Like many of us, I’ve been trying to sort out “the sharing economy”, which seems to mean different things to different people. From Robin Chase we learn the connection to “Platforms”, which provide a flatter, more or less “peer to peer” connection that enables people to “share”.
These platforms give the sociotechnical system a somewhat strange hybrid nature, employing a global (monopolistic) communication medium to conduct very small scale, local transactions (e.g., ride sharing). Platforms also build their proprietary services on top of open, public infrastructure. This mixture of public and private, large powerful entities (the “platform”) and small grass roots people is part of what makes definition difficult. Is this a bottom up, people-to-people thing? Or is this a global corporate monopoly thing? Is this creating value, or free-riding on the commons?
At the top of the list for many people, are business models are extremely exploitative, pushing risk and capital expenses onto low paid workers, evading taxes and social payments, and taking a high rent. The “Uberization” of services, converting employees in to “independent contractors”.
Assuming that we accept the beneficial role of “platforms”, do we have to accept the global monopoly, centralized service model? Of course not. There is a growing desire to create versions of “platforms” that give the same benefits but have a different business model.
One flavor of this has adopted the name “Platform Cooperativism”, which specifically seeks to replicate the features popular platforms, except let the control and profits go to the peers themselves, not to the owners of the platform. (The “Rebel Alliance” versus the Death Stars”, in the words of Neal Gorenflo.) Despite existing examples, advocates for this approach appear to be cautious or even pessimistic about the prospects for such efforts. “The path is currently uncertain, expensive, and time consuming.”
There is reason for optimism, in my opinion.
One thing that strikes me about these “platforms” is that, for the most part, they are technically mundane, and fairly easy to replicate—except for the monopoly power and brand recognition they may accumulate. The classic example is Uber, which has a very, very simple user experience that could easily be replicated (and, indeed, is being cloned as I write this).
As a technologist, this tells me that these businesses are build on soft sand, and could tumble down at any time. All it will take is a clone that catches fancy, beats their cost, or just gets lucky.
This analysis applies to the technical systems, but what about the sociology and economics? In general, maintaining a monopoly is difficult, especially if there are few barriers that prevent competition.
In the case of something like Google, they have the advantage of a huge amount of data that no one else can replicate easily. But in a case like Uber, most of their service can be recreated easily. Indeed, Uber seems to spend most of its money on lobbying and other pressure tactics.
There is a conference at the New School in NYC this week, titled “Platform Cooperatiism: The Internet, Ownership, and Democracy”. This is supposed to be “A coming-out party for the cooperative Internet.” (If that phrase does seem New Yorkish enough for you, they also remark, “Can Silicon Alley do things more democratically than Silicon Valley?” That is not a question on most of our minds, not at all.)
It’s hard to say from this distance, but this conference might produce some good ideas and some practical initiatives. I hope one of the actions will be to replicate the meeting in every hamlet across the world.
Honestly, this isn’t a “New York versus California” thing. Platform Cooperatism will sink or swim out here in the broad world outside the media centers. The technology that fuels both Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley came out the cornfields and industrial heartland, and that is where the next phase of the Internet must and will be written.