Pluralistic: 22 Sep 2021

Today's links

An old IWW poster portraying a bell ringing in a way that sends various class enemies a-tumble; an extra W has been inserted into 'IWW' so it reads 'IWWW.'

Gig workers around the globe (permalink)

My 2010 YA science fiction novel For the Win imagines a global solidarity movement among precarious gig workers paid to "gold farm" inside massively multiplayer online games.

The kids who do this work realize they have more in common with each other than their bosses, and form a global syndicalist union called the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWW) or "Webblies."

Gold farming remains a source of exploitative labor, xenophobic in-game violence, and acts of solidarity, but it's only a tiny sliver of the true gig economy, which started with traditional low-waged delivery and driving work and has spread to MDs.

"The Global Gig Workers" is a new, important report on the gig economy around the world, published by Rest of World. It's grounded in a survey of 4,500 gig workers in 15 countries, backstopped by seven profiles of workers in seven countries.

The package includes a dive into the small coterie of investors that are behind the drive to export the gig economy to every nation on earth, delving into how they describe the business opportunity gig work represents.

It won't surprise you to learn that what attracts investors to gig work is the potential to scale up a company at workers' expense. Building the app and bribing, coercing or convincing local authorities to allow it to operate is a fixed cost; running the service is cheap.

The capital costs – bikes, trucks, cars, phones, data-plans – are all borne by workers, who, thanks to systematic worker misclassification, are treated as independent contractors who are not entitled to benefits or workplace protection.

And while the workers must buy expensive capital equipment and have their days scripted to a fine degree by the electronic nag of the app, the company offers them no assurance that compliance and performance will be rewarded with a fair wage.

Not only do workers routinely see their pay slashed after they've established themselves with the company, thanks to unilateral shifts in the compensation structure (as well as changes to the apps to hide how much a job pays until the worker has completed it).

But entire, debt-financed capital investments by workers can be wiped out by a "pivot" in corporate strategy, as happened to Zweli Ngwenya, an Uber driver in Johannesburg who went into debt to buy a car that qualified him to drive for Uberx.

Ngwenya relied on Uberx-style compensation to service the debt on the capital asset he purchased to help Uber scale up its South African business. But then Uber rolled out a cheaper alternative, Uber Go, that didn't require a fancy car, and paid lower compensation.

Ngwenya's wages have "plummeted." He may not be able to service the debt he incurred. A company that expected him to frog whenever its app told him to jump never extended even the thinnest fiction of a reciprocal degree of respect and care.

There's a lot to be learned from Rest of World's data analysis. For example, there's an excellent article on "How the platform economy sets women up to fail," which traces the gender inequities in the structure of the gig economy.

But what I found most fascinating was the introductory article, "How the gig workers are fighting back," detailing how gig workers around the world are making common cause with one another.

These movements cross sectors – uniting drivers and bike deliverers and grocery shoppers – and national boundaries, as well as the far less permeable barriers between high-income and low-income countries.

Because even though there are striking differences between the lives of the seven gig workers profiled in the package – a doctor in India, a truck driver in Indonesia, a rideshare driver in Ethiopia – the similarities are even more striking.

Even though these workers can articulate benefits to their situation, they all describe the same pathology of their implacable app overlords – a steady ramping-up of work to a dangerous inhuman pace, a race to the bottom from app companies promising faster, cheaper service.

The same pattern is repeated around the globe. Josh Dzieza's beautifully written longread on the lives of NYC bike-delivery couriers repeats all the themes of these workers around the global south.

Like my imaginary Webblies, these workers are facing a common enemy, and they're banding together online to fight back. What's more, these workers are canaries in the labor coalmine: if your job can be done by zoom, some asshole is currently pitching that business-plan.

Teachers, lawyers, doctors, illustrators, writers – the gig economy is everyone's future – it's just not evenly distributed. Whether you're ordering dinner from an app or delivering it, you have a common enemy in the form of rapacious, inhumane global capital.

But it doesn't have to be this way. These businesses don't need to operate at inhumane tempo to be viable. They don't need to offload capital costs to workers. They don't need to misclassify employees and escape fair workplace standards. We let them do it, so they do it.

We can stop them. The beneficiaries of the gig economy are few. Its victims are many. The same tools that offer instantaneous, globe-spanning exploitation can also be a framework for global, realtime solidarity movements.

The cover of the illustrated PM Press edition of Peter Kropotkin's 'Mutual Aid,' featuring an introduction by David Graeber.

Mutual Aid and David Graeber (permalink)

Peter Kropotkin was a Russian aristocrat who renounced his titles, became a scientist and anarchist, and wrote many significant works, but none so important as MUTUAL AID, his 1902 treatise on the role of cooperation in evolutionary biology.

Originally intended as a series of (never delivered) lectures for William Morris's Socialist League, the book was an assault on "moral philosophers" who used Darwin's work and "survival of the fittest" to justify class oppression at home and imperial slaughter abroad.

Painstaking researched and beautifully argued, MUTUAL AID reveals the scientific fraud of "social Darwinism," and its claims that hierarchy and exploitation are evolutionary inevitabilities baked into our very nature.

And while Kropotkin's ideas have inspired generations of biologists AND activists, the social Darwinists have only grown in influence, providing pseudoscientific cover for greed, oppression and immorality.

The folks at PM Press have just published a stunning, illustrated new edition of MUTUAL AID, illustrated by N.O. Bonzo whose neo-Arts-and-Crafts marginalia and full-page spreads are gorgeous and thrilling

Still better are the essays that have been incorporated for this edition: a foreword by Ruth Kinna, a preface by GATS, an afterword by Allan Antliff, and, miraculously, a scorching and blazing introduction by Allan Antliff and the late, lamented David Graeber (Rest In Power).

Graeber and Antliff's essay zeroes in on the social function of social Darwinism – identifying the way that it creates a state of "capitalist realism" where there is no alternative, thanks to "human nature."

I am still sorrowing over David's death, and finding a new work by him, so trenchant and on-point, was exhilarating, even glorious.

If critiques of social Darwinism and evolutionary psychology are your thing, I strongly recommend feminist biologist Anne Dagg's incandescent 2004 book, LOVE OF SHOPPING IS NOT A GENE.

Kropotkin was a scientist, but he trained as a geographer and biology was more of a hobby. By contrast, Dagg is a prominent and celebrated biologist and her critique has an unmistakable scientific heft mixed with a righteous fury.

In the meantime, this new PM edition of MUTUAL AID could not be more timely, beautiful or on-point. It's a superb volume.

Mark Zuckerberg onstage, speaking in front of a large stock-report chart that shows a descending line, captioned with a Facebook 'Delete My Account' button.

Facebook algorithm boosts pro-Facebook news (permalink)

Facebook is a rotten company, rotten from the top down, its founder, board and top execs are sociopaths and monsters, committers of non-hyperbolic, no-fooling crimes against humanity. They lie, they cheat, they steal. They are some of history's greatest villains.

Because Facebook is a terrible company run by terrible people, it periodically erupts in ghastly scandal. Sometimes whistleblowers or reporters reveal historic crimes, including (but not limited to) deliberately helping to foment genocide.

Sometimes, the scandals are contemporary: either Facebook blithely announces it's going to do something terrible, or we learn of some terrible thing underway from leaks or investigations.

Thanks to a history of anticompetitive mergers – Whatsapp, Instagram, Onavo and more – based on fraudulent promises to antitrust regulators, Facebook has grown to nearly three billion users – except FB doesn't have users, really – it has hostages.

As Facebook's own internal memos show, the company doesn't just buy up competitors so users have nowhere to flee to, it also engineers in high "switching costs" to make it more painful to leave the system.

For example, Facebook's internal memos show that the manager for its photo products set out to seduce users into entrusting FB with their family photos, because that way quitting Facebook would mean abandoning your memories of your kids, departed grandparents, etc.

Everybody hates Facebook, especially FB users. The point of high switching costs, after all, is to increase the pain of leaving so that FB can dole out more abuse to its users without fearing that they'll quit the whole enterprise.

FB's mission is to increase the size of the shit-sandwich they can force you to eat before you walk away. But they're not mere sadists: shit-sandwiches have a business model: the more hostages they take, the more they can extract from advertisers – their true customers.

The polite term for what FB has is a "two-sided market" (selling advertisers to users and users to advertisers). The technical term is "a monopoly and a monoposony" (a monopsony is a market with a single buyer).

The colloquial term?

"A racket."

A scam. A bezzle. A blight.

Facebook gouges advertisers on rate cards, then lies about the reach of its ads (like when it lied about the popularity of video, evincing a media-wide "pivot to video" that bankrupted dozens of news- and entertainment-sites).

Facebook didn't set out to destroy journalism by price-fixing ads, lying to advertisers and media outlets.

FB set out to acquire a monopoly and extract monopoly rents from advertisers and publishers, with a pathological indifference to how these frauds would harm others.

Having shown a willingness to destroy journalists and media outlets to extract a few more billions for its shareholders, Facebook has attracted a lot of enemies in the media.

If you're a whistleblower with a story to tell, there's a journalist whose editor will allocate the resources to report your story out in depth. The combination of a rotten company and a lot of pissed off journalists produces a lot of bad ink for the company.

But the fact remains that FB has a vast pool of hostages, billions of them, and it gets to decide what they see, when and how. I used to joke with my human rights activist friends that the best use for Facebook was showing people why and how to leave Facebook.

FB's response was predictable. As Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel write in the New York Times, FB's Project Amplify is a Zuckerberg-led initiative to systematically promote positive coverage of FB and its founder – including articles that originate with FB itself.

That is, FB staffers are charged with writing puff pieces about how great the company is, and FB's algorithm will push these ahead of reporting by actual journalists who present detailed, factual, multi-sourced accounts of the company's fraudulent and depraved conduct.

Project Amplify marks a pivot from FB's longstanding policy of issuing insincere apologies for its scandals. Company sources told the reporters that everyone figured out these don't convince anyone, so the company turned to pushing happy-talk quackspeak instead.

One of the leaders of this project is Alex Schultz, "a 14-year company veteran who was named chief marketing officer last year," but the major impetus comes from Zuck himself, one of the most hated men on the planet.

Amplify is just one of FB's strategies for distorting the discourse about itself. In July, it neutered Crowdtangle, an widely used analytics tool that showed that FB's top posts were unhinged far-right disinformation and conspiracies.

And Facebook has declared all-out legal warfare (accompanied by a disinformation campaign) to kill Adobserver, an NYU project that tracks paid political disinformation on the platform.

By shutting down Crowdtangle and Adobserver, FB hopes to control the academic findings about the company's role in disinformation, hate, and harassment. The company runs its own research portal where academics are expected to access data about the platform.

But as with the journalists who report on it, FB has heaped abuse on the academics who research it.

Its portal data was bad, leaving PhD and masters' theses are at risk of retraction. Mid-dissertation researchers have been set back to square one.

In retrospect, Facebook's decision to game its own algorithm to push pro-company quackspeak seems inevitable. It's not just that no one believes the company's apologies anymore (if they ever did) – it's that the company seems incapable of hiring competent spin doctors.

Take the WSJ's blockbuster "Facebook Files," a series of reports detailing the company's willingness to harm children, commit fraud, and allow millions of favored, powerful people to violate its rules with impunity.

FB's response was genuinely pathetic. In a perfunctory blog post, its top flack – the widely despised British politician Nick Clegg, paid millions to front FB on the global stage – vilified the WSJ's reporting without producing any factual rebuttals.

It's the kind of ham-fisted policy advocacy that Facebook is (in)famous for. Who can forget the absolute shitshow in India over its Internet Basics program, when it bribed telcos to exempt FB and the services it hand-picked from their data-caps?

This Net-Neutracidal maneuver, falsely billed as a way to bring the internet to poor people (something is absolutely does not do), was the subject of a consultation by India's telco regulators.

FB pushed deceptive alerts to millions of its Indian users, tricking them into sending a flood of form-letters to the regulator urging it to leave Internet Basics intact.

But whoever drafted the form letter didn't bother to check whether it addressed any of the questions the regulator was consulting on. That made these millions of letters non-responsive to the consultation, so the regulator ignored them.

FB lost! It's almost as though people who are good at fighting policy battles don't want to work for Facebook, and the only talent they can attract are the kinds of opportunistic knob-ends that no one takes seriously and everyone hates.

Weird, that.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Rented AT&T home phone cost elderly woman $2,000 over 40 years

#15yrsago French DRM activists surrender to police

#10yrsago Cost of raising middle-income child in USA increases by 40% over ten years

#5yrsago HTML standardization group calls on W3C to protect security researchers from DRM

#5yrsago I have found a secret tunnel that runs underneath the phone companies and emerges in paradise

#5yrsago China’s elites appear to be exfiltrating billions while on holidays

#5yrsago Wells Fargo fired the whistleblowers who reported massive fraud, and that’s a crime

#5yrsago Phoebe and her unicorn are back in Razzle Dazzle Unicorn!

#1yrago Facebook threatens to leave EU

#1yrago Uber for evicting people

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Learningpillars (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 273 words (19599 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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