Juno’s Buyout Casts a Pall Over Worker-Friendly Startup Promises


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

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Juno was supposed to be the antidote to Uber and Lyft and all the other gig-economy driving platforms. The startup promised to limit its commissions and share equity with its drivers. Instead of doing piecework for a software-driven boss, you’d actually own a tiny piece of the company that parceled out rides to you.

But now Juno has been acquired by another ride-hailing outfit, the Tel Aviv-based Gett, for $200 million (Johana Bhuiyan in Recode). As a result, it is liquidating its equity-sharing model. Drivers who’d worked enough to qualify are being paid off on the order of two cents a share, receiving payouts in the vicinity of $100.

Many drivers feel betrayed. As one told Recode: “At least I know where Lyft and Uber stand. They treat us like dirt, but I know where they stand. Juno sold us false promises.”

It’s bad enough when an industry grows itself based on cutthroat competitive shortcuts, misuse of data, and exploitation of workers — as so much of Uber’s success has been won. But when a company’s very identity is built on an ethical, we’ll-do-right-by you stance, as Juno’s was, and then it simply sells out? That’s an ethical oil-spill.

This story undercuts every other entrepreneur and company that promises employees and customers it will do the right thing. Chalk one up for cynicism.

The Monster Inside Tech

“Build a Better Monster” is the title of the latest talk by Maciej Ceglowski, the developer/critic/gadfly who has organized Tech Solidarity meetings in many U.S. cities, and it is a must-read for anyone hoping to steer the power of the digital economy in a positive direction.

Ceglowski writes: “There’s an uncomfortable feeling in the tech industry that we did something wrong, that in following our credo of ‘move fast and break things’, some of what we knocked down were the load-bearing walls of our democracy.”

As Ceglowski sees it, we got here thanks to the dynamics of online ad tech and machine-intelligence-based services, both of which have created a boundless hunger for data about user behavior. “Everything moves in the direction of greater surveillance.”

What the U.S. discovered in the 2016 election is that, when we take the engagement-maximizing techniques we perfected for driving traffic to ads and unleash them in the realm of political persuasion, they drive people to extremes. “Any system trying to maximize engagement will try to push users towards the fringes.” At the same time, these systems are so heavily personalized that we can never get a full overview of how they work.

Among other things, this hinders political organizing, which we assume should be easier in the social-networking world. “In any setting where attention is convertible into money, social media will always reward drama, dissent, conflict, iconoclasm and strife,” Ceglowski writes. “There will be no comparable rewards for cooperation, de-escalation, consensus-building, or compromise, qualities that are essential for the slow work of building a movement.”

Ceglowski sees a brief window of opportunity for steering the industry onto a better course. For the moment, tech companies are dependent on a class of artisan programmers and specialist workers who can influence their direction. They can help push their employers toward short-term fixes — like defunding blatant extremist information sources, building “forgetting” into their services, and adding new security to social media, so users can define their own privacy boundaries.

In the long term? Ceglowski suggests we think about breaking up Facebook.

Theory of the Over-Working Class

The term “conspicuous consumption” was devised a century ago by Thorstein Veblen. It describes how wealthy people signal their status through public displays of costly goods. Veblen called his era’s conspicuous consumers “the leisure class,” because they also flaunted how much time they had on their hands.

Today’s American elites have flipped Veblen on his head and become “conspicuous producers” (Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian). Our wealthy echelons signal status through displays of excessive busyness. No longer the leisure class, they’ve become instead the over-working class. (There are studies to back this up.)

As Tarnoff sees it, the up-at-4 a.m. CEOs of today put in all those hours to plant a fig-leaf of justification over their ridiculously disproportionate compensation packages: “In an era of extreme inequality, elites need to demonstrate to themselves and others that they deserve to own orders of magnitude more wealth than everyone else.” The overwork ethos then trickles down to middle-class earners and middle-management workers in the form personal-productivity fetishes and personal-development programs, or “working on yourself.”

It’s also possible, of course, that working hard is becoming more high-status at the very moment that the availability of hard work is growing scarcer. As automation eats away at employment, simply being employed starts to look like a privilege.


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