The “Pyramid Scheme Economy”

Pyramid Scheme

The first few times I used Airbnb to stay with somebody, I brought my hosts stroopwafels and some very old Dutch cheese. Over the past few years I’ve lost that sentiment. Now, I see what has been termed the ‘sharing economy’ as a way for large information monopolies to monetize any excess social capital, while outsourcing all risks to their workers (they don’t call them workers, as workers have rights).

I’ve read a lot about how impossible it is to earn a decent living in this ‘sharing economy’ (read Morozov for example) but Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything trilogy of podcasts titled ‘Instaserfs’ still really made me think. In the series Andrew Callaway is asked to “drive, shop, clean, deliver, and serve for a whole month” and to record his experiences.

Ethan Zuckerman has done an excellent job explaining why you should listen to the shows, below are just a few things that I noticed.

Andrew could have probably made a lot more money if he had invested more time in referrals. Nearly all the companies he worked for spent a lot of time trying to teach him how to find other people who would do the same. This is why he starts calling it the ‘pyramid scheme economy’ at some point.

I used to think that these services were dehumanizing the workers (basically letting them do the pattern recognition tasks that the algorithms can’t do yet), but the show makes a convincing case that the customers are the ones that are becoming less human. At some point Andrew has to wait is getting a burrito for someone. First he can’t find parking and then he has to wait in line. Everything is taking a long time, so he knows that both the service he is working for and the customer are getting upset. He then asks himself the question: how can you ever learn empathy if you don’t never have to share the experience of waiting in line.

The final episode is a little bit too designed for my taste, but I did appreciate Mary Gray’s commentary on the general precariousness of work. Will this be something that most of us will have to start dealing with in the next few years?

You can find the episodes here: Instaserfs part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Image by Flickr user ironpoison, CC BY-NC 2.0. Oh, and if you haven’t read Adam Greenfield’s Uber, or: The technics and politics of socially corrosive mobility, then you should.