Cooperation in technology

Cooperation in technology

On Friday, July 29th, something remarkable (and perhaps unprecedented) happened in the stock market. Most days, Exxon Mobil is one of the top four most valuable companies in the world; but, on that day, both Amazon and Facebook eclipsed the petroleum giant in market capitalization. This meant that, even if for a short time, the five largest companies in the world by market cap were all technology companies (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook).

 

This result has no direct impact on anything, other than public perception. The outspoken venture capitalist Marc Andreessen declared back in 2011 that “software is eating the world“. While that’s a hard claim to define empirically, a top five like that of that Friday seems a pretty compelling anecdotal evidence—if not that software has eaten the world, then at least that investors are convinced it will. Tech analyst Patrick Moorhead said that the top five “says investors are bullish on the future of tech. It also says they’re less bullish on energy.”

Investors aren’t alone in relying their confidence on the future prominence of tech companies. Given the evidence of their fast growth during the past five years, the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) has vowed to listen and lead some tech companies professionals in their collective bargaining.

The “digital native” companies involved were Gawker, VICE, Salon.com, ThinkProgress and The Huffington Post; from their surveys and reasearchs, the WGAE found that the digital media content creators did not necessarily share the same aspirations and experiences as people who work in more established parts of the media industry. For this reason, they needed a brand new pattern to shape their collective bargaining. 

The WGAE conducted a thorough, bottom-up process that has been absolutely necessary to mobilize people and to identify what they want to accomplish through collective bargaining. One year in, it is evident that unionization is bringing tangible results to people working in digital media. The WGAE has already negotiated collective bargaining agreements with three of the companies organized in the last year — Gawker, VICE and ThinkProgress — winning important economic gains (for example, a 39 percent compensation increase at VICE), locking in health and other benefits that previously were changeable at management’s whim. In their article, the WGAE states: “we can proudly say that unionization is bringing tangible results to people working in digital media. We have made progress together because we are stronger together”.

Given this successful example, we could conclude that unionization and collective action can actually bring benefits to workers. In their exaustive study, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung examines this hypothesis in depth. Author Trebor Scholz argues that our sharing economy is very different from what we were expecting. He says “it is an on-demand service economy that is spreading market relations deeper into our lives”, with people making profits out of previously un-monetized interactions and spreading precarity throughout the workforce. 

To overcome these compelling issues, Scholz says that we need a positive alternative, called “platform cooperativism”, which encompasses new ownership models for the Internet, in order to create an online economy based in democracy and solidarity. Platform cooperativism, claims Scholz, is possible, and it is necessary, but it is by no means inevitable. It will be our duty to make the online economy sustainable and fair.