“The sharing economy” was always a dubious label. The trend’s most successful exemplars are ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and short-term rental platforms like Airbnb. Whether you love or hate these businesses, what they provide us with simply doesn’t resemble sharing in any way.
The phrase “gig economy” isn’t perfect, either, but it’s better. It conveys both the liberation and the fragility of working under this new model. Its ascent is confirmed by the appearance in The New Yorker of a lengthy piece by Nathan Heller on the topic — a deep dive into the opportunities and problems the gig economy raises for its participants.
On Twitter and seemingly everywhere else, the term “late capitalism” has become a shorthand label for products, ideas, and stories that reflect the absurd excesses and ironies of the contemporary marketplace — like Nordstrom’s $400 jeans caked with a patina of mud, or the Bahamas music fest that descended into refugee-camp squalor. But where did “late capitalism” come from, and what does it really mean?
In The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey traces an intellectual biography of the term, which first emerged among theorists of the left in the early 20th century. Originally it applied to the postwar era of dominant megacorporations — the age of “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” Then the Frankfurt School critics adopted it as a catch-all label for the way modern business co-opts the symbols and ideals of a rebellious culture and recycles them as marketing.
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.
The new machine-learning techniques transforming how digital systems operate don’t work like old software programs. Once upon a time, programmers wrote code, and the code worked — or it didn’t, and the programmers debugged. But how do you debug a neural network? In Technology Review, Will Knight explores “the dark secret at the heart of AI”: We can’t really know why AIs do what they do. They are not programmed, but trained.
When a machine-learning program provides an answer, a decision, or a choice that its human operators believe is wrong, they can tell it so, and it will incorporate that data into its next choices. But most AIs can’t turn around and tell us how they reached a particular outcome. This “explainability” problem poses practical, legal, and moral questions we’re only beginning to scope out.
Facebook has developed software tools to help governments suppress posts they don’t like, Mike Isaac reports in The New York Times. In the past the social network, like other U.S.-based internet services, has removed content in some countries to comply with local laws. But this new approach — aimed at helping Facebook re-enter the huge China market it left seven years ago — would allow third parties to preemptively ban stories and topics from users’ news feeds.
The censorship tools haven’t yet been deployed or offered to China, according to unnamed Facebook employees who confirmed their existence, and they might never be. That depends on how badly the company wants to operate in China, where rivals like Google and Twitter have also been locked out — and how satisfied the Chinese authorities are with Facebook’s ability to stifle dissent. But anyone working at Facebook must be wondering, as the Times story does: How can you square this project with the company’s mission to “make the world more open and connected”? Or does the mission just get tossed out the window in the face of a massive market opportunity?
There is little new about the ‘gig economy’. The word ‘gig’ originates from 1920s jazz musicians who played a small concert or ‘engagement’ at a venue. Dolly Parton may have sung about working 9 to 5, but her life was moving from one gig to another. We have always had plumbers, electricians, and lawyers who do temporary work, and are not paid by clients when they are idle. However, do new apps such as Uber or Deliveroo mean the end of the 9 to 5 job, and do these platforms need to be regulated?
U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate deal would be a disaster for American business — that’s according to a whole lot of actual business people (The New York Times).
“Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” hundreds of CEOs and investors told president-elect Donald Trump in a joint letter on Wednesday. The companies that signed the plea said they would meet the climate-related commitments they’ve made whether or not federal policy changes.
A British employment tribunal (basically a court) ruled that Uber drivers could not be treated as self-employed. Rather they should be treated as workers, a class which acquires certain employment rights, such as minimum wage and holiday pay, not present in the self-employed. The Court did not class them as employees, a status which would have conferred even more rights.
Companies that realize they’re too homogeneous often complain that the pipeline is empty or the talent pool is depleted — or they find some other metaphor to excuse their inaction. In the end, if you want to diversify your team, you just have to start hiring people who are different from you, whoever you are.
Meetup’s founder Scott Heiferman realized this a few years ago and started taking steps to bring more women into the company’s top ranks. As Jessi Hempel lays out the story (Backchannel), there’s no magic formula or shortcut to achieving such a goal, though there are specific measures that seem to help — like promoting from within and reaching out to candidates who aren’t actively job-hunting.
Uber is under new pressure to treat drivers as employees. The New York State Department of Labor ruled in two separate cases in August and September that two “deactivated” Uber drivers were eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Such payments typically only go to full-on employees rather than independent contractors (The New York Times). In some ways these are narrow rulings that “do not directly affect other drivers or extend to other protections normally accorded employees,” the Times explains. But they clearly represent a major challenge to every gig-economy company’s assertion that it its workers are contractors, not staff. Uber maintains that its drivers value the flexibility its model affords them more than anything else, and that flexibility will fade if the company is forced to follow overtime regulations, minimum-wage laws, and other employment rules. Since the unemployment benefits rulings are going to keep coming in piecemeal, and they often conflict with one another, the issue may ultimately only get resolved with new state or national legislation. Lawmakers could, for instance, establish a new labor classification of “dependent contractor” halfway between employee and independent contractor. Are we ready for the Uber Regulation Act of 2017?
Is Elon Musk spreading himself, and his companies’ money, too thin? As Tesla and Solar City prepare for a mid-November vote on their proposed merger, Technology Review asks whether Musk is building a “house of gigacards.” His ambitions are unprecedented: A moderately priced new electric car from Tesla is due next year. A gigantic battery factory in Nevada is under construction. And of course there’s talk of colonizing Mars. All these projects require massive amounts of cash, and it’s not entirely clear where Musk will get the money. Where Musk sees opportunity in how much of the U.S. market for electric cars and solar installations remains untapped, others see risk. The biggest risk of all, writes Peter Burrows, “is that Musk loses credibility by taking on so many huge challenges at once.”