Another extract from Audrey Watters, this time from The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, who analysis of the rhetoric of disruption has fast become one of my favourite examples of digital cultural critique. From loc 184:

“The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

From The Revenge of the Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 1187:

Many of us in education technology talk about this being a moment of great abundance—information abundance—thanks to digital technologies. But I think we are actually/ also at a moment of great austerity. And when we talk about the future of education, we should question if we are serving a world of abundance or if we are serving a world of austerity. I believe that automation and algorithms, these utterly fundamental features of much of ed-tech, do serve austerity. And it isn’t simply that “robot tutors” (or robot keynote speakers) are coming to take our jobs; it’s that they could limit the possibilities for, the necessities of care and curiosity.

Understanding this relationship between austerity and abundance strikes me as a crucial question of political theory. One which we evade if we reduce the former to the latter or vice versa, seeing abundance as negating austerity (as Tyler Cowen does, for instance) or austerity as negating abundance (by robbing it off its  social significance as a cultural change).

This great post by Martin Weller takes issue with the recent click bait published by the Guardian Higher Education’s anonymous academics series. He argues that they perpetuate an outdated stereotype of academic labour which has no relationship to the reality:

There are undoubtedly more, but when you piece these three together, what you get is a picture of an academic in the 1970s (Michael Caine in Educating Rita maybe) – shambolic, aloof, and unfettered by the concerns of normal working life. It’s a romantic image in a way, but also one that lends itself to the ‘ivory tower’ accusation. It is also about as representative now as the fearful matron in charge of a typing pool is to office life.

These might be the myths non-academics affirm about academics. But what are the myths academics propound about themselves and their labour? To what extent are these myths entrench by an unwillingness to come to terms with the managerial denigration of academic labour and the curtailment of professional autonomy?

In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz draws out an important parallel between the platform capitalism of YouTube and the near universally praised Wikipedia:

Unsurprisingly, YouTube hires countless consultants to better understand how to trigger the participation of the crowd. They wonder how they can get unpaid producers to create value. But equally, on the not-for-profit site, Wikipedia is asking how they can draw in more female editors, for instance.

Both involve an orientation to their users which sees them as objects of management, even if we might see the ends to which they are being managed in very different terms. This makes a lie of what Nick Couldry describes as the ‘myth of us’: the imaginary of platform capitalism which sees it as facilitating the free expression of natural sociability which older socio-technical systems had constrained

One of the things that I liked about Platform Capitalism, by Nick Srineck, was its concern to avoid analysing the tech sector as sui generis. By situating it in social and economic history, we are left with a much richer account of where it came from, why it is the way it is and where it is going. The myth of exceptionalism concerning technology militates against this, as the protagonists of grand disruptive projects don’t take kindly to being regarded as mundane organisations driven by environmental constraints and enablements like all others. 

The consequences of this exceptionalism aren’t just analytical though. Exceptionalism licenses a view of the digital economy as disembedded, obscuring the manifold ways in which it is dependent on the wider context. This section from Uberpaid and Underworked, by Trebor Scholz, loc 1014 illustrates this powerfully:

Rarely acknowledged are also the networks of care that sustain contingent workers. Just for one moment, think about the families that are paying the price for just-in-time scheduling of work hours. Who is caring for their children when they face unpredictable work schedules, often decided only days or hours in advance? And let’s not forget that government programs like the Food Stamp Act of 1964, introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, are essential in providing subsistence for crowdworkers and Walmart “associates” alike. In this way, personal networks of care, global supply chains, American taxpayers, academia, and the military sustain the digital economy.

Recognising this context makes it easier to see the grim reality underlying the lofty rhetoric of the sharing economy. From loc 1290:

What if the engine of the “sharing economy” is not the instinct to share, but rather economic desperation? Just consider the 8–10 million Americans who are unemployed and the almost eight million who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 78 They are piecing together a living wage by working with companies like Uber but only few make a good living in the Hunger Games.

This is interesting. I’m instinctively sceptical of it for a number of reasons but I’m very interested to see how it unfolds:

Meetup has always served as an organizing platform for a wide range of political views, welcoming everyone from the Howard Deaniacs to the Tea Party. Meetup will always welcome people with different beliefs.

But after the recent executive order aimed to block people on the
basis of nationality and religion, a line was crossed. At a time when core democratic ideals feel under attack, we feel a duty to spark more civic participation.

Last week, we created 1,000+ #Resist Meetup Groups to act as local hubs for actions on behalf of democracy, equality, human rights, social justice, and sustainability. Already 50,000+ people have joined.

These #Resist Meetups are open to anyone who want to create a bright future that’s rich with opportunity and freedom for all.

Meetup exists to connect people so they create opportunity and make the world they want. We hope members take these Meetups forward to be powerful together.

There’s an interesting passage in Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, in which he discusses the contrasting experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk by users and workers. From loc 719:

While AMT is profiting robustly, 11 it has –following the observations of several workers –not made significant updates to its user interfaces since its inception, and the operational staff appears to be overwhelmed and burned out. Turkers have written and shared various browser scripts to help themselves solve specific problems. While this is a wonderful example of mutual aid among AMT workers, it is also yet another instance of how the invisible labor of Turkers remains uncompensated. While people are powering the system, MTurk is meant to feel like a machine to its end-users: humans are seamlessly embedded in the algorithm. AMT’s clients are quick to forget that it is human beings and not algorithms that are toiling for them –people with very real human needs and desires.

It’s easy to slip into characterising platforms in terms of our familiar experiences of them as end-users. This is an important reminder that their user-friendly character is a contingent expression of the interests the corporation has in maximising user engagement, rather than anything intrinsic to the technology of the platform itself. 

This is important for analytical reasons, but it’s also a crucial prop to the ideology of platform capitalism, sustaining an idea of platforms as user-friendly spaces which mediate interactions determined by external factors. As opposed to deeply rule-governed systems, with the content of those rules being determined by commercial imperatives. From loc 735:

Mechanical Turk starts to look even less positive when considering that in the case of labor conflicts, Bezos’s company remains strictly hands-off, insisting that AMT is merely providing a technical system. Why would they have anything to do with the labor conflicts occurring on the platform? This would be like Apple owning the factories in Shenzhen where its iPhones are assembled, but then rejecting any responsibility for the brutal work regimes and suicides of the workers in these factories because Foxconn controls daily operations.

From Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, loc 685-704:

“Users happily do for free what companies would otherwise have to pay employees to do,” says former Wired editor turned drone manufacturer, Chris Anderson. It’s a capitalist’s dream come true. “It’s not outsourcing, it’s crowdsourcing. Collectively, customers have virtually unlimited time and energy; only peer production has the capacity to extend as far as the Long Tail can go.” 10 Following a decade-old trend, crowdwork is globally dispersed. The crowd is no longer understood as riotous; it does not have to be feared because globally distributed individuals are avaricious, selfish, and for the very most part isolated from each other. According to Anderson, as long as people are submitting themselves, they must not find it objectionable. What is missing from this analysis is that, systemically, there is no choice for these workers.

A speech by Ronald Reagan at Moscow State University on May 31st 1988. Reprinted in One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, Loc 7341-7365:

“Like a chrysalis, we’re emerging from the economy of the Industrail Revolution—an economy confined to and limited by the Earth’s physical resources—into, as one economist titled his book, The Economy in Mind, in which there are no bounds on human imagination and the freedom to create is the most precious natural resource. Think of that little computer chip. Its value isn’t in the sand from which it is made but in the microscopic architecture designed into it by ingenious human minds. Or take the example of the satellite relaying this broadcast around the world, which replaces thousands of tons of copper mined from the Earth and molded into wire. In the new economy, human invention increasingly makes physical resources obsolete. We’re breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny. Even as we explore the most advanced reaches of science, we’re returning to the age-old wisdom of our culture, a wisdom contained in the book of Genesis in the Bible: In the beginning was the spirit, and it was from this spirit that the material abundance of creation issued forth.”

This excellent essay by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books raises an important issue about the forms of political mobilisation facilitated by social media: 

Trump has called himself the Hemingway of the 140 characters. He has ‘the best words’. He loves Twitter, he says, because it’s like having one’s own newspaper, but without the losses. Twitter shares something of the echo-chamber effect of Facebook, but it also makes possible a form of direct identification between the individual citizen and the supposedly sole authentic representative of the people. It is hard to see how this might have been possible before, at least as a matter of daily experience: perhaps going to a party rally and feeling a direct connection with the leader while surrounded by others who feel exactly the same thing. Now, that sense of a direct link is just a click away, day and night: ‘Hey, I’m up at 3 a.m., and so is he, and he’s thinking exactly what I was just thinking!’

This is an illusion, but it is a powerful one. Media-savvy politicians can exploit it in unprecedented ways. For instance, in Italy the anti-establishment Five Star movement emerged from Beppe Grillo’s blog. ‘Hey folks, it works like this: you tell me what’s going on and I will play the amplifier,’ he’d written to his followers. Grillo had been a well-known comedian before entering politics. He has never merely amplified the concerns of ordinary people; the way il popolo speaks is decisively shaped by his leadership even though he has no official position of authority. Trump of course had also been a TV star, someone partly famous for being famous. But the peculiarity of Trump is that he seems the equivalent of Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi merged into one person. Whenever he was accused during the campaign of being just an entertainer, he could point to his competence as a businessman; whenever it was pointed out that his ventures mostly went bankrupt, he could respond that he was primarily a media star.

What forms of political organisation emerge from such a dynamic? Fleeting and fragile ones, predicated on imagined links with the leader rather than relational bonds between the followers. This gives reason to be hopeful but it also creates dangerous incentives for the leader, inviting them to escalate their rhetoric in order to mobilise a base over whom, at least as a collective, their hold remains unreliable. The problem is, as he puts it later in the essay, “The supply of enemies is inexhaustible.”

This is why it’s so important to refuse the story such populists tell about their own success. They ascribe an outcome with complex origins to their own quasi-magical powers to connect with ‘the people’:

Liberals have been wringing their hands at their seeming inability to reach citizens with ‘fact-checks’ and incontrovertible demonstrations of Trump’s continual self-contradictions. It’s curious that in their despair they have resurrected some of the clichés of 19th-century mass psychology. While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. Some trusted him because he told it like it is; but in other cases the trust came first, and led them to believe that he was telling them the real story. 

I’ve recently found myself thinking back to an argument which Jeff Weeks makes in The World We Have Won. From pg 7:

The real achievement is that inequality has lost all its moral justification, and this has profoundly shifted the debate. Inequality now has to be justified in ways it never had to be before.

I take his point to be that the burden of justification has shifted from inequality to equality. This does not necessarily entail a diminution in oppression, but rather a cultural shift in how oppressors seek to legitimate their action e.g. patently Islamophobic sentiment is articulated in terms of a concern for gender equality.

Trump and his supporters are pushing against the boundaries of this framework, but it is still for now in place. What gets dismissed as ‘political correctness’ is something we should fight for. This much shared passage from Richard Rorty illustrates what is at risk if we don’t:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

An admirably concise definition by Trebor Scholz on loc 432 of Uberworked and Underpaid:

This term can be briefly described as follows:

First, it is about cloning the technological heart of Uber, Task Rabbit, Airbnb, or UpWork. Platform cooperativism creatively embraces, adapts, or reshapes technologies of the sharing economy, putting them to work with different ownership models. It is in this sense that platform cooperativism is about structural change, a transformation of ownership models.

Second, platform cooperativism is about solidarity, sorely missing in an economy driven by a distributed and mostly anonymous workforce: the interns, freelancers, temps, project-based workers, and independent contractors. Platforms can be owned and operated by inventive unions, cities, and various other forms of cooperatives such as worker-owned, produser-owned (producer-user –produser), multi-stakeholder, co-ops.

Third, platform cooperativism is built on reframing concepts like innovation and efficiency with an eye toward benefiting all, not just sucking up profits for the few. I propose ten principles of platform cooperativism that are sensitive to the critical problems facing the digital economy right now. Platform capitalism is amazingly ineffective in watching out for people.

One of the most interesting things about so-called sharing economy companies is their mobilisation of users in defence of their political objectives. This is something which can prove uniquely urgent because of the sheer number of municipalities in which they operate, leaving them exposed to regulatory backlash particularly given their tendency to self-righteously disregard laws they see as antiquated. It’s easy to characterise these mobilisations as manipulative, but it’s important to recognise the self-interest and/or commitment of those who are mobilised in this way. Loc 4251 of The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, describes an Airbnb group in San Francisco which was (seemingly) entirely grass-roots:

Kwan decided to gather a group of hosts together to share information and navigate the emerging complexities of the so-called home-sharing economy. He announced the formation of his club on Craigslist and held the very first meeting of the Home Sharers of San Francisco in his living room in 2013. The group would eventually attract twenty-five hundred members. Seeking to avoid any conflicts of interest, Kwan decided the group would not allow Airbnb employees or city or state government workers to join. Kwan’s group got so large that eventually it had to start gathering in public libraries instead of living rooms. They shared hosting tips, talked about issues like insurance, and swapped stories of nightmare guests (always the most enjoyable discussion). Then things got serious. In the wake of Airbnb’s agreement to collect hotel taxes, the city’s board of supervisors was considering legalizing short-term rentals. The Home Sharers lobbied to keep the names and addresses of hosts private and to maximize the number of nights they could rent out their properties each year.

But the company also seeks to encourage these groups in a top-down fashion. I’m interested in the cultural resources deployed to this end, how the opportunity to participate in the great disruptive project is framed in a way which facilitates engagement by users. See for example the description on loc 4333-4347 of the Airbnb community festival:

The crowd stood and cheered repeatedly during the event, responding to rousing proclamations (“ You are truly revolutionaries!”), as if the speakers were blowing dog whistles. Occasionally the audience was yanked back to the other reality. “This generous idea is growing in Paris,” said Jean-François Martins, deputy mayor in charge of tourism, on the first morning. “But big ideas need some regulation to protect them from people who want to use it in a not very generous way.” Chris Lehane also appeared onstage and spoke to the gathered hosts as if they were infantry in the French marines. “We are going to have more fights and we are going to have more battles in the days, months, and years to come,” he said. “When this community is empowered to be a movement, we cannot be beat.”

All the biggest platforms have it, only Uber is honest enough (or careless) enough to name it accurately. From loc 3962-3979 of Brad Stone’s The Upstarts:

God View was an internal service that Uber made available to all of its employees, and it was one reason the company had grown so quickly. All of the hundreds of city offices had access to the same tools as employees in San Francisco and so could make decisions based on data in a decentralized way. Kalanick believed that a transparent corporate culture gave employees a sense of ownership of their projects, making them feel as if they were running startups within the larger company. And yet Uber had deployed God View without adequate privacy protections around the data, with little training of employees, and with no public privacy policy that informed the world of how Uber planned to use this sensitive information. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 3490:

In January 2013, Chesky hired a new head of community who shared his devotion to the cause —Douglas Atkin, a former advertising agency executive who had written a 2005 book, The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers, that drew business lessons from devotional sects like the Hare Krishnas. “The opportunity for creating cult brands has never been better,” Atkin wrote in the book’s epilogue. “Too many marketers have adopted a defensive attitude when actually they are on the brink of creating some of the most tenacious bonds between their brands and customers.” Atkin fervently believed that Airbnb wasn’t only a company but an ideology and a global movement that existed in a realm beyond provincial laws forged in a dramatically different age. One of Atkin’s first acts at Airbnb was to help start an independent group, called Peers, with the financial backing of Airbnb itself and a mission to support members of the sharing economy. Peers would hold meet-ups in cities where Airbnb and its fellow upstarts faced political hurdles and organize political actions to influence lawmakers. So Atkin’s advice to Chesky about the New York battle was clear —he wanted the company to stand up to Eric Schneiderman and fight.

This reflects a broader commitment that “the best tactic was simply to grow, harnessing the political influence of their user base to become too big to regulate” (loc 3582).

I liked this snippet in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, describing how Belinda Jones went from consultant to being airbnb’s first in-house attorney. From loc 3212:

She then won Chesky’s trust, in part by enthusiastically embracing the company’s sense of its own virtue, its near religious certainty of its position in the vanguard of a historic new sharing economy that could change the world.

Reading this section in Brad Stone’s The Upstarts, it occurred to me this faith* displayed by the airbnb founders is an interesting example of what Nick Couldry describes as ‘the myth of us’. From loc 2171:

EJ had also raised fundamental questions about the safety of users on its site and Airbnb’s role as an arbiter between hosts and guests. Until that incident, Chesky had subscribed to the purist’s view of online marketplaces: Users were supposed to police one another by rating their experiences. Untrustworthy actors would be drummed off the platform by bad reviews, rejected by the web’s natural immune system. It was a libertarian view of the internet and had the whiff of Silicon Valley snake oil. The prospect of a negative review is of little use after a serious breach of etiquette —or a criminal act. But because of their shared faith in the power of self-policing marketplaces, Chesky and his colleagues hadn’t made serious investments in customer service or customer safety. The fact that Blecharczyk, as well as the company’s controller, Stanley Kong, had been put in charge of customer service at a company now with over 130 employees while the other founders looked for an executive to run the department was telling. “We viewed ourselves as a product and technology company, and customer support didn’t feel like product and tech,” Chesky says.

It is of course particularly easy to have faith in something when it’s making you a lot of money.

This was back in 2012. There have been many more since and will be many more in future. From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 2871-2887:

But Uber was going to need more than Tweets to sway the DC city council. First, colleagues remember, Kalanick sought the backing of the DC tech community and tried to enlist the support of the online-deals company Living Social, based in Virginia. When they didn’t respond, Kalanick decided to go right to his customer base. He sent an impassioned letter to thousands of Uber users in DC, complaining that the city council would make it impossible for the company to lower fares and ensure reliable service. “The goal [of the Uber amendments] is essentially to protect a taxi industry that has significant experience in influencing local politicians,” he wrote, basically accusing Cheh and her colleagues of corruption. 16 Then he supplied the phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Twitter handles of all twelve members of the DC city council and urged his customers to make their voices heard. The next day he posted a public letter to the council members, writing ominously, “Why would you so clearly put a special interest ahead of the interests of those who elected you? The nation’s eyes are watching to see what DC’s elected officials stand for.” Mary Cheh was taken aback by the ferocity of the response. Within twenty-four hours, the council members received fifty thousand e-mails and thirty-seven thousand Tweets with the hashtag #UberDCLove. 17 When they arrived for the last session of the summer on July 10, Cheh’s colleagues all turned to her in confusion and fear. The amendments, she told me years later, had been “a toss to Jim Graham and the taxi drivers,” and now, with the weight of the internet bearing down on the council members, the amendments clearly weren’t worth it.