Orsi On “Platforms”: They Are Easily Disrupted

Earlier I noted the conference on Platform Cooperatism two weeks ago in NYC. I’m one of the 99% who didn’t attend, but I did glance through the reports and video,

Much of the conference was pretty redundant as far as I’m concerned. As an old hand at this stuff, I don’t need an explanation of why I want cooperatives. I’ve always used local and cooperatives when they are available. I mean, Duh! Send my money to some stranger in the city, or to my neighbors?

I guess I am a “Premature Cooperatist” or something.

The important part of the conference was the “platform” part. How do we make “the sharing economy” work for ordinary people? How do we disrupt the disrupters, to use one of the metaphors of the conference?

Much of the answer is technical and boring. Organizing, managing, dealing with legal structures, and so on. We know how to do it, though it’s a ton of work.

But what about the technology? Much of the “new economy” is enabled by, and sometimes said to be driven by digital technologies. In particular, the “sharing economy” is characterized by technological “platforms” that implement P2P transactions (while extracting monopolistic fees). How do we deal with this supposed technical wizardry?

The best part of the conference for me is the clear-eyed optimism on this point. Janelle Orsi captures this best with the observation that the technical “wizardry” of Uber et al. is the Wizardry of Oz. There is nothing much behind the curtain, and certainly nothing that cannot be replicated in any form we want.

She’s right, and I’ve held this view myself for many years. Many of the most noted platforms are technologically simple and pedestrian. They succeed by exploitation and capturing attention. It is indeed difficult to replicate a large network of customers and servers, but it is pretty simple to replicate the technical platform itself.

But, as Orsi pointed out, since the workers own the assets and have little attachment to the platform—this is at the very core of the platforms’ design—it is easy for both workers and customers to jump to another platform any time they want to. In other words, a company like Uber is almost 100% replicable.

Experience has shown that such replicability is an invitation to competitors, and one that will surely be taken up.

The conclusion must be that there is plenty of opportunity for “platform cooperatives” as well as other initiatives such as plain mom and pop enterprises or public/private hybrids (think mass transit systems) to get in the game and strip off the only valuable resources of P2P platforms: the people.


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