I just added a bunch of crowdfunding sites to the Disintermedia blogroll, and created a new category; freelancing, which currently has entries for BountySource and Gun.io. As I did, I started to wonder, and not for the first time, what do I really know about all these projects and organisations? Do I really want to endorse them all, and if I do, how do I decide which ones? Underlying these questions is another question: how can I tell the difference between genuinely revolutionary libre commons projects, based on “crowdsourcing” and “pay it forward” principles, and their corporate dopplegangers, which are more like “outsourcing” and “pay it upwards”?
AirBnB and BookaBach are classic examples. They clothes themselves in the aura of couchsurfing social networks (the term is much older than the website of the same name) like the Hospitality Club, and BeWelcome (forked in protest by CouchSurfing volunteers and users when CS changed their legal structure from non-profit to for-profit). These community-driven networks are about letting a friend you haven’t met yet stay on your couch or in your spare room for free, “pay it forward” style. When you, or a friend or family member, needs somewhere to stay, your reputation as a good host can help you find one. Even with the restructured CouchSurfing, no money changes hands for hosting. The sites are social enterprises, existing to serve the community, not make money, and cover their relatively minimal operating costs through donations, and optional premium services like reputation endorsements.
Hostel owners might carp about lost revenue from unpaid couchsurfing, as they do about “freedom camping” in campervans and house buses (sounding a lot like the record industry complaining about gratis file-sharing), but it’s just as likely the budget traveller couldn’t afford their rates anyway, and would otherwise just have to cut their trip short. Ironically, in their early days, hostel federations like YHA (Youth Hostel Association, now known as Hostelling International), along with schemes like WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), were set up to make independent travel more accessible to young people – the same reason the couchsurfing platforms were. Hostels and WWOOF farms offered an affordable alternative to hotels in the cities, and bed-and-breakfasts in rural areas.
AirBnB and BookaBach, by contrast, are for-profit companies, which rather than crowdsourcing new social goods outside the market economy (eg a free place to sleep and a new friend), are compete underhandedly against existing hospitality businesses. Unlike the couchsurfing networks, the accommodation options offered by their online booking platform cost money, and they take a cut of each transaction, but their operating costs too are minimal. Unlike the local accommodation businesses they compete with for the same revenue, they can do business anywhere, and they don’t have to provide any guarantee of quality, cover any site maintenance costs, pay hospitality staff or comply with any of the public regulations that cover the hospitality industry.
This issue was brought into sharp relief by Yochai Benker in ‘The Idea of the Commons and the Future of Capitalism‘, the talk he gave at the Global CreativeCommons Summit 2015. Benkler, a Harvard Law Processor who wrote ‘The Wealth of Networks‘ and ‘The Penguin and the Leviathan‘ and coined the phrase “commons-based peer-production”, has been a champion of genuine commons projects like the GNU+Linuxoperating system and Wikipedia:
- public goods that anyone (with internet access) can use.
- created collaboratively by people as either volunteers in their free time, or as part of regular, paid employment.
- facilitated by community leaders whose influence is directly proportionate to their contribution and reputation.
- under the stewardship of consensus-driven organisational structures; ground-breaking, horizontally structured not-for-profit foundations, or sometimes cooperative companies jointly owned by their customers, their worker, or both.
But he pulls no punches in his criticism of companies like Uber, AirBnB, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which are able to use their passing resemblance to genuine “commons economy” models – mainly the use of websites and mobile “apps” to organise workers and customers – to camouflage typical corporate psychopathy:
- private goods, behind a paywall that pushes revenue up to the top of the company, with only a small fraction “trickling down” to the people doing the work that earns the revenue.
- outsourcing the workforce of the taxi industry, turning secure rental accommodation into budget hotel rooms, and replacing secure jobs, with guaranteed minimum wages and working conditions, with casualized, “alienated labour” in “digital sweatshops”.
- facilitated by a combination of automated bureaucracy (the “apps” and the servers that power them) and human bureaucrats, whose influence is proportionate to their salary, title, and position in a corporate hierarchy.
- under the stewardship of traditional, for-profit, private companies, or shareholder corporations
Disturbingly, there are commentators who fudge these two totally opposed models together, using projects and companies from both ends of the spectrum as examples of the “sharing economy“. Examples include ‘Collaborative Consumption‘ author Rachael Botsman, Jason Tanz of WIRED, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. Tim O’Reilly – “open source software” propagandist and commercial publisher of software manuals under ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright – has even organised a “Next: economy” conference (starting tomorrow in San Fransisco), with keynote speakers including the heads of Uber, Lyft, and GE, as well as Microsoft, who are legendary for ruthlessly slandering the real commons, in the form of GNU+Linux, with decades of “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). O’Reilly seems determined to hijack the emerging global conversation around the political-economic implications of the commons economy, in defence of non-partisan corporatism, as he did with previous buzzphrases like “open source” (originally “free software”), “web 2.0″ (originally “open publishing”, “citizen journalism”, and “social media”), “democracy 2.0″ (”privatization” and “outsourcing” of government services) and “the cloud” (a truly meaningless blend of “virtual servers”, “APIs” for plugging into major websites like FaceBook, and “Service as a Software Substitute“).
When people are bedazzled by this style of silicon valley glamour, and don’t distinguish between the gift economy of the “collaborative commons” (Jeremy Rifkin’s term) and the “micro-tasking” sweatshops of the “sharing economy”, these companies can dodge the social norms, expected standards, and public regulations, which normally protect both paid workers and paying customers from exploitation. This allows shareholders to redirect massive pools of money out of the real economy and into buying more shares and financial derivatives, and fuelling speculation bubbles, while the local businesses that workers used to be able to keep going in their own communities by spending their earnings, shed staff and eventually close.
Kimberley Bryant of Black Girls Code, also speaking at “Next: Economy”, is either incredibly brave or supremely naive to be going into that nest of vipers. While project like Black Girls Code are about preparing people from marginalized groups for jobs, the rest of the speakers are busy abolishing them.