uber-proof your labour

Platform capitalism is beginning to define the economy for the second Gilded Age we seem to be entering. It requires 4 contributing factors, which when combined, create a perfect opportunity for the ‘uberization’ of almost any industry.

  1. A platform: a mobile application delivered through an oligopoly like iTunes or Google Play.
  2. A critical mass of users: upwardly mobile knowledge workers, especially those in Silicon Valley or the tech sector.
  3. Desperate service providers: people with no ability to organize due to weak or non-existing trade unions in their field, who see opportunities for better cash flow.
  4. Lack of regulations and oversight: bureaucracies that either cannot keep up with technology advances, or political leadership that condones poor working conditions in the name of progress.

Platform capitalism is not just affecting the taxi, cleaning, and hotel businesses. Many professions are getting ‘uberized’.

Elance-oDesk offers 4m companies the services of 10m freelances. The model is also gaining ground in the professions. Eden McCallum, which was founded in London in 2000, can tap into a network of 500 freelance consultants in order to offer consulting services at a fraction of the cost of big consultancies like McKinsey. This allows it to provide consulting to small companies as well as to concerns like GSK, a pharma giant. Axiom employs 650 lawyers, services half the Fortune 100 companies, and enjoyed revenues of more than $100m in 2012. Medicast is applying a similar model to doctors in Miami, Los Angeles and San Diego. Patients order a doctor by touching an app (which also registers where they are). A doctor briefed on the symptoms is guaranteed to arrive within two hours; the basic cost is $200 a visit. – The Economist

Individuals can counter this movement toward the commodification of labour, but it won’t be easy. It means looking at all your skills and abilities and determining which ones are commodities. Any work that can be billed by the hour is probably a commodity. Any work that can be standardized is a commodity in the eyes of platform capitalists. Any work that can be represented as a flowchart, and eventually put into a software program, is a commodity.

What’s left is work that is creative. Solving complex or wicked problems is another area for human work. Dealing with people as individuals requires human compassion and empathy. What kinds of skills do you have in these areas? It would probably be a good idea for all of us to start improving them now.

These changes in the relationship between labour and platform capitalism are happening so fast that many people do not see them. They may only notice once they have lost their full-time job. Driving for Uber while renting out their house on Airbnb could be their only way to pay the mortgage as they seek gainful employment that may never come. Now is the time to prepare for an alternative to turking for the platform capitalists.

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