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Competing visions for our brave, new intangible world

The town of Mondragón-Arrasate

December 7, 2019 - 7:00am

Two competing visions of the future in this week’s bumper weekend long read double bill. Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake in City Journal propose ‘An Agenda for the Intangible Economy’ in which they outline the transformative impact of a new economy focusing not on physical goods but on ‘intangibles’ such as R&D, brands and ideas. In Jacobin, Meagan Day interviews Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate and UCal professor Ramesh Srinavasan, author of several books on big tech and community-driven alternatives.

The ‘intangible economy’, per Haskel and Westlake, comprises new offerings that leverage networks, data and the ‘internet of things’ to thread traditional sectors (such as restaurants) with new and unexpected channels such as ‘dark kitchens’, table-free restaurants where food orders can be placed online and then delivered to your door.

The authors describe ‘intangible capital’ as highly scalable, clustered in dense nodes of prosperity (think global megacities such as London or San Francisco), unstable, uneven in competition terms (think of the gap between Amazon and its nearest competitor), contested and both highly networked and radically individualistic.

Haskel and Westlake argue that companies and societies need to adapt to this new normal in order to unleash a new round of productivity growth. Srinavasan, on the other hand, sees this ‘intangible’ economy as deeply exploitative. Uber, for example, held up as an example of an ‘intangible’ firm by Haskel and Westlake, is not one of Srinavasan’s good guys. The firm employs almost no one, owns very little in terms of infrastructure, and the ‘gig’ nature of the drivers working via the Uber app makes it difficult to unionise.

Srinavasan even sees the human workers in the gig economy as an interim stage on the way to full robot employment:

Gig workers will become dispensable once these companies gather enough data from them to become dominant in new industries like automated vehicles. Gig workers are essentially data providers to these companies, and in the long run, will be rendered disposable.
- Ramesh Srinavasan

Resistance is growing. Haskel and Westlake situate the coalition campaigning for Brexit as being driven to a significant extent by resistance to the forward march of the intangible economy:

In the United Kingdom, a viable coalition has formed of economically and educationally disadvantaged voters in places that the new economy has bypassed and affluent older voters, whose financial well-being is largely insulated from slowing productivity growth. [T]hese voters tend to endorse certain policies that hinder the advance of the intangible economy, including reducing the numbers of foreign students and opposing zoning reforms that would help dynamic cities grow. 
- Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake

Srinavasan does not address the coalition of the old and ‘left behind’ directly but details alternative forms of resistance, such as community-run mobile phone networks like  Rhizomatica in Mexico.

Haskel and Westlake see the tendency of ‘intangible’ positives to cluster in big cities as an inescapable side effect of the intangible economy. To them, societies must just adapt.

Though they do gesture at more creative socially-grounded solutions to the problem, such as the Mondragan workers’ federation in the Basque Country, overall they have little to offer to ameliorate the inequalities emerging in our brave new intangible world, except maybe connecting ‘left behind’ areas to nearby booming ones as dormitory towns or via teleworking.

Srinavasan advocates driving greater economic justice via aggressive measures to democratise the new technologies. He quotes Bernie Sanders’ desire to embed the interests of ordinary people in corporations by passing laws that workers must make up 50% of board positions across all industries. He further advocates ‘a complete inversion of the funding models and the political economy models for internet connectivity […] support municipal and community-run internet service providers.’

Taken together, the two articles point to some of the thorniest issues we face in the networked age, as the onward march of the internet, big data and increasingly deracinated capital is read as a force for good by some and a force for exploitation and inequality by others. Interestingly, neither article directly addresses the question of democracy in the traditional sense save as a metaphor for rebalancing of power in corporate structures (Srinavasan) and a potential vehicle for the wrong people having a say (Haskel and Westlake).

This suggests that across a number of political persuasions, there is a growing view that the site of ‘people power’ (or its absence) is now less the ballot box than technology. This should trouble us.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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