Getting in ‘the zone’: Luxury & Paranoia, Access & Exclusion – Capital and Public Space

Uber surge pricing in LA

Another interesting ‘long form’ essay on the Institute of Network Cultures site. This piece by Anastasia Kubrak and Sander Manse directly addresses some contemporary themes in geographyland – access, ‘digital’-ness, exclusion, ‘rights to the city’, technology & urbanism and ‘verticality’. The piece turns around an exploration of the idea of a ‘zone’ – ‘urban zoning’, ‘special economic zones’, ‘export processing zones’, ‘free economic/enterprise zones’, ‘no-go zones’. Some of this, of course, covers familiar ground for geographers but its interesting to see the argument play out. It seems to resonate, for example, with Matt Wilson’s book New Lines

Here’s some blockquoted bits (all links are in the original).

Luxury & Paranoia, Access & Exclusion On Capital and Public Space

We get into an Uber car, and the driver passes by the Kremlin walls, guided by GPS. At the end of the ride, the bill turns out to be three times as expensive than usual. What is the matter? We check the route, and the screen shows that we travelled to an airport outside of Moscow. Impossible. We look again: the moment we approached the Kremlin, our location automatically jumped to Vnukovo. As we learned later, this was caused by a GPS fence set up to confuse and disorient aerial sensors, preventing unwanted drone flyovers.

How can we benefit as citizens from the increase in sensing technologies, remote data-crunching algorithms, leaching geolocation trackers and parasite mapping interfaces? Can the imposed verticality of platform capitalism by some means enrich the surface of the city, and not just exploit it? Maybe our cities deserve a truly augmented reality – reality in which value generated within urban space actually benefits its inhabitants, and is therefore ‘augmented’ in the sense of increased or made greater. Is it possible to consider the extension of zoning not only as an issue, but also as a solution, a way to create room for fairer, more social alternatives? Can we imagine the sprawling of augmented zones today, still of accidental nature, being utilized or artificially designed for purposes other than serving capital?

Gated urban enclaves also proliferate within our ‘normal’ cities, perforating through the existing social fabric. Privatization of urban landscape affects our spatial rights, such as simply the right of passage: luxury stores and guarded residential areas already deny access to the poor and marginalized. But how do these acts of exclusion happen in cities dominated by the logic of platform capitalism? What happens when more tools become available to scan, analyze and reject citizens on the basis of their citizenship or credit score? Accurate user profiles come in handy when security is automated in urban space: surveillance induced by smart technologies, from electronic checkpoints to geofencing, can amplify more exclusion.

This tendency becomes clearly visible with Facebook being able to allow for indirect urban discrimination through targeted advertising. This is triggered by Facebook’s ability to exclude entire social groups from seeing certain ads based on their user profile, so that upscale housing-related ads might be hidden from them, making it harder for them to leave poorer neighborhoods. Meanwhile Uber is charging customers based on the prediction of their wealth, varying prices for rides between richer and poorer areas. This speculation on value enabled by the aggregation of massive amounts of data crystallizes new forms of information inequality in which platforms observe users through a one-way mirror.

If platform economies take the city as a hostage, governmental bodies of the city can seek how to counter privatization on material grounds. The notorious Kremlin’s GPS spoofing fence sends false coordinates to any navigational app within the city center, thereby also disrupting the operation of Uber and Google Maps. Such gaps on the map, blank spaces are usually precoded in spatial software by platforms, and can expel certain technologies from a geographical site, leaving no room for negotiation. Following the example of Free Economic Zones, democratic bodies could gain control over the city again by artificially constructing such spaces of exception. Imagine rigorous cases of hard-line zoning such as geofenced Uber-free Zones, concealed neighborhoods on Airbnb, areas secured from data-mining or user-profile-extraction.

Vertical zoning can alter the very way in which capital manifests itself. TheBristol pound is an example of city-scale local currency, created specifically to keep added value in circulation within one city. It is accepted by an impressive number of local businesses and for paying monthly wages and taxes. Though the Bristol Pound still circulates in paper, today we can witness a global sprawl of blockchain based community currencies, landing within big cities or even limited to neighborhoods. Remarkably, Colu Local Digital Wallet can be used in Liverpool, the East London area, Tel Aviv and Haifa – areas with a booming tech landscape or strong sense of community.

Chinese bitcoin mining in pictures

From ChinaFile – photos from Photographer Liu Xingzhe documenting Bitcoin ‘mines’ in China.

Employees use their phones at the Bitcoin mine, September 26, 2016. The mine has 550 “mining machines” running continuously. They solve complicated mathematical problems for which they are rewarded with Bitcoins. Seven employees work in shifts monitoring the machines to keep the mine running 24 hours a day.

Photographer Liu Xingzhe traveled to Sichuan’s Ngawa (Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, some 175 miles from the provincial capital of Chengdu, to explore not only the operations of these [Bitcoin] mines, but also the lives of the “miners” who spend their days tending to whirring legions of machines. He also traveled to Shenzhen to see the factories where the world’s finest Bitcoin mining machinery is engineered and produced.

See all of Lio Xingzhe’s photos.

Reblog> Angela Walch on the misunderstandings of blockchain technology

Blockchain visualisation

Another excellent, recent, episode of John Danaher’s podcast. In a wide-ranging discussion of blockchain technologies with Angela Walch there’s lots of really useful explorations of some of the confusing (to me anyway) aspects of what is meant by ‘blockchain’.

Episode #28 – Walch on the Misunderstandings of Blockchain Technology

In this episode I am joined by Angela Walch. Angela is an Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. Her research focuses on money and the law, blockchain technologies, governance of emerging technologies and financial stability. She is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Blockchain Technologies of University College London. Angela was nominated for “Blockchain Person of the Year” for 2016 by Crypto Coins News for her work on the governance of blockchain technologies. She joins me for a conversation about the misleading terms used to describe blockchain technologies.

You can download the episode here. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.

Show Notes

  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 2:06 – What is a blockchain?
  • 6:15 – Is the blockchain distributed or shared?
  • 7:57 – What’s the difference between a public and private blockchain?
  • 11:20 – What’s the relationship between blockchains and currencies?
  • 18:43 – What is miner? What’s the difference between a full node and a partial node?
  • 22:25 – Why is there so much confusion associated with blockchains?
  • 29:50 – Should we regulate blockchain technologies?
  • 36:00 – The problems of inconsistency and perverse innovation
  • 41:40 – Why blockchains are not ‘immutable’
  • 58:04 – Why blockchains are not ‘trustless’
  • 1:00:00 – Definitional problems in practice
  • 1:02:37 – What is to be done about the problem?

Relevant Links

A Universe Explodes. A Blockchain book/novel

Blockchain visualisation

Thanks to Max Dovey for the tip on this…

This seems interesting as a sort of provocation about what Blockchain says/asks about ownership perhaps, although I’m not overly convinced by the gimmick of changing words such that the readers unravel, or “explode” the book… I wonder whether The Raw Shark Texts  or These Pages Fall Like Ash might be a deeper or maybe I mean more nuanced take on such things… however, I haven’t explored this enough yet and it’s good to see Google doing something like this (I think?!)

Here’s a snip from googler tea uglow’s medium post about this…

It’s a book. On your phone. Well, on the internet. Anyone can read it. It’s 20 pages long. Each page has 128 words, and there are 100 of the ‘books’ that can be ‘owned’ . And no way to see a book that isn’t one of those 100. Each book is unique, with personal dedications, and an accumulation of owners, (not to mention a decreasing number of words) as it is passed on. So it is both a book and an cumulative expression of the erosion of the self and of being rewritten and misunderstood. That is echoed in the narrative: the story is fluid, the transition confusing, the purpose unclear. The book gradually falls apart in more ways than one. It is also kinda geeky.

When design fiction becomes the advert(?) Amazon Go and the refiguring of trust

I think I’ve been late to this. I saw the story about Barclaycard wanting to do “cardless” credit cards but, of course, Amazon want to vertically integrate. See the first video below. Interesting that this is incredibly similar to previous ‘envisionings’ of “the future” of retail/shopping. The first thing I thought was: ‘hang on, this is  Microsoft circa 2004’, see the second video below… and I’m sure there’s been others, not least from the likes of HP Labs… I wonder where patents lie on this stuff, cos that will be a big bargaining chip.

This is interesting though insofar as, when I was writing about the Microsoft Office Labs videos in 2008/9, the ‘future’ they figured was always positioned at some distance, it was certainly not explicitly stated that this is something you should definitely expect to happen, more a kind of ‘mood music’ to capture some sensibilities of a possible future, by representing it and hooking ideas into our general  imagination of technology and society. It certainly plays on the trope of the normalisation of heavy surveillance… what else can such a system be?

The Amazon Go video is an interesting confluence of lots of contemporary trends in attempts to refigure how we imagine digital technology. Implicit in the video is a normalisation of yet-more automation (of payment, of trust). Explicit here, as already mentioned, is that these kinds of places are not ‘private’ in any way – the system “knows” you, will know your habits, manages your money and that’s ok, in fact – it’s apparently preferable (trust, again).

Amazon seem to be fairly aggressively pushing this, taking the smooth apparently effortless aesthetics of many tech design fiction videos and using this as a means to capture the idea that such technology = Amazon. Apparently there is a “beta” shop in Seattle (where else?). No doubt someone will already be writing a journal article about this as code/space and, of course it is (and just as Kitchin & Dodge suggest about airports – I wouldn’t want to be in this shop when the servers go down), but I think the thing I find more interesting is that it seems to me that this is perhaps an overtly political manoeuvre to capture the public story about what ‘currency’ is and how payment works when we take for granted higher levels of automation, through what kinds of institution and who we can trust. This is quite a different story to the blockchain, Amazon seem to be saying “let us handle the trust issue” – a pitch usually made by a bank, or PayPal…  That might be interesting to think about (I’m sure people, like Rachel O’Dwyer, already are), not least in relation to other ways ‘trust’ is being addressed (and attempts are being made to refigure it) by other companies, institutions and groups.

All this means I’ll definitely be re-writing my lecture about money for the next iteration of my “Geographies of Technology” module next term…

Imogen Heap on inventing new [blockchain] contracts for publishing/selling music digitally

This interview/article in Forbes with Imogen Heap offers an interesting insight into what some artists are beginning to think about in relation to how on earth one creates a ‘fair’ mechanism of reward/recognition of work as an artist in a world where one’s work is subject to near infinite digital reproducibility.

This, to me (in my naivety), seems to represent one of the more compelling and believable implementations of what the blockchain can enable. It’s worth checking out Heap’s articulation of Mycelia (the blockchain powered music publishing system she hopes to help create).

For years I’ve been so frustrated with the deep opacity of the music industry stopping me from really making the most out of my career and connecting the dots. The ‘black boxes,’ the NDAs, the endless contracts and statements. In the last few years, auditing labels and publishers seems to have become the norm, as it’s apparent how consistently the books don’t match up. You can pretty much guarantee you’ll find something, but it’s not always intentional; it’s just the deals, trigger points, and percentages are so complex – even more when mergers and acquisitions occur – that it’s hard to get it right every time, if you’re human!

[Mycelia…]

Its success will come from the adoption of millions of music lovers. A grand scale ongoing, collective project like no-other. To document, protect and share that which we love and build a place for it to grow, enabling future generations of artists to blossom as well as honouring those of the past.

Open source, a living, breathing, smart, decentralised, transparent, adaptable, useful, shining home for our love of music. A home which allows creativity to flow, connect and facilitate collaboration on so many levels, many of which just haven’t been possible. With this grand library of all music forming the basis upon which all music businesses from digital radio to tour bookings can then grow and thrive from. Empowering the artists, turning and landing the industry finally on its feet.

Inspired by the largest living organisms on earth, ancient, unseen, core to life itself, Mycelium (plural Mycelia) can stretch for miles, beneath the surface.

Each artist acting like its own Mycelium, in full animated dialogue with others on the global network.

Mycelia is huge, as it holds all music related information ever recorded anywhere ever ever ever but this organism stretches across our planet between hundreds of thousands of personal computers. It is the world’s greatest and most treasured library and it belongs to the two collective parties who solely make music complete. The music makers and their audience.

Read the whole piece here.

Reblog> 10 bitcoin myths

This is worth a read, from The Institute of Network Cultures:

10 Bitcoin Myths

By Eduard de Jong, Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens

“Pigs will fly, but not in the next 100 million years.” Johan Sjerpstra

1. “Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer system.”

In order to transfer value from one Bitcoin account to another, the owner of bitcoins uses the services of a collective of operators known as ‘miners’ who validate the transaction on the Bitcoin distributed database also known as “the ledger.” The relationship between these operators and an individual user, i.e. owner of bitcoins, is hence one between merchants and customer and not one of equals. Only miners are, and then only operationally speaking, peers, since they all perform the same software program. However, they are also, and mostly, in competition which each other because they need revenue to pay for the equipment they operate. Also, any time an update to the database is made, only a single miner is actually adding the transaction records with bitcoin value transfers to the ledger, and gets the financial rewards for doing this. In this way, the incentive for miners to support each other is limited, and one cannot speak of a peer-to-peer relationship in the traditional sense.

Over the time Bitcoin has been operational the inherent hierarchical relation between miners and users has become more pronounced by an ever rising technical and financial barrier to becoming a miner. Investments and operating costs of the necessary equipment rise in tandem with the continuously increasing difficulty of adding a new record to the database that is built into the bitcoin protocol.

Conclusion: Bitcoin is not a peer-to-peer system, but an on-line merchant-customer transaction market place.

2. “Bitcoin does away with intermediaries and fees.”

To make a payment using bitcoins a Bitcoin user needs a “Bitcoin exchange” and these exchanges charge a fee. The sole exception is if the user is a data base operator (a.k.a miner), having aggregated some bitcoins by mining and exclusively pays other users that have decided to keep bitcoins.

There is an other intermediary in Bitcoin, the operators of the distributed data base, the Bitcoin miners. A miner also needs to charge for its labor and expenses. For the time being, a miner is rewarded with newly created bitcoins–that is why updating the database is called ‘mining’. By design, the available amount of bitcoins that can be mined is restricted, and it is expected to be exhausted somewhere around 2040. After exhausting the lode miners can only earn money by explicitly charging a fee.

Conclusion: De-facto, Bitcoin users need to engage services of intermediaries and do pay fees for their transactions.

3. “Bitcoin is an alternative currency.”

An alternative currency, by definition, is designed to _entirely_ displace and replace existing currencies. Complementary currencies intend to _partially_ displace and replace existing currencies, usually in a local setting.

By design, Bitcoin is an alternative currency. Real world observation however, shows that most transactions in bitcoins translate, either at the point of purchase, or at the point of sale, in transactions in existing currencies. Only miners can create bitcoins, non-miners need to acquire them, usually by way of purchase.

In practices Bitcoin transactions are often intended to avoid high transfer fees or bypass local restrictions in making international payments. In such cases, bitcoins are purchased, swiftly change hands, and are just as fast converted again in another currency. In this cash-in Cash-out scheme Bitcoin operates then as a facilitator in the circulation of existing currencies and not as a replacement of these. Cash-in cash-out has been shown the most common mode of operation in bitcoins. A Bitcoin transaction can also be speculative in purpose, to hoard bitcoins expecting a raise in their value. In this case bitcoin can be considered an alternative to other currencies, comparable to an speculative investment in dollars or in commodities, like iron ore, gold or grain.

Conclusion: Bitcoin does not actually operate as an alternative currency.

4. “Bitcoin is not a fiat currency.”

In practice, acceptance of Bitcoin payments takes place before the (irrevocable) recording of the transaction in the distributed database. That is, without formal confirmation of its validity. Apparently, the parties involved in payments in bitcoins _believe_ in their eventual recording. The payee therefore trusts the _eventual_ availability of received funds.

This looks distinctly similar to the way traditional instruments of payments, such as coins, banknotes and bank transfers, operate. The users trust, based on experience and social convention, the correct operation of the system such that received funds are available for further spending. This ‘systemic trust’ in traditional, fiat, currency is underpinned by a mix of technical features such as hard to copy bank notes, fraud detection software in financial institutions and government imposed and enforced regulations.

Conclusion: Where in practice the ‘systemic trust’ in Bitcoin is no different from that of traditional currencies, Bitcoin operates _de facto_ as a fiat currency.

5. “Bitcoin is anonymous.”

The central database with transactions in bitcoins is publicly accessible. This is an essential Bitcoin design property to, at least in theory, allow any party to participate as processing node (miner) in order to get involved in updating the distributed database. The parties in a transaction are identified by unique numbers, and a payment transaction is linked through this number to the transaction wherein the spend value was received.

But as most Bitcoin transactions effectively constitute a payment in traditional currency at one end or the other, or both, they involve well known parties that exchange bitcoins for and against these currencies, the Bitcoin exchanges. Hence, payments in bitcoins can be traced as the value flows between these exchanges. Identification to the humans involved in a payment, e.g. by law enforcement, are therefore _potentially_ possible.

Conclusion: Bitcoin is not an electronic form of cash and does not protect privacy.

6. “Bitcoin is secure and cannot be hacked.”

Security for electronic payments has several parts: first to make sure that only the rightful owner can make a payment, secondly to make sure that the intended recipient actually receives the moneys paid and finally that only money can be paid that is actually owned by the payer and hence can not be spend twice.

In the Bitcoin sphere a payer uses a password to initiate a payment from her computer. The password unlocks a private cryptographic key stored on the computer to send cryptographically protected messages to be recorded in the Bitcoin database to make the payment. Yet, computers can be hacked, and a hacker can gain control of the private key and hence initiate a fraudulent payment. A loss of the private key, for instance by a crashed hard disk, does not just lose access to the money, it actually loses all the moneys controlled. Indeed one of the design features of Bitcoin is that payments, once made, cannot be reversed or recalled.

For the ordinary user, this represents a much higher level of risk than in traditional banking, where losing the bank card or PIN does usually not result in losing the whole balance held in the bank account.

On the functional side, the operators of the processing nodes in the distributed implementation of the shared Bitcoin database use an protocol, to agree on the next version of the database. This is required to correctly incorporate the payment transactions made since the last update. The software in each of the processing nodes must verify the correctness of the transactions by inspecting previous transactions where the payer has received the value to be spend. Yet, servers can be hacked (e.g. with a virus) and the continued operations can therefor not be guaranteed.

By design, the blockchain protocol does not guarantee that all past transactions remain stored for ever or can be available to each of the processing nodes (miners) for inspection in a fail-safe way. The protocol does also not guarantee that a processing node actually verifies the transactions it records. The blockchain protocol cannot prevent that fraudulent transactions get recorded, and does not provide a way to remove or correct fraudulent transactions.

Conclusion: using Bitcoin is more risky than the traditional payment infrastructure.

7. “Bitcoin operates without trust.”

Bitcoin literature is adamant that the Bitcoin set-up successfully substitutes ‘objective’ ‘algorithmic’ trust for less reliable, because human error and trickery-prone, ‘subjective’ institutional or political trust.

As described previously, the blockchain protocol used to synchronize updates to the Bitcoin central database (or ledger) does not guarantee the correctness of the updates made. Most processing nodes that update the database, use the same open source implementation, the Bitcoin ‘miner’ program. This program includes verification of transactions, but transaction verification by the miner program might be compromised either accidentally, by a software bug, or maliciously, e.g. by a virus, or by a miner intent on undue gains. Users engaging in Bitcoin transactions implicitly trust that the miner programs continues to operate correctly, that the equipment is protected against virus attacks and that the miners will not subvert it.

Also, protection of the stored value at the level of the individual owner is not very strong in the Bitcoin set-up. As a consequence, Bitcoin service providers have emerged offering enhanced payment security, in the form of managing their clients’ wallets. This service can be provided both online and with physical tokens like smart cards. Making use of ‘wallet providers’ evidently entails trust in the continued correct and honest operations of the online service or of the physical device.

Conclusion: Bitcoin substitutes one form of ‘subjective’ trust in traditional institutions for another in new organizational forms.

8. “Bitcoin is politically neutral.”

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in a famous ‘last words’ speech against the Euro, affirmed that decisions about money and currency are all essentially political in nature. In this context politics must be understood as more than what politicians do, essential politics is about the citizens and the state they live in. The decision that is embodied in Bitcoin’s design to limit the issuable volume of bitcoins to 21 million units can only be seen as political.

Other characteristic Bitcoin features, such as it rewards for early adopters and big operators, its essentially deflationary and hoarding-inducing nature (also due to the designed scarcity of bitcoins), its rejection of regulatory oversight and consumer protection and of state intervention generally, all resonate with political beliefs of “techno-libertarians”. Conversely, it is difficult to imagine how Bitcoin could effectively function in a capitalism-unfriendly political dispensation.

Conclusion: like any other monetary system, Bitcoin, in its technical design reflects explicit or implicit political choices.

9. “Bitcoin is a sustainable system.”

The whole Bitcoin set-up is, and especially the functioning of the distributed implementation of its central database with the compute-intensive blockchain protocol, is dependent on increasingly sophisticated and trouble-free network infrastructure resulting in an ever increasing consumption of resources. This clearly is at variance with the ever more forceful, and inescapable calls for less consumption, foremost in the energy sector.

Conclusion: Bitcoin does not fit well in the required transition to sustainability. This contrasts with traditional financial institutions that can reduce energy consumption a pace with improvements in IT technology.

10. “Bitcoin can scale to world size.”

Both the limited number of possible units of bitcoins and inherently severe technical limits to the operational speed of the blockchain protocol pose such insurmountable obstacles to a global economy that would run exclusively with bitcoins. In the absence of governance of bitcoin, even a technical modification to increase transaction capacity are very hard to implement.

For consumer payment transactions, for instance, it is hard to conceive how the blockchain protocol in Bitcoin can be made to operate effectively at the same speed and volume as systems maintained by, e.g., VISA, Mastercard, AmEx, JCB and such.

As shown in Argentina or Greece Bitcoin can be useful in some specific situations. In these cases it has been a mediator between traditional monetary systems. For Bitcoin to ‘scale up’ to a true global scale, while maintaining (a semblance of) stability and security would for quite some time to come require such large amount of resources as to defeat any short or medium term perspective of attainability.

Conclusion: As Yanis Varoufakis, the economist and former finance minister in Greece, formulated it: “Bitcoin is not capable of ‘powering’ an advanced, industrial society.”

Amsterdam, November 30, 2015

(The authors thank Boudewijn de Kerf for a quick review, while keeping
full responsibility for the substance of the argument.)

Critical reflection on the ‘sharing economy'(?)

Sharing is caring“, The Circle – David Eggers.

“the question of work time outside employment is posed with renewed vigour, having been totally ignored by the law reducing the working week to thirty-five hours, just as it ignored the exhaustion  of the consumerists industrial model, a model within which production and consumption constitute a functional opposition, but one that has now become obsolete”, For a New Critique of Political Economy – Bernard Stiegler.

I have had a bunch of tabs open in my browser with they intention of writing something about the ‘sharing economy’ and how one might begin to ask questions of the kinds of words we use to variously describe reconfigurations of labour/work in relation to peer-to-peer, precarious work, casualisation and (perhaps) the slow dissolution of labour movements but (as one can easily guess) I just don’t have the time to make something coherent about this… so here’s some notes, off the top of my head, with some pointers to things that may be worth reading…

In the Grauniad (as it struggles to contend with a Labour party that is significantly to the left of it) there was a piece by Alex Hern arguing that the term the ‘sharing economy’ should “die”. His argument is that what the ‘sharing economy’ supposedly denotes is no kind of sharing but rather the continuation of unequal labour relations between those with wealth and those in need of work – an example is TaskRabbit: a system to hire temporary labour, such as caterers, cleaners or someone to stand in the queue for the latest iPhone (probably without needing to ensure competitive remuneration, because people who are willing to stand in a queue for you are probably in a precarious position).

I have some sympathies with the argument  – it’s a reworking of the ‘precariat’ argument, best expressed by Guy Standing, in which the rejigging of the economy has created a new class of worker that is reliant upon ‘precarious’ (temporary, difficult and unpredictable) forms of work. However, reducing it to worrying over terminology seems to miss a broader point: regardless of what you call it, any attempt at novel economic activity will attract those who seek to be exploitative.

Before going on to think about how to address this state of affairs, it is worth noting that some have tried to think about how/why we are in such a situation. Izabella Kominska (on the FT website) offers a good overview of some of the ways in which economists have thought about post-Fordism ~ the kinds of automation that are (and are not) happening in manufacturing, the movements of labour (offshoring etc.) and why we don’t have the amount of leisure time and levels of productivity promised by greater automation.

Indeed, in order to extract more profit in an economy of apparently ever-increasing abundance many argue that it is only through business/industry clawing back a more exploitative relation with the labour force that they can continue to extract the levels of profit to which we have all become accustomed. We can look to the likes of the Italian post-Fordists, such as BerardiLazzaratoTerranova and Virno; to net critics such as Morozov; and to Bernard Stiegler for articulations of these latest forms of proletarianisation [you don’t have to agree, I’m just pointing out this is an argument that contextualises the ‘sharing economy’]. It is in this context of a decline in the amount of work – a decline of ‘careers’ and a growth of ‘jobs’, that Melissa Gregg articulates the need to rethink our words for labour and to critically think about what might underlie the push for a ‘sharing’ economy.

It is in this context that one might formulate a critique of the ‘sharing economy’ –– the talismans of this novel form of economic practice, the likes of Uber, TaskRabbit and Airbnb, all extract value out of people either rendering their traditional working capacities more ‘flexible’ (or precarious) or by those people seeking to monetise other parts of their lives, e.g. where they live, the stuff they own, or their ‘leisure time’.

The proponents of these kinds of work argue that this offers ‘flexibility’ – work when you want, how you want etc. but one might counter this with the argument that as flexible labour you have to be opportunistic and so you are precisely not working when you want but rather when there is a demand for your work.

Likewise, many of the kinds of ‘work’ that are offered through the ‘sharing economy’ platforms necessarily constitute unequal power relations. The two principal actors in the contract of ‘sharing’ work are not equal: the ‘sharing’ systems rely on creating competition, and thus a ‘scarcity’ of work such that the ‘customer’ has choice and the ‘worker’ doesn’t. The third actor, the platforms themselves, are also seeking to extract value out of the ‘sharing’ of labour by acting as the mediator, which means the system itself is always geared to the creation of a margin.

Seen as a precarious form of work, the ‘sharing economy’ has been labelled otherwise as the ‘gig economy’ and there’s been some interesting discussions about what such work means to us in terms of our mental and physical health. For example, these two pieces in the FT:

The silent anxiety of the sharing economy
New ‘gig’ economy spells end to lifetime careers

Both of which have lots of links to follow up.

The other aspect of an emerging critique of the ‘sharing economy’ is precisely the ‘platform‘ nature of the kinds of systems that are seeking both to further and to profit from these apparently new forms of work. As sebastian olma suggests in a piece for the Institute of Network Cultures:

These are digital platforms that roughly do two things: either making the old practice of re- and multi-using durable goods more efficient or expanding market exchange into economically uncharted territory of society.

Olma argues (as do other) that what these platforms do is render available to the market things that have not been previously…

They stand for a digitally enabled expansion of the market economy, which…is the opposite of sharing.

This is what Sascha Lobbo (amongst others – Gary Hall is good on this) has argued constitutes not a ‘sharing economy’ but a ‘platform capitalism’. Rather than marketplaces, platforms are a kind of generic connective infrastructure, what Olma calls an ‘ecosystem’, that connects customers and companies to anything, not just specific goods or services. He argues that

While it is absolutely true that internet marketplaces and digital platforms can reduce transaction costs, the claim that they cut out the middleman is pure fantasy.

the old ‘middlemen’ [sic.] are replaced by more powerful gatekeepers: “monopolies with an unprecedented control over the markets they themselves create”, through the quasi-autonomous systems (what get popularly referred to as ‘algorithms’) that facilitate such things as Uber’s “surge pricing“. In this way every transaction becomes an auction, which is tipped in the favour of the platform, and the worker is rendered always to some extent precarious.

Indeed, the reality of working in such systems is not only possibly very stressful, as argued in the FT piece linked a bit earlier, but also doesn’t even necessarily offer the positive outcomes that the proponents claim. As Sarah Kessler, a Fast Company journalist, noted in her extensive report of her attempt to become one of the ‘sharing economy’ workforce:

For one month, I became the “micro-entrepreneur” touted by companies like TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Airbnb. Instead of the labor revolution I had been promised, all I found was hard work, low pay, and a system that puts workers at a disadvantage.

This critique presents some interesting challenges to those who espouse alternative modes of working and performing economic activities, such as the P2PFoundation, and Stiegler’s push for an ‘economy of contribution‘ through Ars Industrialis. However, the ‘platform capitalism’ of Uber et al. is not the only way to run such a system.

Rather than resort to a gatekeeper model we might alternatively look to the (supposedly) radical transparency of the blockchain – in this way I’m left with some (probably quite muddled) questions:

  • What kind of economy/ economics is performed when the transactional infrastructure is decentralised?
    • Can you actually do without an intermediary (‘middleman’ [sic])?
    • Does a blockchain infrastructure facilitate enough of a commons to make a ‘no transaction cost’ economy possible?
  • Can we reduce ‘sharing’ to an issue of the negotiation of trust (not to be exploited), solvable by the blockchain?

There must be more/better questions but my brain is fried… I hope that this is at least useful for me to return to as a set of loose notes and perhaps even useful for others vaguely interested in such things. Likewise, as usual, if you’re better informed and want to pitch in – please do leave comments 🙂

BBC’s “Future-proofing” radio programme on blockchain – pretty good!

I happened to be driving at around 8ish last night and the car radio was by default on Radio 4 so I caught a bit of the latest programme in the ‘FutureProofing‘ series. Ordinarily such things tend to annoy me, cos I am grumpy, but listening to the programme about block chain last night I confess I was rather impressed. Timandra Harkness and Leo Johnson present an interesting account.

Blockchain is a difficult thing to explain and harder still to attempt to articulate how it might be used, beyond the libertarian goals of particular uses of crypto-currencies. The programme last night excelled in this regard covering lots of interesting angles. They end up having an interesting debate about politics and government.

There’s some interesting interviewees too:

Janina Lowisz (‘blockchain girl’) – ‘ambassador for bitnation

Mike Hearn – software developer & bitcoin advocate

Nathaniel Popper –journalist, author of ‘digital gold’

Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof – CEO of bitnation

Steven Lukes – Prof. of Sociology at NYU

Vinay Gupta – of the Ethereum (blockchain) project