Techno-solutionism: Between the Gig-Economy and the Gift-Economy
10 min read

Techno-solutionism: Between the Gig-Economy and the Gift-Economy

This article in The New Republic entitled “Low-Wage Workers Deserve Predictable Work Schedules” (you can’t always know where clicking on a headline will lead you to…) highlights amongst other things an interesting contradiction in the growing precarity of labour. For those who work in traditional industries such as manufacturing and retail precarity means insecurity and uncertainty in all of its negative aspects, whilst for those who work in fledgling services sectors and who work through social network apps precarity and flexibility are one of the perks of the job. The idea here is that as against the neoliberal restructuring of the labour market which has robbed people of the dream of full employment and jobs for life, technology makes possible another dream, the relating of work with freedom so that individuals might assume the role of freelance workers and the self-employed.

Is this then not evidence of that term, often now used in a derogatory manner, “techno-solutionism” in which the application of technology is said to be capable of overcoming the organisational defects in the way we organise political, social and work life. In this case the argument might go that we find the application of technology is capable of responding to the neoliberal attack on organised labour with an empowerment of labour to overcome work as traditionally defined. In some ways this is clearly evidenced in the emergence of start-ups such as Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and Airbnb dedicated to linking together service workers with those in need of labour but also in the emergence of start-ups like who seek to overturn the work-economy in favour of a gift-giving economy.

The benefits here are clearly evident. One of the major criticisms of the planned economies of the era of “Really Existing Socialism” was their inability to forecast the economic process with sufficient accuracy. If for advocates of the free market this lay in the mystery of demand which could never be predicted for it relied upon an infinitely complex set of factors or nothing intelligible at all (how do you for example plan for a fad?) for others the problem of central planning was the limitation of data and our ability to both gather data, model and process it. Paradoxically perhaps at the same time as the free market became tasked with managing (or rather not-managing) the economic process the information revolution placed the possibility of economic planning back on the table, the only difference was that this was now in the favour of corporations. What is today known as “Just-in-Time” production is the ability to utilise communication technology to link demand and resources together in real time and to predict and react to market changes with an instantaneity which ensures that the waste and risk traditionally associated with economic planning can be neutralised through effective data modelling. Staff levels, production levels and resource levels can be planned and altered at short notice ushering in an era in which companies could realise a complete freedom from risk and failure and learned that they could have everything their own way.

Whilst this information revolution remained a power of corporations it allowed for risk to be passed along the production process particularly to labour who were now at the mercy of corporations for employment and wages which increasingly became less secure and less stable, and became powerless in the workplace and precarious in their lifestyle in order to react to market demands. Yet the introduction of technology into production has also allowed for the opposite effect, far from maintaining individuals as dependent upon a few providers of jobs and forced into a relationship of debt and gratitude, individuals have been able to take control of their own labour through information tools which allow them to directly link up with market base. Whilst individuals who remain dependent upon large corporations for work remain largely at the mercy of their whims, forced to accept work discipline and fulfil their requirements to work certain hours or shifts, on contracts which offer little security or benefits, that is to say to accept all of the downsides of work with few of the incentives. Other individuals have taken up the precarity and insecurity of self-employment finding that they can be their own bosses, plan their own schedules and take control over their work. That is to say, taking up many of the incentives of work without its usual downsides.

It’s hard not to see the solutionism or utopianism at work here but it has I think its own limitations.

The real question to put to the emergence of these sorts of technologies is the direction they tend towards.  Do they in the end fundamentally challenge existing structures of power and wealth or do they leave them untouched or even reinforce them? That is to say are these technologies social-democratic in outlook or do they reinforce the neo-liberal paradigm?

It might first be worth noting that there’s no single model that these technologies centre around. Apps as diverse as TaskRabbit and Impossible have similar basic philosophies, linking up people who have excess time or goods to those in need of this time or these goods but their approach is  completely contrary. TaskRabbit provides professional services from cleaning to party planning for a price and has recently begun to regulate its suppliers, with rules around acceptance and individuals ability to surveil the market place of tasks. Impossible on the other hand relies upon the generosity of others to give their services and time either for free or in return reciprocal gifts, seeking to challenge the work-economy with a gift-economy. If then it could be said then that TaskRabbit challenges the way individuals work but doesn’t challenge the nature of work as such, it could be said of Impossible that it leaves the sphere of work completely untouched and concerns itself only with the sphere of life outside of work.  Whilst it might be able to ensure a better allocation of resources and the recycling of what would only be thrown out back into circulation it can’t provide individuals with a living or a means of subsistence and of course you can’t live off of good will alone.

It’s also worth noting the kind of activities that these Apps currently service. They’re mostly basic service work from car rides to hospitality, repairs or organisation such that the scope of these services remains relatively narrow at this point. This perhaps isn’t accidental, Andre Gorz was one of the first to note that with the evolutions in late-capitalism the antagonism between those who sell their labour time and those who purchase it would be replaced by those who partake in salaried and secure work and those who are refused access to it, between those who are cash rich but time poor and those who are time rich but cash poor. As Gorz noted the collapse of production work would be complimented by return of personal service work (which since Fordism had been in decline) to cater to those executives and professionals who could exploit cheap labour to fulfil their basic tasks for them. Most of these apps then fill their emerging gap in the market in a way that more traditional enterprises were unable to do so, but insofar as they are simply filling a gap in the market there is little of radical note.

If you take for example research into the workforce that use TaskRabbit there is little utopianism to be seen.

people often come to TaskRabbit looking for work after being laid off from corporate jobs where they had steady incomes, health benefits, 401(k) matches, and a clear path for career advancement. The education levels of the company’s contractors help tell the story: 70 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, 20 percent have master’s degrees, and 5 percent have a PhD.

To begin with it’s worth noting that this kind of work thrives off of the failures of the traditional work-economy. Unemployment provides it with a captive audience of willing personal service workers, whilst under employment and the precarities of student life (from the burden of debt to the low incomes) produces a demand for flexible part-time work to make up for deficiencies in the rest of the economy. The question then is really do these kind of Apps improve the functioning of the work economy or are they simply parasitic on is failure. For myself I can’t really help but think that in a more perfect world, individuals with degree level educations and secure incomes (not necessarily jobs) would spend their time on this sort of work when it could be used for many more meaningful things. It is perhaps then worth nothing that the current kind of menial work offered by these apps is only entered into by usually overqualified individuals because of the knowledge that in the shadows lives unemployment and poverty meaning that more often than not the choice of self-employment isn’t the assertion of individual freedom but is forced upon them as a necessity.

The more important issue is then if it’s possible to expand the scope of this kind of technology to enact a more radical change in work? For many the unrealised promise of this sort of technology is to spread into all areas of economic life, from the professions to the multi-nationals allowing for labour a new power to survey the market and control their own work schedules. The dream is then both that labour will become empowered against capital and that the sphere of work can be equalised abolishing the division between those with excess money and those with excess time. Yet will this be realised? It’s obviously the case the over-qualification means that there’s a structural excess in the economy of qualified individuals over jobs, and yet it’s worth remembering that these jobs remain currently structured to favour those in work as against those out of it. Under the rubric of “experience” there is always an advantage for those in work over those outside of it, so that in the end these qualifications only come to matter insofar as they are actualised which allows for an adverse earning power. Yet also government regulation of professions makes this kind of liberalization impossible insofar as it protects the institutionalisation of most occupations from the freedom made possible by the combination of self-employment with technology.

Yet are these jobs even in themselves amenable to the challenge of technology. The kind of jobs that provide salaried security and produces the kind of individuals who are cash rich and time poor and who exploit the emerging personal service market are mostly bullshit jobs. Most of them provide “professional solutions”, “consultancy”, “strategic advice” or “marketing strategies” which don’t correspond to anything real but are in nature completely self-referential, for the object they attempt to interpret and alter isn’t fixed and rule based but is an object that they attempt to produce through their analysis. This kind of work today is properly termed “performative” insofar as the production of statements about the market-place paradoxically can produce the reality it describes and this functions insofar as everyone reproduces the narratives themselves in a reign of mimetic rationality. This is evident in the fact that we’ve all gone from being the stuff on which marketers base their analysis to charicatures of the analysis of marketers. What these jobs then value more than anything is not merit as normally understood but an ability to bullshit and play the right part and plug yourself into the language-game or imaginary world of the market place without qualms and ride the wave as far as it takes you. What’s worth noting here then is that this kind of work doesn’t appear amenable to the rationality of market forces but relies on something fundamentally irrational and incalculable which is prized above all else. What then does solutionism do when confronted by a system which appears in no need of a solution?

Finally it’s worth asking even if the introduction of technology was capable of rationalizing the work-economy would this necessarily lead to a comparative equalization of wealth and power? Once again the utopianism preached to us is that individuals and their smartphones will all become entrepreneurs of their lives, capitalizing themselves and thus no longer relying upon an organisation for a fixed wage but free to make as much as you would like such that wealth would come to coincide with effort and merit.

Yet it’s worth noting that today there has emerged a relatively severe separation between wealth and work. With rising wealth inequality today there is an increasing polarisation between the super-rich and dirt poor which ensures that a small financial elite of individuals and corporations effectively control large swathes of economic life. This prime way that this occurs is through the ownership of assets and the ability to charge rent and benefit from the profits accrued by these assets. This ownership takes multiple forms but today it has certainly been enlarged by the mass privatisations of public utilities, privatisation of common goods (water, gas, oil), patents, copyrights, property booms and of course financial assets such as stocks and shares. Wealth isn’t here entrepreneurialism but ownership and the benefits that this brings,  and whilst individuals can certainly aim to become asset owners the structural advantage will always be in favour of those who own assets over those who  utilise them ensuring the permanent reproduction of inequality of wealth which entails an inequality in influence and power which would ensure that even in a society of entrepreneurs individuals would remain dependent upon and subordinated to the interests of a few who increasingly take the form of a hereditary elite.

What I think becomes apparent looking at the relationship between technology and work is how the only way to truly reform work and to realise the true potential of technology is for society to appropriate the economy as such and radically alter the structures within which work operates. That is to say what we need to put back on the table is the old Marxist notion of the seizing hold of the means of production as the way in which to submit capital to the rule of labour. Evgeny Morozov has talked of this recently in an interview entitled “Socialize the Data-Centres!”. In declaring this he repeats an old Marxist axiom, that which is held in private should be held in common, but applies this notion of the age of Communicative Capitalism. Today he argues a great deal of data and private information is held in private by Corporations such as Google, Facebook, Apple etc. but this data has a great deal of public use, we could for example plan public transport and services far more efficiently with the use of location data but whilst held privately this data can only be realised for private ends, to further advertising revenue or tie-in consumers to a particular companies integrated user experience. What on the basis of this view is required is no longer the appropriation of the machinery of production but the appropriation of the means of circulation which is today the internet and the physical infrastructure which makes it possible. Similarly today in relation to work we require a socialization of economic life which can only be done through the appropriation of the collective means of wealth to ensure a collective power over work. For only through appropriating the collective wealth around us and making it work towards common ends can we remove work from the sphere of lack and need and experience it outside of an unhealthy compulsion. This appropriation is of course otherwise known as the Minimum Income Guarantee.

The dream of self-employment, the generalisation of freelance work and the linking of the category of work with the categories of freedom and self-realisation are only possible under conditions in which individuals are free and secure to make real choices and capable of realising something important in their labour. Without this the promise of a technological revolution in work will remain only a limited promise, confined to certain tasks and certain individuals who aren’t liberated but flee from the scourges of unemployment and under-employment and remain continually at the whims of those individuals of wealth and power who remain capable of determining their future.