Tag Archives: Direct democracy

Barlow as Rorschach test

An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.

Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).

Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.

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.