“It’s amazing how many celebrated startups have been revealed as essentially labor arbitrage schemes disguised as cool new apps. A decade of high-frequency trading algorithms, but instead of tightening bid-ask spreads on oil futures they just find the lowest possible clearing price for human work.”Kevin Roose, New York Times columnist on Twitter.
The above tweet was sent in support of a well-reported story about the impact of Softbank money on startups in far-flung places, from Bogota and Bombay. I read that piece in the morning and was ready to applaud the reporting team for its efforts. Roose’s tweet is jarring because we have all been to blame for buying and consuming, thanks to the labor arbitrage he bemoans. Those Chinese electronics and cheap fast fashion clothes don’t come for free. Some poor laborer somewhere is getting the fiscal runover.
The entire human history is built on screwing over the poor. If Roose and his coterie of writers at the Times want to haul up the technology companies for their lack of empathy and morals —great, we need to do that. I have been calling for better treatment of the freelancers and low-level employees by these technology-enabled platforms for a while. But we must spare some energy for reflecting on and changing our own behaviors. Softbank cannot force us to use the apps they support. We literally buy into these systems, and we are the ones that make them successful enough to attract an insane amount of investment dollars.
The most effective use of our energy would be to figure out how to get by without using any of these app-based human labor arbitrage services at all. But are people ready for that?
Like I’ve said in the past, it won’t be easy.