Pluralistic: Tech workers and gig workers need each other (13 Jan 2024)

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A pair of early 20th century women strikers in formal dresses with sashes reading 'PICKET STRIKERS.' The left striker's head has been replaced with a 'hacker-in-a-hoodie' cliche. The left one's jacket has been turned Deliveroo blue. She's wearing a matching bike helmet and carrying a Deliveroo food-delivery insulated backpack. They are posed on a background of a giant union conference at Madison Square Gardens, under a banner reading 'ON WITH THE STRIKE! ON TO VICTORY!'

Tech workers and gig workers need each other (permalink)

We're living in the enshittocene, in which the forces of enshittification are turning everything from our cars to our streaming services to our dishwashers into thoroughly enshittifified piles of shit. Call it the Great Enshittening:

How did we arrive at this juncture? Is it the end of the zero rate interest policy? Was it that the companies that formerly made useful things that we valued underwent a change in leadership that drove them to make things worse? Is Mercury in retrograde?

None of the above. There have been many junctures in which investors demanded higher returns from firms but were not able to force them to dramatically worsen their products. Moreover, the leaders now presiding over the rapid unscheduled disassembly of once-useful products are the same people who oversaw their golden age. As to Mercury? Well, I'm a Cancer, and as everyone knows, Cancers don't believe in astrology.

The Great Enshittening isn't precipitated by a change in how greedy and callous corporate leaders are. Rather, the change is in what those greedy, callous corporate leaders can get away with.

Capitalists hate capitalism. For a corporate executive, the fact that you have to make good things, please your customers, pay your workers, and beat the competition are all bugs, not features. The best business is one in which people simply pay you money without your having to do anything or worry that someday they'll stop. UBI for the investor class, in other words.

Douglas Rushkoff calls this "going meta." Don't sell things, provide a platform where people sell things. Don't provide a platform, invest in the platform. Don't invest in the platform, buy options on the platform. Don't buy options, buy derivatives of options.

A more precise analysis comes from economist Yanis Varoufakis, who calls this technofeudalism. Varoufakis draws our attention to the distinction between profits and rents. Profit is the income a capitalist receives from mobilizing workers to do something productive and then skimming off the surplus created by their labor.

By contrast, rent is income a feudalist derives from simply owning something that a capitalist or a worker needs in order to be productive. The entrepreneur who opens a coffee shop earns profits by creaming off the surplus value created by the baristas. The rentier who owns the building the coffee shop rents gets money simply for owning the building.

The coffee shop owner can never rest. At any moment, another coffee shop can open down the street and lure away their customers and their baristas. When that happens, the coffee shop goes bust and the owner is ruined. But not the landlord! After the coffee shop goes bust, the landlord's asset is more valuable – an empty storefront just down the street from the hottest coffee shop in town.

Capitalists hate capitalism. Faced with a choice of retaining their workers by paying them a fair wage and treating them well, or by saddling them with noncompetes that make it impossible to work for anyone else in the same field, and obligations to repay tens of thousands of dollars for "training" if they quit, bosses will take the latter every time. Go meta, baby.

Same for competition. Faced with the choice of competing to win the most customers with the best products, or merging so that customers have nowhere else to go, even the bitterest of rivals find it remarkably easy to intermarry until our corporations landscape is so interbred the dominant firms all have Habsburg jaws. Think: Facebook-Instagram. Disney-Fox. Microsoft-Activision:

Enshittification has complex underlying dynamics and a reliable procession of stages, but the effect is quite straightforward: things are enshittified when they become worse for the people who use them and the suppliers who makes them, but nevertheless, the users keep using and the suppliers keep supplying.

There are four forces that stand in the way of enshittification, and as each of these forces grows weaker, enshittification proliferates.

The first and most important of these constraints is competition. Capitalists claim to love competition because it keeps firms sharp: they must constantly find ways to improve products and cut costs or be swept away by a superior alternative. There's a degree of truth here, but that's not the whole story.

For one thing, competition can "improve" things that we would rather see abolished. Critics of the GDPR, the EU's landmark privacy law, often point to the devastation that enforcing privacy law had on the European ad-tech industry, driving small firms out of business. But these firms were the most egregious privacy offenders, because they had the least to lose, lacking the dominant position of US-based Big Tech surveillance companies.

Having the least to lose, they were the most reckless with their privacy invasions – but they were also the least equipped to pay expensive enablers from giant corporate law firms to hold off European enforcers, and so they were obliterated. The resulting lack of competition is fine, as far as privacy goes: we don't want competition in the field of "who is most efficient at violating our human rights":

But there's another benefit to competition: disorganization. A sector with hundreds of medium-sized, competing companies is a squabbling mob, incapable of agreeing on the site for an annual meeting. An industry dominated by a handful of firms is a cartel, handily capable of presenting a unified front to policy makers, and their commercial coziness provides them with vast war-chests they can use to suborn governments and capture their regulators:

Competition is the first constraint. When there's competition, corporate managers fear that you will respond to enshittification by defecting to a rival, costing them money. They don't care about your satisfaction, but they do care about your money, and competition hitches their ability to satisfy you to their ability to get paid by you.

Competition has been circling the drain for 40 years, as the "consumer welfare" theory of antitrust, hatched by Reagan's court sorcerers at the University of Chicago School of Economics, took hold. This theory insists that monopolies are evidence of "efficiency" – if everyone shops at one store, that's evidence that it's the best store, not evidence that they're cheating.

For 40 years, we've allowed companies to violate antitrust law by merging with major competitors, acquiring fledgling rivals, and using investor cash to sell below cost so that no one else can enter the market. This has produced the inbred industrial hulks of today, with five or fewer firms dominating everything from eyeglasses to banking, sea freight to professional wrestling:

The endless and continuous weakening of competition has emboldened corporate enshittifiers, who operate on the logic of Lily Tomlin in her role as an AT&T spokeswoman: "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company":

But the drawdown of competition has also enabled regulatory capture, by converting cutthroat adversaries to kissing cousins. These companies have convinced their regulators not to enforce privacy, consumer protection or labor laws, provided that the gross violations of these laws are accomplished via apps.

This is where tech exceptionalism is warranted: while the bosses that run these companies aren't any nobler – or more wicked – than the Robber Barons of yore, they are equipped with a digital back-end for their businesses that let them change the rules of the game from moment to moment.

Think of labor law: as Veena Dubal writes, gig-work companies practice algorithmic wage discrimination, turning your paycheck into a slot machine that pays out more when you are more selective about which jobs you take, and which then docks your pay by tiny increments as you become less discriminating about answering the app's call:

This is a plain violation of labor law, but the fiction that gig workers are contractors, combined with the opacity and speed of the wage discrimination back-end, lets the companies get away with it.

But the monsters who hatched this scam are no worse than their forebears, nor are they any smarter. Any black-hearted coal-boss memorialized in a Tennessee Ernie Ford song would have gladly practiced algorithmic wage discrimination – but there just weren't enough green-eyeshade accountants in the back office to change the payout from second to second.

I call this "twiddling" – turning the knobs on the back end to continuously adjust the business logic that the firm operates on:

Twiddling is everywhere, and it is only possible because "it's not a crime if we use an app" has been accepted by (captured) regulators. Think of Amazon's "pricing paradox," where deceptive search results – which Amazon makes $38b/year on – allow the company to offer lower prices, but charge higher ones:

The first constraint on enshittification is competition – the fear that you'll lose money when a disgusted customer take their business elsewhere. The second constraint is regulation – the fear that a regulator's punishment will eat up all the expected gains from an enshittificatory move, or even exceed those gains, leading to a net loss.

But the less competition there is in a sector, the easier it is for the remaining companies to capture their regulators. Say goodbye to that second constraint.

But there's another constraint – another one that's unique to technology, and genuinely exceptional. That's self-help. Digital technology is infinitely flexible, which is why managers can twiddle the business logic and change the rules on a dime.

But it's a double-edged sword. Users can twiddle back. The universal nature of digital products means it's always technically possible to disenshittify the enshittified products in your world. Mercedes wants to charge you rent on your accelerator pedal via a monthly subscription? Just mod the car by toggling the "subscription paid" bit and get the accelerator for free:

HP tricks you into installing a "security update" that sneakily disables your printer's ability to recognize and use third-party ink? Just roll back the operating system and you won't be forced to spend $10,000/gallon to print out your boarding passes and shopping lists:

Self-help – AKA "adversarial interoperability" – isn't just a way to override the greedy choices of corporate sadists. It's a way to hold those sadists in check. It's a constraint.

Imagine a boardroom where someone says, "I calculate that if we make our ads 25% more invasive and obnoxious, we can eke out 2% more in ad-revenue." If you think of a business as a transhuman colony organism that exists to maximize shareholder value, this is a no-brainer.

But now consider the rejoinder: "If we make our ads 25% more obnoxious, then 50% of our users will be motivated to type, 'how do I block ads?' into a search engine. When that happens, we don't merely lose out on the expected 2% of additional revenue – our income from those users falls to zero, forever."

Self-help is the third constraint on enshittification. But when competition fails, and regulatory capture ensues, companies don't just gain the ability to flout the law – they get to wield the law, too.

Tech firms have cultivated a thicket of laws, rules and regulations that make self-help measures very illegal. This thicket is better known as "IP," a term that is best understood as meaning "any policy that lets me control the conduct of my competitors, my customers and my critics":

To put an ad-blocker in an app, you have to reverse-engineer it. To do that, you'll have to decrypt and decompile it. That step is a felony under Section 1201 of the DMCA, carrying a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine. Beyond that, ad-blocking an app would give rise to liability under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (a law inspired by the movie Wargames!), under "tortious interference" claims, under trademark, copyright and patent.

More than 50% of web users have installed an ad-blocker:

But zero percent of app users have installed an ad-blocker, because they don't exist, because you'd go to prison if you made one. An app is just a web-page wrapped in enough IP to make it a felony to add an ad-blocker to it.

This is why self-help, the third constraint, no longer applies. When a corporate sadist says, "let's make ads 25% more obnoxious to get 2% more revenue," no one says, "if we do that, our users will all install blockers." Instead, the response is, "let's make ads 100% more obnoxious and get an 8% revenue boost!"

Which brings me to the final constraint: workers.

Tech workers have historically enjoyed enormous bargaining power, thanks to a dire shortage of qualified personnel. While this allowed tech workers to command high salaries and cushy benefits, it also led many workers to conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs-in-waiting and not workers at all.

This made tech workers very exploitable: their bosses could sell them on the idea that they were doing something heroic, which warranted "extremely hardcore" expectations – working 16 hour days, sleeping under your desk, sacrificing your health, your family and your personal life to meet deadlines and ship products ("Real artists ship" – S. Jobs).

But the flip side of this appeal to heroism is that it only worked to the extent that it convinced workers to genuinely care about the things they made. When you miss your mother's funeral and pass on having kids in order to meet deadline and ship a product, the prospect of making that product worse is unthinkable.

Confronted by the moral injury of enshittifying a product you care about, and harming the users you see yourself as representing, many tech workers balked at the prospect. Because tech workers were scarce – and because there were plenty of employment prospects for workers who quit – they could actually prevent their bosses from making their products worse:

But those days are behind us, too. Mass tech worker layoffs have gutted tech workers' confidence. When Google lays off 12,000 tech workers just months after a stock buyback that would have paid their wages for the next 27 years, they deliver two benefits to their shareholders. It's not just the short-term gains from the financial engineering – there's the long-term gain of gutting worker power and stripping away the final impediment to enshittification:

No matter how strong an individual tech worker's bargaining power was, it was always brittle. Long before googlers were being laid off in five-digit cohorts, they were working in an environment where harassment and predation were just part of the job. The 20,000+ googlers who walked off the job in 2018 were an important step towards replacing the system where each tech worker's power was limited to their moment-to-moment importance to their bosses' plans with a new system based on a collective identity.

Only through collective action and solidarity – unions – could tech workers hope to truly resist all the moral injuries of their bosses enshittification imperatives. No surprise then, that tech unions are on the rise:

But what is a little surprising – and very heartening! – is what happens when techies start to self-identify as workers: they come to understand that they share common cause with the other workers at the bottom of the tech stack. Think of Amazon's tech workers walking out in solidarity with Amazon's warehouse workers:

Superficially, the bottom rank of the tech industry is as different from the tech workers at the top as you can imagine. Tech workers are formally employed, with stock options, health care and theme-park "campuses" with gyms and gourmet cafeterias.

The gig workers who pack, drive, deliver and support tech products aren't even employees – they're misclassified as contractors. They don't get free massages – they get AI bosses that monitor their eyeballs and dock their paychecks for peeing:

Gig workers desperately need unions, but they also derive extraordinary benefits from self-help measures. When an app is your boss, another app can make all the difference to your working conditions. Take Para, an app that fights algorithmic wage discrimination by allowing gig workers to collectively and automatically refuse any job where the pay is below a certain threshold, forcing the algorithm to pay everyone more:

Para is fighting a grim legal and technical battle against companies like Doordash, whose margins depend on atomized workers with atomized apps, prohibited from countertwiddling. This is a surprisingly effective tactic: in Indonesia, gig workers co-ops create suites of "tuyul" apps that modify the behavior of their bosses' apps', unilaterally securing concessions that they lack the bargaining power to secure by other means:

Tuyul apps and other forms of countertwiddling aren't a substitute for unionization, they're an adjunct to it. The union negotiator whose rank-and-file are able to modify the apps that monitor and control their working conditions operates from a position of strength. "Please give my members more bathroom breaks" is a lot weaker than, "If you want my members to stop hacking their apps so they can piss when they need to, you're going to have to give them official bathroom breaks."

This is where solidarity between the high-paid tech workers at the keyboard and low-paid tech workers on the delivery bikes comes in. Together, they can wring more concessions from their bosses, sure. But unionized coders can give their unionized delivery riders the apps they need to countertwiddle and increase the bargaining leverage of all the workers in the union. And when unionized coders' bosses force them to put enshittifying anti-features in the apps they care about, unionized front-line workers can run counter-apps that disenshittify them.

Other sectors are already working through versions of this. The ouster of the old corrupt leadership of the Teamsters ushered in a new, radical era that produced historic wage and working condition gains for drivers and the abolition of the two-tier contract system that eventually destroys any union that tries it.

That change in leadership was possible because the Teamsters organized the Harvard Grad Students, and those Harvard kids memorized the union rulebook. At the historic conference where the old guard was abolished, it was teamwork between the union rank-and-file and the rules-lawyers from Harvard that turned the proceedings around:

We are deep into the enshittocene and it is terribly demoralizing. But by understanding the constraints that kept enshittification at bay, we can rebuild them, and shore them up. Labor organizing among all kinds of tech workers isn't just a way to get a better deal for those workers – it's key to the disenshittification of all our lives.

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