Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Share Bear

I was re-watching Paddington the other night (Easter treat) and noted again the concession to modern manners by which Mrs Bird, a paid housekeeper in the original tale, was redefined as a distant relative who had been taken in and made useful with a duster. Perhaps this was intended to reinforce the film's charitable spirit - it's a socially-conservative hymn to immigration and cultural variety that must confuse Kippers - but it also emphasised our cultural sensitivity about what might be called "the coming servant problem". In one way this was odd, given the film's backwards-looking fondness for good manners and comforting treats such as marmalade (sugar was rationed till 1953), but I think the film is nostalgic specifically for the postwar mix of egalitarianism and counter-revolution: a bit like the New Routemaster.

The most obvious counter-revolutionary trope is the film's technology, displayed in a Ladybird book-style progression from the pre-war steampunk Geographers' Club via 1950s toys (the era of Michael Bond's original stories), a 1960s motorbike and a 1970s Volvo, to the beige house-phones and iconic Dustbusters of the 1980s. No one seems to have a smartphone and the most modern tech on show (apart from ubiquitous CCTV), namely a pair of Beats-like headphones, functions as a symbol of communication failure in a film where talk brings people together. The moment that Mrs Brown, on her way out to the library, deposits half a dozen telephone directories on the kitchen table to aid Paddington's search for the unknown explorer, is the moment you realise that the Internet has not been invented in this parallel universe.

It is hardly a surprise then that the black cab driver (Matt Lucas with Arsenal air-freshener) has yet to be disrupted by Uber, while Mr Gruber's antique shop has clearly been unaffected by the arrival of eBay. No one suggests that AirBnB might be the solution to Paddington's search for a bed. This is a sharing economy, but one in which people share for reasons of loyalty (Mrs Bird), altruism (the duffel coat), and self-esteem (the voluble cabbie can't help offering traffic advice to the villain). Sharing taboos are important (toothbrushes), and coercive sharing (pickpocketing) is clearly unacceptable. Private property is to be defended (the home), but not taken to extremes (taxidermy). Mr Brown's initial reluctance to share his home with a bear is put down to excessive caution, which is another form of communication failure: humanity lost to calculation (interestingly, his job as a "City worker" is now the less provocative "risk analyst"). The plot denouement hinges on the sharing of a marmalade sandwich.

The reluctance of a film centred on sharing to acknowledge the existence of social media suggests an ambivalence about contemporary developments in the so-called "sharing economy". Of course, the monetisation of private goods, such as cars, spare rooms and driveways, isn't "sharing" in any real sense but "sweating assets". From eBay to The Silk Road, the Internet is realising the libertarian ideal in which anything is for sale and where a willing buyer or seller can always be found at a price. The "sharing economy" fulfils the ideological need to cast every consumer as a simultaneous entrepreneur, but a more accurate description of the world we are creating is the "on-demand economy", with its overtones of constant, infantile need.

The Internet pioneers were much enamoured of the idea of a "gift economy", however this was a hippy misunderstanding of an anthropological term that describes highly-formalised obligations in a rigid hierarchy. A gift economy is built on debt, creating a conservative society in which people are connected by a web of historic transactions and future expectations (in Paddington, Mr Curry's amorality is shown by the contrast of his inheritance of his mother's house with his opportunistic pinching of memorial flowers: an insult to the dead). In practice, this primitive "cyber-communism" of the Internet in the 70s and 80s was made possible by abundance, specifically the infinite replicability of digital data. In contrast, "sharing" implies access to something that has limited supply, which is where capitalism comes in.

According to The Economist, "Karl Marx said that the world would be divided into people who owned the means of production—the idle rich—and people who worked for them. In fact it is increasingly being divided between people who have money but no time and people who have time but no money. The on-demand economy provides a way for these two groups to trade with each other." The picture painted is of freely-consenting adults engaged in mutually-beneficial transactions, but in fact these activities are usually mediated by businesses. The use of the word "trade" to describe this relationship also obscures the imbalance of power. If technology is, in Coasian terms, reducing the transaction costs of outsourcing, then it must be reducing the bargaining power of labour. As The Economist concedes, "Risks borne by companies are being pushed back on to individuals", and that includes end-customers too.

While Uber is casualising workers, AirBnB is providing a front for firms to pose as casuals. It is "a site that uses the heartwarming stories of a few of its hosts to provide a cover for a growing cadre of professional renters using the site to avoid municipal regulations around safety (no fire inspections), zoning (driving gentrification of tourist areas), and taxes". The most obvious evidence that the on-demand economy is structurally biased is the high level of fraud, which affects consumers and micro-businesses the most. This does not arise from the technology, which is perfectly capable of being implemented securely, but from the market demand for frictionless transactions and impulse-buying. Consider Amazon's evolution from the relatively innocent "people also bought" feature via their pre-emptive shipping algorithm to the Pavlovian "Dash" button.

The Economist's dichotomy is false because it ushers offstage the ultimate beneficiaries: those who are rich in both time and money. While busy professionals call up goods and services delivered by the precariat, capitalists own the exchanges. Evangelists of hyper-marketisation, like Thomas Friedman, are excited that "Ordinary people can now be micro-entrepreneurs". The language encourages the idea that being a small-time player is worthy in itself, and this extends to freelancing as much as running a small business: "Large numbers of people will have to invent their own jobs, based on new types of work organizations that leverage digital markets and platforms. While experts and politicians have no clue as to what to do, the collaborative economy may well be the invisible hand’s answer to this critical societal challenge". As ever, the invisible hand is intended to obscure the all too visible capital.

To what extent has the direction of technological innovation been dictated by existing social forces? Did the processes of globalisation and deindustrialisation encourage the development of technologies that presume a reserve army of willing labour? If employment has stayed high, would we have made less progress with apps and more progress with robotics? As The Economist notes, "the on-demand economy is not introducing the serpent of casual labour into the garden of full employment: it is exploiting an already casualised workforce". Similarly, to what extent has the recycling of personal assets for gain been influenced by three decades of privatisation and (for many) stagnant wage growth? The UK "bedroom tax" and AirBnB both treat the spare room as an otherwise wasted asset, but the former surely owes more to the culture of capital gains brought about by right-to-buy than the memory of Cathy Come Home.

Andrew McAfee thinks that the on-demand economy being pioneered in the Bay Area will soon spread from the rich and tech-savvy to the middle classes, just as new goods and services have in the past: "much better convenience and service are coming soon to many." But this is to confuse the dynamic of commodity deflation (and historic rising wages in les trente glorieuses) with the use of an already pervasive technology (Internet devices) to drive down the price of labour by maximising supply in an era of structural unemployment. Despite his optimism, McAfee has to concede that "The only true problem with this future scenario is that the people delivering the goods and services won’t be well paid, just as they aren’t today. There’s simply too much slack in the labour market to force wages up, and I don’t see that situation changing any time soon; the twin forces of automation and globalisation are just too powerful."

In other words, technology can restore servants to the upper middle classes - but in a fragmentary and virtual form - thus providing the social support for the much smaller number who own the technology. This might seem regressive in the West, but an economy in which you get "a boy" to do chores for you, or have a live-in maid, is common in the developing world, and it is significant that firms such as Uber have quickly sought to expand to these areas, anticipating that a relatively small (but absolutely large and growing) middle class in countries like India is where long-term revenue growth lies. The "micro-entrepreneur" vision implies that the sharing economy is a wholly new model, rather than a reversion to the putting-out system that preceded the industrial revolution in the West and still exists elsewhere. The concentration of capital in that revolution required the concentration of labour, which created the basis for economic struggle. The "cloud" sounds fluffy and universal, but it is actually a hyper-concentration of capital in tandem with a hyper-dispersion of labour.

There is far less innovation in the "sharing economy" than advertised. The change underpinning services such as AirBnB and Uber is not merely that the Internet brings sellers and buyers together more efficiently than older methods, but that it allows sellers to advertise, and buyers to buy, more discreetly. A service that allows you rent out your driveway does not require a sign in front of your house that might invite negative comment from the neighbours, and shy buyers can rely on email rather than the phone or face-to-face. While tech-boosters laud the way that smartphone apps are disrupting car-hire, they ignore that one of the most successful service transitions has been prostitution, where discretion is an issue for both buyer and seller. Similarly, the major advance that has enabled Uber is not an app but the GPS that allows inexpert drivers to find their way, while the rate of its adoption is determined less by local bandwidth than political deregulation (ironic, given that GPS was developed, and is still maintained, by the US government).

Consider the following two statements. Andy Haldane, of the Bank of England, thinks "There are good grounds for believing technological forces are driving innovation and hence growth, in a classic Neo-Classical cycle. But there are equally-good grounds for believing sociological forces are retarding growth, in an endogenous-growth pattern". The economist W. Brian Arthur notes: "The second economy will produce wealth no matter what we do; distributing that wealth has become the main problem. For centuries, wealth has traditionally been apportioned in the West through jobs, and jobs have always been forthcoming. When farm jobs disappeared, we still had manufacturing jobs, and when these disappeared we migrated to service jobs. With this digital transformation, this last repository of jobs is shrinking—fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs—and we face a problem".

This suggests that we face a revolutionary situation not because society is resistant to the "disruption" of the new technology, but because it has no way of effectively adapting to that disruption; and that failure is as much a failure of capitalism (and the capitalist imagination) as society. Paul Mason asks in respect of 2008. "Was this event the last in a series of shocks needed to allow a third technological revolution to take off? Or was it evidence that capitalism’s tendency to adapt and reshape in response to technology has stalled, or is even finished?" In other words, if capitalism is incapable of addressing the "wealth distribution" problem, and if society is imaginatively stuck in a politics that can see no alternative to capitalism, is it inevitable that we will, like Paddington, simply wish the problem away?

1 comment:

  1. Nostalgia is the ultimate renewable resource and there are still massive tracts available for exploitation, particularly in a world that has already sewn up the future.