Bull Session

Labor and the Gig Economy

September 15, 2016          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we discuss the gig economy and labor disputes. What are the new labor disputes? In many ways, they’re the same as the old ones — unemployment insurance, workers comp, minimum wage, snf the right to organize — but for a new kind of worker. If the future of many kinds of work is found in their Uber-ization, what does this mean for fair labor practices? Does distributed, just-in-time work, mean that the protections for workers are gone forever? Or are there new models that we could use to fairly compensate people? We discuss regulation and the design of new labor policy in the age of Uber.

App Based Services Spark a New Age of Labor Disputes

Welcome to episode 173 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.

Hey Jon.

Hey Dirk. For the podcast this week, let’s discuss the gig economy and the contentious labor disputes that are beginning to arise as a result of this new way of working. Actually, it’s not really a new way of working. I’m sure there always been freelancers and people who work from job to job, but now there’s an increase in the number of folks who work this way, as opposed to being W2 employees with all of the protections that that classification affords. The sort of new gig economy is epitomized by the quote “Uberization” of everything, right? So now you can not only get a ride somewhere, but you can get various tasks and chores done for you, and companies can take advantage of this style of labor as they build out these gargantuan platforms and make profits on the results of these platforms. Does this distributed, just in time work mean that protections for workers are gone forever?

Certainly, it’s hard for Uber drivers to organize, and even to get recognized as having the right to organize, frankly. Or, is there hope for new models that we could use to fairly compensate people. Of course there’s plenty of discussion on this topic, and I think we’re going to way in on this a little bit today. Dirk, what’s your take on this rise in the gig economy and sort of ways that we can approach thinking about labor rights for this class of worker?

I think the gig economy in the most generic sense is logical. I think something that’s similar to the gig economy is how we should function as a society. I think the Sturm und Drang of the situation, all the conflict around the situation is just focused on completely the wrong problem. People who have been listening to me for a number of years, and for me this goes back to 1993, know that I think the core problem is capitalism. We’re having all of this churn and angst around worker rights and the conflicts of the gig economy, yada, yada, yada. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we have a very lightly regulated free market that incentivizes people to act selfishly and allows the creation of these sociopathic corporations that act destructively, and those are the underpinnings of the system. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that there’s all kinds of waste and human pain and loss coming out of that. That’s where the things really lie.

I think we should have in our society every citizen in the country should be provided some baseline existence that they don’t have to part of an ongoing 40 hour, 60 hour week cycle to have, right? I wrote about this a number of years ago, but the idea for the model is, if you’re a citizen and we’re in the United States, let’s call it the United States, if you’re a citizen in the United States there’s a minimum baseline that you should have, and you should need to work for it. That minimum baseline would be something like a certain level of modest housing, a certain level of modest food and beverage. I would have electricity and internet access be part of that baseline. To create all of the things needed in the baseline, that’s quantifiable, like the amount of human effort and human capital required to provide for everyone can be tracked. We should be tracking that, and we should have people having to work their fair share of providing for everyone.

Now, that might sound like just a different type of capitalism, but the trick is to provide this modest baseline for everyone wouldn’t have people working 40 hours a week. It would have people working 8 hours a week or 12 hours a week, right, in order to work their fair share. They would have the rest of their lives to decide for themselves. The example I like to use is the truffles example. If you really want truffles go ahead out there and gather truffles. Start a quote, unquote “business” around gathering truffles. Then other people who want truffles, you can work with them to get other things in a free market structure, but that free market structure needs to be put on top of the baseline, right? So, bring that back into the conversation we’re having now, the problem is right now there’s no baseline. It’s like if you don’t scrape and claw within this capitalist, largely unregulated free market, find some job for you to do, you’re going to be on the street. You’re going to be eating shit, and we have abundance.

We have the ability that if people are contributing a fair share to it, to provide a baseline for everyone. If we did that, all of these problems go away. They all go away, because people don’t need it. It’s not live or die. It’s not on the street or in something that’s comfortable and humane. It’s humane for all, and then building on top of that. I mean, that’s a very specific and prescribed solution for the problem, but I roll it out to really put the spotlight on the issue. Like, it’s just rubbish that we’re talking about, oh, Uber is this service that it makes sense from a convenience perspective, it makes sense from an environmental perspective, it is making the system of transportation smarter. It may not still be perfect, but it represents improvement. Now there’s all this teeth gnashing about it, because it’s costing humans jobs. There’s now the fear of with all of the AI and robotic solutions coming in, the fear of what are going to happen to more and more human jobs. It really shouldn’t matter. Like, these should be conversations about can you have truffles or not. They shouldn’t be conversations about can I have food and shelter or not. Food and shelter should be givens, assuming you’re contributing your modest fair share to your country as a citizen, as a participant in that entity.

I just roll my eyes with these conversations, because I think everyone is looking at the problem in the wrong place, two or three levels below where the real issue is, which is in the capitalist paradigm, Jon.

Well, certainly it seems that at least the solution that you were articulating there has very close parallel to the basic income discussion that I think is becoming part of the conversation around where do we go next. Like, what is sort of the next step for our economy, given all these different technological and market forces that are coming together.

There’s two problems with basic income, Jon. One is people don’t have to contribute to make it happen. It’s just money from heaven, right? Part of being healthy humans as well as being healthy societies is participation. It’s participating and having some reciprocity there going both ways. The second thing with the basic income is at the end of the day, people can spend it on whatever the hell that they want, and we know enough about the human animal to know that some non-significant percentage of those people are going to spend it on things that result in their, again, being on the outside without proper food and shelter. To have a healthy society, to build a productive civilization, we need to have people with food and shelter and some other basic things, I think, bottom line, brass tacks, no matter what. I think the basic income misses on a few key implementation points, although I do applaud it philosophically.

Right, yeah, I raise the basic income in part for the similarities with your argument, and also to raise the fact that these kinds of discussions around model change are not unusual right now. Model change several layers up, as you had mentioned, and I think the reason for that is the tumult, right, that people are feeling in both the labor markets, and sort of looking forward not being sure about how they’re going to be able to earn a living in the future, which is part of the question when you’re talking about labor rights and things like.

Yeah, but the issue though is capitalism, not AI, right, that’s the problem. That’s where it’s just all a lot of full of sound and fury signifying nothing at the end of the day. Everybody’s worried and fighting about the wrong stuff.

Yeah. I don’t think that people’s eyes are, like I think people’s eyes are actually turning towards this discussion of higher level models. In part, you’ll get some agreement from both the left and the right around the basic income discussion. I don’t know if you have a title for your model, whether basic livelihood or basic food and shelter, right? It seems to me that it’s going to be increasingly important to have these designing a new model discussions, which can eventually be turned into policy, right? I guess my follow on question for you is, given where we are with the capitalist model and the way that the gig economy is being rolled out, what would you see as sort of the next steps to get to a more equitable solution or a model where people could work with an Uber type platform and then also have their needs taken care of? Like, what’s that intermediary step, or is there one?

I mean, the intermediary step is to act the same way we’ve acted in the past, which is people move on to different industries, different skills. They find different things to do with their time, and the march and progress of AI and robotics is not so fast that we’re years away from too many jobs being made irrelevant, redundant. That’s more decades, so in the short time horizon, I mean, people are just going to have to pivot and do other stuff. That’s what should happen. I mean, it’s just stupid at a certain level to have these efficiencies. They’re just clearly better. They’re better, again, for the planet. They’re better for everything except for people who have to have a paycheck to survive, right? That’s the one exception to it. Otherwise it’s better. It’s better for the society, it’s better for the environment. It’s just better, right, so, we’re going to have to find ways for those folks to have other skills, other job opportunities outside of that encroaching technology.

The technology should encroach when it makes more sense, when it’s logical and sensible. Without commenting on Uber, the company, specifically, but that kind of different ride sharing services, different automation of the transportation process. It’s just necessary. Our chickens are coming home to roost on all the global warming stuff, and it would be nice if we had more revolutionary solutions, but certainly an incremental solution is the kind of automation that this sort of technology and infrastructure and use of internet technologies, as well, enables.

Yeah. I think part of this discussion also comes around to the fact that, I contend, that we’re still very early in our progression into the knowledge work economy. The Uberization of things is just sort of one facet of that, right? As we talk about the changing ways in which we work together, that’s certainly a huge part of what it means to be a knowledge worker and part of the creative class. My point being that we are not necessarily stuck with 20th century models, but we’re experimenting with 21st century ways of working together, interacting as a society, and I think you’re beginning to see very interesting new ways of people collaborating, of people figuring out ways that you can be fairly compensated. Some of these are much better, as you pointed out, for life on this planet. At the same time, they’re causing all kinds of pain, which to me says this is a prototypical model, right?

The Uber model being sort of the first cut at a way that we can work together that takes up slack in the system, right? You’ve got all these cars sitting around that aren’t being utilized properly, and bringing them online and enabling them to be used efficiently. That’s sort of the point zero one, and what’s going to be increasingly exciting, I think, is to see what the next version of quote “Uber” is going to be. Like, how does the gig economy adopt some more humane aspects and move forward. It took a long time for industrial society to sort of figure itself out, and you had a lot of early failures that were built upon. Eventually you have this mammoth system that we all live in right now. The information age has enabled us to implement these new models, but surprise, surprise, we’re not getting them exactly right the first time. I think in the background we do have this age of experimentation happening where we have these really powerful software tools where we can distribute work, but we have no idea how to behave in that system, or at least, our ideas about how to behave are from the previous century.

There’s an awful lot of change going on, and I know that’s kind of a cop out, but that’s what I see.

It’s still too focused on the technology. I mean, the first concept I had for a business, let’s put air quotes around it, that was down the path of the gig economy or the sharing economy was in 2003. It was focused on a very mundane thing, which is cleaning up after a party. Where I came from with this is that when you have a party, and it makes a giant mess, right, it’s a shit show. You have a great time a the party, and the cleaning up is fricking horrible. You don’t want to do it, because you’ve got all this good energy that’s so much fun, and then when you’re done, you’re tired or you’re drunk, or it’s the next day and more things are going on, yada, yada, yada. But, if you had to clean up that same thing when you were sort of at the peak of your abilities. If you were just ready to do some cleaning, it would be no problem. You would just kill it.

My concept in 2003 was we need to use the internet so that I can sign up, and I go and I clean up after somebody else’s party, and it’s no problem, because like, I’m hanging out. I just feel like doing it, and then after my party, when I don’t want to clean up, I just want to like bask in the awesomeness that was this giant blowout, this crew’s going to come in and clean my shit up. I just get to be happy, and it was really good.

We can debate the merits of that idea all we want, but the point being what I was focused on, and what I think the future of the gig and sharing and human economy need to be focused on is the experience of life, and looking at the rhythms of the things that we do, how we do them, and how can we accommodate for each other. How can I come in to something that is a weakness for you, or something that, just in terms of your energy level in the moment isn’t the right thing for you to be doing, and it’s no shit for me to do it. I’m happy to do it. It’s easy for me. I just come in and do it clip clip, and I’m done. Other people come in clip clip for me and doing it as well, right?

I would like to see instead of like the problems being solved now are really around technology. We can come in, and now this technology has reached the point we can do these things with cars, let’s do these things with cars. I’d like us to think about where are the opportunities to provide for and service one another to make all of our lives better. I think, in terms of the benefit to the human condition and the human experience, that’s where the more interesting problem strategies lie.

Yeah. That’s sounds fascinating, and of course we could all use someone to clean up after us after an excellent party. Hopefully, we’ll have that service sometime in the future.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. 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. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett and, of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, and thanks so much for listening.

So, that’s it for episode 173 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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