Monday, March 11, 2019

Gigging, Progress, and the Unmaking of American Work

This is not really about education, and it is totally about education.

Over at The Nation, Malcolm Harris has written a review of Sarah Kessler's Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work. It's a thoughtful and worthwhile read, even if you decide not to tackle the entire book.

Harris opens with the cautionary tale of failed start-up Webvan, and notes the lessons that the founder Peter Relan gleaned from their collapse:

The first problem, he wrote, was customer targeting. Webvan’s strategy was to offer “the quality and selection of Whole Foods, the pricing of Safeway, and the convenience of home delivery,” a combination that attracted working- and middle-class shoppers. What it should have been doing instead, Relan concluded, was “providing a luxury” to a smaller, richer customer base. Second, he wrote, the company shouldn’t have invested in all that infrastructure. Webvan built cutting-edge distribution systems from scratch: giant networks of new algorithms, miles of conveyor belts, fleets of custom trucks with PalmPilot-wielding delivery drivers. At its peak, Webvan had a billion-dollar contract with the construction firm Bechtel for new distribution facilities around the country. Relan named Instacart and Postmates as lean start-ups that were learning from Webvan’s failure.

Look at my flexible income!
Webvan is a signpost from another era (twenty whole years ago) when the idea was that techno-companies would make life better for everyone, workers included. Now, says Harris, Americans have given up on the idea that "progress should improve everyone's life." Every step forward benefits only a few and costs someone, somewhere.

Progress is especially costly for workers, and Kessler tells the stories from the workers point of view. This, via Harris, offers some troubling insights. For instance, all that creative innovative thought that's supposed be a critical skill in the 21st century? Turns out that's important because companies find it efficient and inexpensive to leave their gigployees to solve their own problems. That saves money, because it shifts both the problems of management and the costs of running the business to the gigployees. Imagine if Uber had to maintain its own fleet of cars and had to provide every driver with a communications device-- but, no-- if you want to drive for Uber, coming up with the basic equipment is your problem, not theirs. And if it seems hard to make enough money at the proffered rates, it's up to the gigployee to figure out how to streamline.

And this:

But instead of using technology to reduce the role of labor in production through automation and cybernetics, they perform what is essentially arbitrage with human life. If Person A’s time is worth $50 an hour on the market, and Person B’s time is only worth $10, Person A should have a strong incentive to hire Person B to perform life’s unpleasant tasks. This kind of shallow thinking is what current Silicon Valley fortunes are made of....

In a perfectly efficient world, people would be served by others to the exact degree that the market values their time more—and in the 21st century, the market doesn’t value most people’s time that highly.

In other words, some people really are worth less than others (and Kessler doesn't fail to notice that many of those less worthy people are women), and they should be serving the more valuable folks. Ride share companies, says Harris, didn't reinvent the bus-- they reinvented the servant.

Flexibility? Gig economy fans say that workers seek out gigs because they love the flexibility. This, says Kessler, is baloney:

...the truth is that they seek it out because it’s all that’s left for them. “I haven’t really met many people in general who don’t value stability and safety,” Kessler writes. The “flexibility” is imposed, and workers do the best they can to adjust.

This has echoes of the complaint that workers need to be freed from unionized rules and restraints because they crave flexibility, a criticism almost exclusively expressed by the people in charge and never by those who actually do the work.

There's another implication here. Some industries have been slow to innovate because they can still get away with treating employees so poorly.

It's depressing picture. As Americans, we're used to the notion that progress should be a rising tide that lifts all boats, but according to Kessler, that's not where we are at all. Progress makes life better for some, and for the rest of us, not so much.

I said at the outset that this is not about education, exactly, except of course that much of this is recognizable. Teaching as part of the gig economy is still a dream for some, with classes taught on a hired temp basis, paid for with education savings account vouchers, and the real money in education being siphoned off by the people who stand between the user and the vendor. What we are repeatedly sold as "progress" for education is bad for teachers, but such criticism is dismissed as carping by people who put adult concerns ahead of students. Except that what's sold as "progress" is also bad for students as well. But it's good for people who want to make money, and good for people who don't want to pay money into the education system. Now if only we could bust those unions so that teachers weren't restricted by all those rules standing in the way of flexibility.

One last education note here-- don't forget that Betsy DeVos thinks that education ought to be like Uber. The model broken down by this book is the model that many of our education reformsters want to follow.


  1. This is the contingent labor situation in higher ed in a nutshell. We have tens of thousands of part-time faculty barely cobbling together a living at multiple institutions, er, gigs, denied health insurance because they don't carry enough load at any of them, and then being blamed for "destroying tenure" because they're golden-handcuffed to their jobs. I won't say this was entirely by the design of the academic upper crust, but it's no coincidence that as more corporate leaders also became higher ed managers, we started acting more like giant corporations.

  2. This is such an important reflection!

    Higher education has figured out the gig econony: hire adjuncts.

    Day care employees and pre-K teachers are also grossly underpaid.

    I've never met a person who earns less than a teacher complain about how much a teacher earns.