Category Archives: Political economy and visibility

Addiction vs. dependency

A long, powerful essay in The Baffler about the new antitrust actions against Big Tech in the US and the parallels being drawn with the tobacco trials of the 1990s. I agree with its core claim, that equating the problem Big Tech poses with a personal addiction one (a position promoted inter alios by the documentary The Social Dilemma) minimizes the issue of economic dependency and the power it confers on the gatekeepers of key digital infrastructure. I have argued previously that this is at the heart of popular mistrust of the big platforms. However, the pursuit of the tech giants in court risks to be hobbled because of the lasting effect of neoliberal thought on antitrust architecture in US jurisprudence and regulation. Concentrating on consumer prices in the short run risks missing the very real ways in which tech companies can exert systemic social power. In their quest to rein in Big Tech, US lawmakers and attorneys will be confronted with much deeper and more systemic political economy issues. It is unclear they will be able to win this general philosophical argument against such powerful special interests.

The hustle and the algorithm

Various interesting new pieces on the experience of the algorithmically-directed gig economy. The proximate cause for interest is the upcoming vote in California on Prop. 22, a gig industry-sponsored ballot initiative to overturn some of the labor protections for gig workers enacted by the California legislature last year with AB 5.

Non-compliance with the regulations enacted by this statute has been widespread and brazen by the market leaders in the gig economy, who now hope to cancel the law directly, using direct democracy (as has often been done by special interests in California in the past). Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave the state altogether unless these regulations are dropped, thus putting pressure on their workforce to support the ballot initiative at the polls.

Of course, the exploitative potential in US labor law and relations long pre-dates the platforms and the gig economy. However, with respect to at least some of these firms, it is a legitimate question to ask whether there is any substantial value being produced via technological innovation, or whether their market profitability relies essentially on the ability to squeeze more labor out of their workers.

In this sense, and in parallel with the (COVID-accelerated) transition out of a jobs-based model of employment, the gig economy co-opts the evocative potential of entrepreneurialism, especially in its actually-existing form as the self-exploitation dynamics of American immigrant culture. Also, it is hard to miss the gender and race subtexts of this appeal to entrepreneurialism. As one thoughtful article in Dissent puts it, many of the innovative platforms are really targeted to subprime markets:

[t]he platform economy is a stopgap to overcome exclusion, and a tool used to target people for predatory inclusion.

Hence the algorithm as flashpoint in labor relations: it is where the idealized notion of individual striving and the hustle meets the systemic limits of an extractive economy; its very opacity fuels mistrust in the intentions of the platforms.

The marketplace scam as paradigm

Good article by Zoe Schiffer in The Verge on Instagram scams. In thinking about trust and its abuse it is important to remember how general the problem is, especially in marketplace interactions, and what institutional boundaries have evolved in all societies over the ages to police it. Thinking about misleading commercial behavior can be a useful baseline in modelling issues of trustworthiness in many digital domains (such as surveillance, algorithmic decision-making, platform content moderation, electoral disinformation, and so forth) where interactions do not immediately and obviously entail an exchange of goods and services in the market.