In 2015, Stephen Colbert asked cofounder and then CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick how the company’s heavy investment in driverless car technology squared with its purported “commitment” to its “driver-partners.” Colbert was right to be skeptical: if fully implemented, such technology would result in the loss of an estimated 25,000 jobs per month. Kalanick’s response was evasive:
Google’s doing the driverless thing. Tesla’s doing the driverless thing. Apple’s doing the driverless thing … This is gonna be the world. And so the question for a tech company is, Do you want to be part of the future, or do you want to resist the future?
By presenting the future as a nonnegotiable binary—Uber will either obey the immutable natural law of market competition and flourish, or fail as a company—Kalanick elided the possibility of mass unemployment while also minimizing his own role in producing it.
Yet his statement is also notable for its curious timidity, which flies in the face of the gig economy’s emancipatory rhetoric. What makes executives like Kalanick champion freedom, entrepreneurship, and personal responsibility while simultaneously insisting that their own hands are tied? In what sense are tech CEOs “visionaries” if their visions of the future involve not bold innovation but slavish imitation of competitors?
Contradictory statements like Kalanick’s aim to shield the tech industry from public critique, but they are no mere media strategy. Instead, they deliberately reframe the uncertain employment and mounting inequality that have accompanied the gig economy’s expansion as the newest iteration of the American Dream. If the conversion of most full-time work to precarious gig labor is truly unavoidable, then individuals, companies, and governments can only fall in line—no matter how unpleasant our collective reality becomes.
As intensive lobbying adds entire states to the long list of tech industry “customers,” the vaguely libertarian philosophy underpinning Silicon Valley’s blithe disruption of employment and social life appears to be coalescing into a concrete political program. The end point of the road to tech serfdom is still unclear, but if today’s travails are any indication, it is unlikely to be the freedom-kissed utopia industry leaders routinely promise. What awaits us instead may be a sort of “gig authoritarianism.” Unlike 20th-century cults of personality, this regime will be relatively diffuse, its power distributed across a handful of corporate platforms rather than concentrated in the state. Seen in this light, the apparent fatalism that leads powerful men like Kalanick to cast developments they control as inevitable seems less like a failure of imagination and more like an expression of political intent.
The gulf between the gig economy’s public face and its dystopian lived reality has never been greater. But juggling a series of part-time jobs to cobble together a semblance of full-time pay is nothing new. In fact, as Louis Hyman shows in Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, today’s gig or “sharing” economy is simply the latest stage in a vast “tempification” decades in the making. Hyman effectively debunks the notion that sharing platforms have “revolutionized” anything other than man’s ability to avoid putting together his own IKEA furniture. “Today’s new technologies dazzle us and lead some experts to call this the second machine age,” he writes. “Yet as in the eighteenth century, today’s reorganization of people matters as much as, if not more than, the new machines.”
Alexandrea J. Ravenelle, author of Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy, agrees, calling the sharing economy “a movement forward to the past” that excludes workers from “even the most basic workplace protections.” The main innovation of today’s gig economy may be its effective repackaging of historically low-status, poorly remunerated blue- and pink-collar work as what Alex Rosenblat’s Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work terms “fashionable glamor labor.”
Sharing platforms, as Rosenblat and Ravenelle both show, have enacted nothing less than a transformation of human capital into human raw material. The future gig economy that trailblazers imagine is defined not by limitless possibility, but, as Kalanick made clear to Colbert, by a straitened market calculus. This bait-and-switch—from promised freedom to no-exit austerity—aligns Kalanick’s ambitions for Uber with the authoritarian momentum of recent American politics. Ultimately, the only truly “visionary” thing about the sharing economy may be its marketing: even as they systematically whittle down the available options, founders manage to convince millions of Americans—workers and consumers both—that they have never been so free.
The stability of American labor, argues Hyman, has declined gradually, continuously, and entirely deliberately. Yet even at its peak, during the labor victories of the FDR era, this stability was enjoyed by a privileged few. Three large and overlapping segments of the population—racial minorities, migrant laborers, and women—were largely excluded from the brief period of union-backed prosperity separating one Gilded Age from the next. For those shut out of union membership, all the problems associated with contingent labor today, from erratic scheduling to workplace surveillance, were facts of life long before the advent of apps.
What kept early forms of gigging relatively contained was less the strength of American unions—which, as Hyman shows, were quickly deradicalized and sank into dangerous complacency—than a particular vision of the corporation. Postwar executives, mindful of the upheavals of the 1930s and ’40s, prized low employee turnover, customer loyalty, and stability over astronomical profits or inflated C-suite pay. Hyman attributes the collapse of this more “vegetarian” form of capitalism to the parallel rise of temporary labor agencies like Elmer Winter’s Manpower Inc. and management consulting firms like McKinsey.
Within McKinsey itself, which famously and to this day subjects associates to a Darwinian culling known as “up or out,” excellence was understood as inversely proportional to job security. Inspired in part by their own experience of brutal workplace competition, management consultants set about exporting those practices to other companies. By the early 1970s, their efforts had helped do away with the large conglomerate of the early postwar era. Its successor, the “lean” corporation, valued short-term success over long-term investment. Risk-taking and profit maximization became the order of the day, while treating workers well dropped far down the list of company priorities. Demand for on-call temporary labor soared, as did corporate profits and executive salaries.
As companies shed what they deemed “excess” full-time workers, they also protected themselves against collective action, a danger that deindustrialization and waning union power had already significantly reduced. At the same time, the proliferation of what David Graeber has called “bullshit jobs” reduced worker dignity and autonomy. In the last three decades, macroeconomic factors have further contributed to the increase in the number of temporary workers, with every economic downturn since 1991 producing a so-called jobless recovery. For some 70 years, then, the rise of temporary gig workers has signaled, and driven, the declining stability of American employment.
Companies like Google, Uber, and TaskRabbit may imagine themselves “lean,” and indeed, they have few full-time employees. Yet significant labor outlay by many low-skilled, part-time workers is required to sustain the illusion of seamless, robotic automation. Beneath the promises of unprecedented autonomy and wealth-generating entrepreneurship is an international network of deskilled worker cogs, overseen by oppressively granular systems of surveillance. As Lilly Irani has shown, today’s temporary workers—including those toiling in the gig economy—actually “excel at doing what machines cannot,” yet remain atomized and disenfranchised.
Advertising to potential hosts or drivers is at pains to project an image of glamorous, futuristic ease. Yet driving, grocery shopping, or hosting travelers is neither easy nor glamorous, and those who engage in this labor are not in it for the social perks. Uber and Airbnb, according to Rosenblat’s and Ravenelle’s informants, act far more like traditional employers than their PR efforts suggest. Uber, for instance, rigidly controls almost everything about its drivers’ behavior, as Rosenblat observes:
The company determines the types of cars that are eligible on its platform, and it sometimes modifies the list of acceptable types at will; sets and changes the pay rates as it wishes; controls the dispatch; targets drivers unevenly with incentives; retains the full power to suspend or fire drivers without recourse; and mediates and resolves conflicts at its discretion.
Meanwhile, the benefits of workers’ “flexibility” and “leanness” are mainly accruing at the top. A 2017 study by sociologist Juliet B. Schor found that “platform activity is likely exacerbating inequality” within the bottom 80 percent of Americans, “shifting more income and opportunity to better-off households.”
In their powerlessness and atomization, gig economy workers closely resemble the consumers they ostensibly serve. As we wait on hold to discuss our “benefits” with the health insurance company, wrangle a telecom phone tree, or struggle to cancel an airline ticket, we experience the customer-service consequences of workforce “leanness.” These frustrating and inhuman automated systems are the same ones gig workers must brave to contact their bosses. For companies like Uber, Rosenblat explains, “drivers and passengers are equally ‘consumers’ of its technology services,” infinite sources of valuable data. In this sense, Uber and its ilk are indeed keeping their promises to automate—only, what they are automating is not the work of driving people around or shopping for their groceries, but the act of feeding data to an app.
To think outside the box to which tech “visionaries” have confined us may seem utopian, but in the spirit of fighting fire with fire, utopianism may be our most potent weapon.
These economic and social changes are intertwined with political ones. “Uber is not incidentally political,” writes Rosenblat. “Nor are the company’s politics limited to the features of its app or its driver policies. Everywhere Uber has set up operations, it has disrupted the structure of everyday life.” Many sharing economy companies, including both Uber and Lyft, deliberately clash with regulators in order to force changes to employment law onto the legislative agenda. The combination of lobbying, manufactured crisis, and threats usually produces the desired legal outcomes, not least because sharing platforms have garnered bipartisan political support. Even nominally progressive politicians see the sharing economy as a means to “democratize capitalism.”
By ceding responsibility for administrating an increasingly unfamiliar economic landscape to a cadre of apparently neutral “experts”—conflicts of interest be damned—politicians are merely following in the footsteps of the mid-century executives Hyman describes. Yet like the McKinsey consultants who comforted those beleaguered titans of industry, gig economy leaders are less benign than they appear. By partnering with companies to change employment law, legislatures and politicians are effectively outsourcing governmental functions to unelected, unaccountable entities. The result is a formation one former McKinsey associate calls “the contractor state,” which enables gig economy companies—allegedly mere servants to ineluctable market forces—to regulate their own industry.
Despite their disdain for conventional politics, tech leaders are eager to use this newfound power to shape governance. As early as 2009, PayPal founder Peter Thiel wrote that “the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’” Yet as the example of the gig economy shows, tech’s penchant for extralegal manipulation, granular control of individual lives, and exploitation of human raw material (coded as data) is consummately political. Working at the cutting edge of contemporary politics, these companies bend existing legal and social structures to their will. Thiel, who went on to found Palantir, a big-data analytics firm serving the US government, is no stranger to political ambition. Toward the end of his spirited defense of freedom, he expresses the hope that the “new worlds” created by tech entrepreneurs will “force change on the existing social and political order.”
Having described the history and present state of the American gig economy, Ravenelle and Hyman conclude their books with proposals for the future. Ravenelle advocates for more effective regulation to prevent the wage theft and employee misclassification rampant in the industry. Yet even as she acknowledges the need to remedy the gig economy’s flaws by somehow “help[ing] people supplement their incomes,” she stops short of endorsing truly revolutionary policies—like universal healthcare or Universal Basic Income—that she worries will conflict with the “need” for workplace flexibility.
Hyman takes a more zoomed-out but similarly modest approach. Resisting the growth of algorithmically administered, “flexible” employment is futile, he argues; instead, workers and employers should work together to optimize the on-demand life. Scheduling algorithms, for instance, might be reconfigured to act not as “boss” but as “secretary,” helping distribute worker hours across multiple platforms. This scheme, according to Hyman, is “win-win”: workers get additional hours, thus increasing their take-home pay, while employers keep their “flexibility.”
This “fix” assumes a suspicious amount of corporate benevolence. After all, even the most humane algorithmic scheduling system would be paid for by, and thus exclusively accountable to, employers. Forcing employees to submit data about their lives to multiple integrated companies would also promote the very corporate consolidation that leads to egregious abuses. Without regulation, what possible incentive would employers have to abide by the rulings of these “optimized” virtual secretaries? As far as companies are concerned, optimum has already been achieved: bosses hold the purse strings and the power, and employees must scramble to satisfy them, or be downsized.
Echoing the very CEOs he holds responsible for “tempification,” Hyman calls full automation and the disappearance of conventional employment “inevitable.” At the same time, he acknowledges that dealing with the fallout requires political, not economic, solutions. Yet to avoid backsliding into preindustrial systems of patronage and servitude, we must go beyond merely patching the tears in our social fabric. If widespread un- or underemployment indeed becomes inevitable, Americans will need more thorough support than even the most generous welfare state can provide.
That the specific contours of that support are still hazy should not deter us from striving to imagine it. Proposing concrete solutions to the crisis of American labor may not be the most productive path to pursue—at least, not yet. The most immediate, and most difficult, task is to disconnect from Silicon Valley’s narrative of inevitability. If we rediscover a sense of possibility, we will be more empowered—and better equipped politically—to approach the future in a dynamic and deliberate way.
In short, the threat of possible human obsolescence requires not just a different politics but a feat of imagination. To think outside the box to which tech “visionaries” have confined us may seem utopian, but in the spirit of fighting fire with fire, utopianism may be our most potent weapon. If the prospect of reimagining the nature and meaning of work seems hopelessly quixotic, consider that a utopian experiment is already under way. We can be either its passive subjects or utopian dreamers in our own right.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.