Platform Capitalism

IT IS NO SURPRISE that one of the other names associated with this aspect of the sharing economy is “platform capitalism.” As Sebastian Olma points out, building on the work of Sascha Lobo, this is the term given to the “generic ‘ecosystem’” in which a software-driven environment such as eBay or TaskRabbit, rather than simply acting as a marketplace for connecting customers to companies, is “able to link potential customers to anything and anyone, from private individuals to multinational corporations.” In platform capitalism, then, “everyone can become a supplier for all sorts of products and services at the click of a button.”[1] Indeed, if neoliberalism can be understood as trying to introduce market rationality into all areas of society, the for-profit sector of the sharing economy appears as almost the neoliberal ideal. It creates a situation in which the general population not only aspires to own their own homes—the vision the conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher sold to the British working classes in the 1980s with the right-to-buy scheme (itself designed as a means of reducing the role played by the state in the form of collectively owned social housing)[2]—but also have the opportunity to become private capitalist entrepreneurs and economic agents themselves. And in the case of Airbnb, one way in which they can do so is precisely by trading otherwise underutilized space in their now privately owned homes. As the company’s cofounder and CEO, Brian Chesky, proclaims, previously, “only businesses could be trusted, or people in your local community. Now, that trust has been democratized—any person can act like a brand. . . . It means that people all over a city, in 60 seconds, can become microentrepreneurs.”[3]

The information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy may create jobs, then, but “it’s a new kind of job,” as Chesky readily acknowledges. “Maybe it’s like a 21st-century job,” he suggests. Or maybe, given the lack of workers’ rights and degree of externalized risk, it’s like a very old kind of job: a Victorian, nineteenth-century job.[4] For these companies, and the microentrepreneurs who labor for them—and who in the past would have been known as employees—are operating in an open market that is relatively free from the ability of state regulators, the labor movement, and trade unions not only to put a limit on the maximum hours those employed in these new kinds of jobs work in a day or week but also to specify the minimum wage they should receive, the number of days off they need, and the paid holidays and free weekends they are entitled to.[5] It is as if many of these means of taking a break from work and having some downtime are now to be provided by the for-profit sharing economy businesses themselves—along with other companies with an investment in the management of information and data (and the aggressive avoidance of tax), such as Apple and Google (or Alphabet, as the search engine’s parent company is now called)—through their ability to save people’s time and complete tasks for them. To provide just one example that is today already commonplace, consider the linking of users’ electronic diaries to their e-mail accounts and sending of automatic calendar appointment and “to-do” list reminders to them on their cell phones. (From June 2012, the Reminders app has come with every Apple device running iOS 5 or above, while the ColorNote app for Android has been downloaded 80 million times since it was launched in 2009.) It won’t be too long before phones and watches are scheduling meetings and sending replies for people, with driverless cars that can be summoned by smartwatch predicted to be just fifteen years away. The “taptic engine” feature of the Apple Watch means users don’t even have to spend time taking their phones out of their pockets to know they’ve received a message: the watch just gives them a gentle tap on the wrist. Given that a study finds the average user picks up her phone eighty-five times a day, amounting to approximately one-third of the time she is awake, this represents a not inconsiderable saving.[6] Yet a question can be raised as to whether these companies and their products are saving people’s time or whether they are actually enabling them to work even more. A survey of fifteen hundred senior staff released by the Chartered Manager’s Institute in 2016, for instance, reveals that they spend a total of twenty-nine days a year working on smartphones and tablets outside of working hours. That’s the equivalent of most employees’ annual holiday allowance. No wonder the mode of production we appear to be moving toward has been described as not quite capitalism as it is classically understood but as “something worse.”[7] Or that some tech workers are temporarily unplugging from electronic communications and putting their phones into flight mode as a means of gaining relief from the stress of having to answer e-mails and check Twitter constantly (and concentrate all the better on developing the systems that so control them and everyone else).[8] Digital detox has even become something a luxury status symbol among celebrities, with the actor Eddie Redmayne admitting recently that he has swapped his smartphone for an old-fashioned handset that doesn’t have an Internet connection.

Production and control, profit and risk, are not shared in this sector of the economy at all, then. It is the decentralized networks of users who benefit from the greater convenience and reduced prices afforded by the sharing economy and who help to build the platform by providing the aggregated input, data, and attention value that function to generate a market. Noticeably, these users do not form a social community in the manner they do on other kinds of digital platforms: Wikipedia, for example, or even Facebook. And this is despite the fact that the technology companies concerned often employ the language of grassroots movements when addressing them: when Uber tries to mobilize its app-enabled users to protest against attempts by the state and other representatives of the “old economy” (trade unions, city mayors, cab companies) to regulate it, for instance. What is more, because they never really own the products and services they are purchasing, these users are more susceptible to questionable practices on the part of the sharing economy’s microentrepreneurs than would ordinarily be the case in a state-regulated market.

Meanwhile, it is the owners of the information and data management intermediaries who take the profits generated by financializing, corporatizing, and exploiting the “sharing” of goods and services between the users and microentrepreneurs that these owners enable by turning this exchange into a market. Not surprisingly, the former tend to be well-funded professional entrepreneurs, as opposed to the more amateur microentrepreneurs who do a lot of the actual labor. The owners—who are small in number, any wealth generated thus being concentrated in the hands of relatively few—also centrally control the platform, software, algorithm, data, and associated ecosystem, deciding on pricing and wage levels, work allocation, standards, conditions, and preferred user and laborer profiles. This means that who does and does not get to work as a microentrepreneur in this economy is not delimited by state legislation or organized union activity designed to protect workers from being exploited and discriminated against. In fact, research on the sharing economy shows that a certain “homophily” occurs, by which it is often “similar ‘types’ of people [who] provide and use these services (in terms of class, education and race),” especially when a rating system is employed.[9] Uber, for example, enables both customers and drivers to rate one another and suspends drivers if their scores are not high enough. There is also reported to be a regular scarcity of female “drivers for hire” in many of the cities across the world in which Uber operates.

Finally, it is the often quite isolated microentrepreneurs (who can now be potentially “any person” rather than a specific set of formally contracted employees) who labor to provide these services in the market created by the platform on a freelance, low-paid, on-demand, and precarious basis; who take the risks associated with having lost their rights, benefits, and protection as employees in this “gig economy,” as it is sometimes known; and who, depending on the particular platform, often face “increased surveillance, deskilling, casualization, and intensification” of their labor too.[10] Hence former U.S. secretary of labor Robert Reich’s description of this economic model as less of a sharing economy and more of a “share-the-scraps economy”: “the big money goes to the corporations that own the software. The scraps go to the on-demand workers.”[11]

Of course, this four-part structure consisting of customers, owners, labor intermediaries, and workers has long been a feature of advanced capitalism. For twenty years and more, companies have been downsizing their role as employers by outsourcing work to independent contractors, freelancers, and temps, thus reducing costs by circumventing labor laws that establish minimum standards, with all the attendant consequences for staff income, conditions, rights, benefits, and pensions. After all, companies cannot be held responsible for people if they are not officially contracted as their employees. The dispute at the National Gallery in London over the outsourcing of visitor services is thus merely one of the more recent examples of this long-standing practice, the (failed) attempt to casualize academic work at Warwick University by outsourcing hourly paid staff to a company called Teach Higher another. What makes the corporate sharing economy significantly different in this respect is the following:

1. The intermediaries are no longer agencies for outsourced labor. Such agencies have been replaced by data-driven platforms or apps, making it difficult for workers to negotiate for better pay and conditions—you can’t argue very easily with the logic of an algorithm.

2. The customers and laborers are subject to monitoring, surveillance, and control on an individual, finely grained basis facilitated by the development of GPS-enabled location services and networked mobile media (smartphones, tablets, etc.).

3. Workers are not a coherent group of formally contracted employees (even if they are often managed as though they are) but can now be anyone. It is a state of affairs that has the effect of turning all of us into potential self-employed economic agents, as anyone can rent out spare capacity in her home or car.[12]