is good. But if you’re trying to piece a bunch of things together, that’s where people can get very anxious about where their next paycheck will come from. And of course this is the anxiety of the gig economy. And I think experienced by all gig workers, because you are subject to the whims of the market, and the circumstances can change on a dime, really.

Dirk:
Yeah.

Jon:
So, that’s vastly different from having steady employment. And I can really sympathize if you’re trying to put together a lot of freelance gigs as a designer or a writer, not an easy thing to do. So the point of this article really is this idea that during the sort of second phase of the internet, where the larger tech companies that are so important today from Google to Facebook to Amazon, started consolidating people’s attention and transactions online. You had this moment where the platforms, that there were fewer of them, and more of our e-commerce and work is going through these platforms. And I think the author is basically arguing that we’ve got this sort of limited number of platforms, and then so many people who are interacting with them. It’s all to the advantage of the platform owners right now. We know that this is not the greatest situation, and allows for the kind of abuse that you see around things like people’s data being used in ways that they may not wish.

And so, the author of the article then proceeded to talk a little bit about this idea of co-owning platforms. Enabling digital workers to own a piece of the platform, and that maybe that would be a possible future where we don’t all become digital surfs for the oligarch’s of the biggest tech companies. So, without preamble Dirk, I’d love to know some of your thoughts about this. I know you think about these issues a lot, and I’d love to get your take on it.

Dirk:
Yeah, you know, philosophically, it’s interesting. And as a potential theoretical strategy of lifting us working up and not leaving us behind the moneyed men and women, great. It is just that right now, it’s theory. The article had some –

Jon:
Had some examples.

Dirk:
Had some examples, yeah. But the examples are really questionable. There was a ride sharing one that they had, and you know, if you dig into that a little more deeply, the website for it is just on some generic blog platform. It only allows payment through very janky interfaces around crypto currency and Indiegogo. The gap, the experience gap between that and Lyft, Uber, whatever, it’s a chasm, right? So that may be appropriate for the more bleeding edge. People who already frankly would be considered part of the tech elite, even if they’re not the money people at the top of the pyramid. But it’s not doing anything for the masses, at all. Not showing much traction, it’s just an idea, still. It’s still in theory, because the attempts at it are nascent at best.

So yeah, rock on, right? We need solutions for the future that don’t result in the masses being left behind. Even in the present, the masses are being left behind. But more and more of us will be left behind the way the future is progressing currently. And we need solutions around that, that not only allow you and me and people like us to keep having a path forward to safety, security, and wellness. But to broaden that, and bring more people up who are currently behind left behind and shouldn’t be. And these are things that need to be addressed. The idea of these sort of networks, these sort of platforms being a key to that is a really good idea. But there’s a lot of complexity in the way.

You know, one of the things that will work against it too is technology. We mentioned that ride sharing platform. Ride sharing type of technology is something that is really likely to be further disrupted by self-driving stuff, right? The people who are creating the self-driving vehicles themselves are going to be good candidates for creating platforms that again are just rewarding the owners, the people at the top of the pyramid. Both from the standpoint of the speed of technology leaving these existing platforms behind, but then the manifestation of the technology and these heavy, capital intensive contacts also creates an opportunity to disenfranchise those who are trying to move forward via a platform.

It’s easy to share the idea, and it sounds great and it’s inspiring and it’s kind of focused on a real problem. Boy, there’s a lot between good idea and something that actually could work in a repeatable way, instead of just in one little micro community or another.

Jon:
Yeah, well you were saying that, I had some thought’s sort of based on my experiences around early 2000’s, when the tech industry went through pretty significant lull after the internet bubble burst, right? There were a lot of engineers who were either underemployed, working for themselves, or like whatever. And that’s the time when you saw some of these early opensource blogging platforms take shape. So, before the so called web 2.0 revolution, most of web publishing was, you either coded it yourself, or you would go through this long design and deployment process and post something online. Or maybe you were just posting stuff because you were at a lab or something like that. But web 2.0 really helped democratize a lot of the content creation. And of course Facebook sort of came out of that period.

Dirk:
WordPress came out of that period too.

Jon:
Exactly. And that’s what I’m getting at. That there’s this opportunity where there were probably just lots of engineers and designers with time on their hands, and they were able to create sort of the foundational layers for platforms that people could self-publish. Now, you know, the end result was that Facebook got a ton of funding and rose to the top and became the juggernaut that it is today. But, as the economy goes in cycles again, I think there is probably going to be another opportunity for engineers to be creating whatever that next level platform is that would be more egalitarian.

Dirk:
You’re talking more specifically now about the social network that would replace Facebook, essentially?

Jon:
Or, you know like, we had that example. What would Uber be like if it were owned by the drivers? Or what would any of the so-called sharing platforms look like if they were owned by the people who were using them, and not by a centralized power?

Dirk:
It might not be good, right? It might not be good. Because centralized power is one of the things that makes it all possible. What makes, so I use Lyft instead of Uber. Those are the two main players here in the United States. What makes Lyft work for me is it doesn’t matter what airport I’m coming out of, there can be a car ready for me. And it’s pushing a few buttons, they’ll take out my credit card, easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? Centralization allows that. Two, let’s say you want to have a competitor to Lyft, and you want it to be a driver owned and organized thing. Where do you get the capital for marketing? Assuming you can bring together all these drivers, you can federate all these communities, you can build a product that is peer to the existing products that have spent, I don’t know, hundreds of millions, billions of dollars. Whatever the number is at this point for Uber and Lyft as organizations. Assuming you can overcome all of those hurdles, then how the hell do you market it so that people like you and me even understand that that’s an option as opposed to a Lyft?

Where does that money come from? You don’t have a big fat VC, the whole point is to push those people out of the picture. You don’t have the Daddy Warbucks there to just burn money so that the world can find out that you’ve done it. So, a paradox, one of the frustrating things about capitalism, about sort of generational, and cross generational wealth is that the people who have the money are the one’s who can make more money. They’re the one’s who can make the future platforms, they’ve got the money to burn, to waste, to spend to make that happen. So you know, the sort of communist drivers of the world unite model, there’s a lot of boundaries between getting them to unit, to having something that actually is a credible competitor. And then to take the articles point, do that across many industries, it just gets harder and harder.

So sure, it might be possible. But I think the people who are talking about these ideas such as the particular article we’ve talked about here, I’m not seeing any path to viability. It’s just a lot of hand waving and smoke, and good ideas. And we need those. I do a lot of hand waving and smoke and good ideas of my own. But it’s a long way from that moment to it being a real thing. And there are huge barriers, in this case, and overcoming those barriers all seem to drag us back to the same old, Daddy Warbucks, the rich get richer model.

Jon:
Yeah, you know, so point well taken. Of course that’s all very true. I think there are nascent possibilities. I mean we talked about WordPress coming out of early web 2.0. And that really created whatever, the blog economy, right? That didn’t exist before and self-publishing really wasn’t there. I mean, on say the messaging side of things, you sort of see Twitter has the platform for that. But on the opposite side of the coin you have something like Discord, right? For gamers. Which is on a private server, sort of handled by, in a DIY fashion, by whatever group wants to stand up a server.

So there are, and sort of the whole opensource movement is based on that. You have Linux, which is sort of the go-to example, right? Of Opensource spreading. So I’m a little less skeptical, but certainly all the difficulties are there. The one thing that strikes me, there’s a profound need for there to be worker owned assets. So you see, in the industrial revolution you get unionization, right? And so the asset there was the labor, right? So collective labor really was what people were able to come together in a union and then use that as a bargaining chip. Because it’s not just the one guy, it’s the many guys, but it’s their labor.

So in our digital transformation, that revolution, there really hasn’t been that consolidation of labor in the same way. There hasn’t been a digital workers union. There’s not, none of that exists right now. And I do think that one route there is this idea of the participant owned platform. I’m not saying that that’s what’s going to necessarily take hold. But there is a profound need for there to be a counterweight to capital in this. Because over the long term, you are just not going to have a healthy economy as money works it way to the top and stays there. For this system to be able to continue on in any sort of recognizable form that doesn’t get turned into a complete cluster screw, you need counter balances. And right now, all the weight is moving in one direction.

So, I do see the profound need and the possibility, right?

Dirk:
Definitely profound need, yeah.

Jon:
Yeah, but like you, the route there? Who the heck knows. But there are sort of pockets of technology is completely surprising to me. I gotta say, in the 2000’s I was blown away by WordPress. I couldn’t, the amount of power that that gave you was just stunning. So there’s lots of room for surprises here. I guess my hope is that the needs and the possibilities comes together in time to counteract what I see as really a system decay, right now. And sustainability over the longterm. I think this will create more system health, quite frankly.

Dirk:
Maybe. You know, one of the problems is that even the successes don’t ultimately create system health. So if we talk about WordPress. WordPress is used as a professional website platform, and it’s in a market environment in which the customer expects websites at dirt cheap prices. Websites have been commoditized to, you know if somebody buys a new website for a thousand dollars, a couple thousand dollars, which is pushing the labor cost down to unsustainable for people in the United States, leading to the design and development of WordPress sites going offshore. Going to other countries. So you have this tool, it’s opensource, we can say a lot of good things about WordPress, but it has fueled a pressing down of market expectation around what a professional, competent website should cost for a small company, or for an independent who’s trying to get their own thing done. That is to the detriment of the very people that we’re talking about helping and saving in these different systems.

Again, even with the successful opensource yay, good, rah rah solutions, they often are burning the people who really can’t afford to be burned.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in realtime. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
So that’s it for episode 285 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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Jon Follett
@jonfollett

Jon is Principal of GoInvo and an internationally published author on the topics of user experience and information design. His most recent book, Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics and the Internet of Things, was published by O’Reilly Media.

Dirk Knemeyer
@dknemeyer

Dirk is a social futurist and a founder of GoInvo. He envisions new systems for organizational, social, and personal change, helping leaders to make radical transformation. Dirk is a frequent speaker who has shared his ideas at TEDx, Transhumanism+ and SXSW along with keynotes in Europe and the US. He has been published in Business Week and participated on the 15 boards spanning industries like healthcare, publishing, and education.

Credits

Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Dave Nelson Lens Group Media

Technical Support

Eric Benoit @ebenoit

Opening Theme

Aiva.ai @aivatechnology

Closing Theme

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

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