Imagine waking up each day to find out whether you won an auction to do your job. The night before, you signed in to a labor platform—a website such as TaskRabbit—and carefully requested a relatively modest wage while agreeing to a laundry list of rules imposed by bosses. Anyone from around the world can bid on the job. You’re hoping that your past performance will give you enough advantage over lower bidders to justify your continued employment. But you never know.   

For established professionals, this scenario will sound nightmarish: Black Mirror meets “right to work” evangelism. But many workers already face something like it. The default presumption of “employment at will”—which allows employees to be fired “for any reason, or no reason at all,” as many courts have put it—leaves a vast number of American workers vulnerable to sudden termination. Globally, precarious employment is also all too common, especially for the 60 percent of the world’s population living on less than $5 a day.

To be sure, there are highly valued managers and workers whom firms tend to treat well. Unions have also bargained to protect their members from exploitation and arbitrary treatment, and even to exercise some control over the pace and nature of work. However, most American workers do not enjoy such prerogatives, or a panoply of protections common in European workplaces. Former Department of Labor official David Weil called this stratification of employment conditions the “fissured workplace,” a trend that technology firms have accelerated over the past decade.

Uber, TaskRabbit, and Amazon have triggered the platformization of work, but is there any emancipatory potential here?

Labor platforms such as Uber, TaskRabbit, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk have become bywords for jobs atomized into small tasks. They could very well be the future of “human resources,” promising the right person for the right job for the right amount of time—and no longer. Tom Slee’s excellent What’s Yours is Mine (2015) shows in detail how these platforms have used a combination of PR, lobbying, and aggressive business tactics to make their way of organizing work seem like business’s next evolutionary step. They’re now inspiring other firms to develop internal platforms for organizing work, including turning to algorithms to hire new employees and to evaluate current ones.

Both activists and scholars have criticized platformization as a further extension of managerial power over workers. But is there any emancipatory potential here, for labor to either demand better pay and conditions, or take over the platforms themselves? Two recent books shed light on that question and address the sustainability of the “gig economy.” In Platform Capitalism, the social theorist Nick Srnicek details the economic trends that accelerated platform growth and predicts where they might go from here. Ours to Hack and to Own, an edited collection, convenes dozens of thinkers and doers to reflect on how the cooperative form—which enables workers to govern their workplaces—could humanize digitally organized labor.  Both books highlight how technology enables platforms, why they promote exploitation, and whether labor activism could improve these new digital taskmasters.  

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A burgeoning business literature deploys the term “platform” loosely, designating a wide array of successful companies as platforms. Srnicek’s critical theory focuses on platforms’ role as intermediaries, which take a cut of other parties’ transactions and use data gathered from such interactions to anticipate business trends. “By providing a digital space for others to interact in,” Srnicek explains, “platforms position themselves so as to extract data.” Fleshing out this abstract definition, Srnicek examines particular features of five types of platforms:

Type of Platform


Main Function

Advertising platforms

Google, Facebook


Cloud platforms

Amazon Web Services; SalesForce

Hardware and software used by digital businesses

Industrial platforms

GE, Siemens

Hardware and software to accelerate monitoring and rationalization of manufacturing

Product platforms


Turns traditional goods into services and collects revenue from subscriptions

Lean platforms

Uber, Airbnb

Avoid owning many critical assets and outsource risk to buyers and sellers

The platform acts as the government of a certain market, and its fees might be viewed as de facto taxes on the participants to whom it provides order, marketing, and other services. Like states aiming for a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, platforms aspire to a commercial monopoly in the “space” they deem their own. Thanks to economies of scope and scale, a supplier of goods and services is much less likely to be undercut by other suppliers once it reaches a certain critical mass. An upstart retail platform, for example, may offer to take a much smaller “cut” from sellers than Amazon does. But why would a seller bother to set up shop at the upstart platform when she has no idea whether customers will follow?

A platform acts as the government of a certain market, and its fees are the taxes on the participants to whom it provides order.

Anticipating that futility, many would-be start-ups do not even try to disrupt digital behemoths. Those that do can learn the hard way that even trying to capture a small niche of a platform’s empire can provoke overwhelming retaliation. For example, the online baby care retailer found itself in Amazon’s crosshairs as soon as it became moderately successful. Though it tried to compete at first, it later capitulated, becoming one more part of Jeff Bezos’s business empire.

Expect this pattern to repeat itself as the digital economy further consolidates. Investors are treating Facebook’s “Stories” as a Snapchat-killer. Amazon only had to file a trademark for meal-kit delivery to send rival Blue Apron’s shares tumbling. Concentration in the finance industry accelerates these trends: institutional investors own 80 percent of all stock in S&P 500 corporations, which means it doesn’t take many panicked fund managers to spark a stampede of investment away from small firms and toward the massive ones predicted to become predatory toward them.

That behavior creates one more advantage for massive platforms, as it reduces the cost of the capital they use to invest in innovation—or to take over other firms. Megaplatforms acquire rivals at a rapid pace, leveraging data advantage into profits, and profits into further domination of advertising markets. The dynamic is self-reinforcing: more data means providing better, more targeted services, which in turn attracts a larger customer base, which then offers even more opportunities to collect data. Once a critical mass of users is locked in, the dominant platform can chisel away at both consumer and producer surplus. For example, under pressure from investors to decrease its operating losses, Uber has  increased its cut from drivers’ earnings and has price discriminated against certain riders based on algorithmic assessments of their ability and willingness to pay. The same model is now undermining Google’s utility (as ads crowd out other information), and Facebook’s privacy policies (which get more egregiously one-sided the more the social network’s domination expands).

But while Facebook knows full well that most of its users are not about to leave it en masse to start posting baby pictures and birthday party invitations on LinkedIn, Srnicek still predicts some troubles ahead for large platforms. He believes they will increasingly fight on one another’s turf, trying to steal each others’ customers in search of the data-hoarder’s holy grail: perfected profiles of any person or entity, which then enable precise predictions of exactly how much he/she/it is willing to pay for a good or service. Battles over data and algorithm ownership will also intensify. Google’s accusations that Uber stole top-secret technologies for self-driving automobiles shows just how vicious this competition can become.

There is trouble ahead for megaplatforms, as they fight on one another’s turf, trying to steal each others’ customers in search of the data-hoarder’s holy grail: perfected profiles of any person or entity.

The great question of Srnicek’s “platform wars” is whether they will weaken these megafirms enough for upstarts to slip in—or simply accelerate the Western development of something like China’s megaplatform, WeChat. As Andreessen Horowitz Partner Connie Chan explains, WeChat enables users to “hail a taxi, order food delivery, buy movie tickets, play casual games, check in for a flight, send money to friends, access fitness tracker data, book a doctor appointment, get banking statements, pay the water bill, find geo-targeted coupons, recognize music, search for a book at the local library, meet strangers around you, follow celebrity news, read magazine articles, and even donate to charity”—all in one app. Imagine, say, the merger of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon into one huge company (MAGA), ready to convert the last remnants of the sharing economy into a “taking economy.” Such a firm could exercise enormous power: with unprecedented access to consumers, it would be a must-have marketplace, and could use this powerful position to drive very hard bargains with companies. (Indeed, the bargains may be so hard that it would be able to take over many of them, as Amazon did with On the other hand, if these Goliaths do not merge or cooperate and end up wasting too much time fighting each other, then the Davids, salivating for even a tiny slice of their market share, may be able to grab it.

• • •

But would small platforms be any better than the giants now sucking data, opportunity, and profits into capitalism’s latest Charybdis? In earlier work with Alex Williams, Srnicek doubted the efficacy of local, small-scale interventions to change politics or economics for the better. They opined that horizontalist “folk politics” like Occupy could do little to humanize global patterns of exploitation and subordination. Nor did Srnicek and Williams have much faith in the ability of local currencies or small-scale economic production to take on multinational conglomerates.

In Platform Capitalism, Srnicek believes the platformization of the economy bodes ill for localism. He argues that, instead of trying to build more cooperative alternatives to platforms, progressives should try to regulate the behemoths instead (and even consider nationalization):

Some have argued that we might fight these monopolistic trends by building up cooperative platforms. Yet all the traditional problems of coops . . . are made even worse by the monopolistic nature of platforms. . . . The state, by contrast, has the power to control platforms. Antitrust cases can break up monopolies, local regulations can impede or even ban exploitative lean platforms, government agencies can impose new privacy controls, and coordinated action on tax avoidance can draw capital back into public hands. . . . Rather than just regulating corporate platforms, efforts could be made to create public platforms—platforms owned and controlled by the people. (And, importantly, independent of the surveillance state apparatus.) . . . Perhaps today we must collectivise the platforms.

But while Srnicek believes cooperative platforms are doomed from the start, Ours to Hack and to Own highlights several consumer, producer, worker, and multistakeholder cooperatives that have become stable, successful businesses. These include Stocksy (which sells permissions to stock photos) and Fairmondo (a German online marketplace owned by its users, with a managing board elected by its employees).

Still, scale is a powerful advantage. Fairmondo offers over 2 million items for sale while 480 million are available on Amazon. And close to 80 million Americans have an Amazon prime account. How can platform cooperativists hope to break Americans out of their consumer habits, toward firms that may, at least at their inception, be slower and more costly?

Here, Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider offer a hard-headed, realist perspective in Ours to Hack and to Own. They recognize that the “big companies that rule the Internet aren’t coming to dominate just because of a good idea and a charismatic founder; they grow out of supportive ecosystems, including investors, lawyers, sympathetic governments, and tech schools.” With that insight, the visions of Srnicek and the platform cooperativists converge: if, for instance, governments forced megafirms like Apple and Uber to pay a fair share of taxes, they would not have such huge advantages over upstarts. Regulation exists on a spectrum, between full laissez-faire and nationalization; both books recognize its value.

Digital sociologist Karen Gregory’s essay on coding schools in Ours to Hack and to Own also offers a realistic assessment of the relationship between workers’ living standards and their power. Gregory argues that even if coding skills are democratized via platform cooperatives, workers will still need to organize to demand a fairer share of business revenue. Moreover, labor history shows how quickly noble experiments in employee governance can go awry—think, for instance, of how capital wrested control of union pension funds away from unions themselves, with the help of legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act and ERISA.

Of course, what the state taketh away, it can also giveth. New combinations of regulation and deregulation can make the world of business safer for platform coops. For example, the Sustainable Economies Law Center (the SELC, whose founder Janelle Orsi is a contributor to Ours to Hack and to Own) has intervened in an ongoing California battle over the deregulation of restaurants. Chefs want to serve meals out of their own houses, while local ordinances on food services often prevent them from doing so. If the state simply preempted such regulation, a firm like OpenTable or TaskRabbit could take advantage of this sudden labor glut to become the de facto platform for home-cooked meals. But SELC is instead pushing “legislation to mandate that any web platform in the homemade food market be organized as a worker cooperative, a consumer cooperative, or a nonprofit.” That would help assure more distributed governance over home restaurant platforms, and a larger share of revenues going to cooks and servers (rather than venture capitalists, marketers, and other strategists now lavishly paid to help for-profit platforms corner markets).

One question remains, though, for the platform cooperativists, especially if some achieve a high percentage of a given market (whether locally or nationally). When do workers’ rights end and community prerogatives begin? For example, imagine a successful taxi coop displacing Uber and deciding to set a price floor for rides (based on, say, the cost of insurance, gas, and car payments for the typical driver). Would antitrust authorities intervene to force drivers to compete with one another? The very idea of independent contractors cooperating to agree not to work in certain conditions, or not to accept a wage below a certain level, may strike some formalists at federal competition authorities as a cartel, conspiring to keep prices up. The labor activist’s “cooperativism” may be a Chicago School antitrust lawyer’s “combination in restraint of trade” (which American antitrust law forbids). Platform cooperativists will need to plan carefully in order to avoid federal interventions here.

Neither platform capitalism nor platform cooperativism is an inevitable outgrowth of natural economic forces.

One positive precedent for platform coops may be professional licensure, such as the state bar for attorneys or medical boards. Free market fundamentalists have long been incensed by quasi-governmental entities setting minimal standards for the licensing of doctors, or continuing education requirements for nurses. They have weaponized antitrust law to try to dismantle licensing boards, arguing that doctors were conspiring to knock their competitors out of business. To the hard-core libertarian, patients deserve the freedom to hire quacks, and medical licensure is a conspiracy against that liberty. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has not adopted this approach, and has instead held that professional licensure regimes are immune from antitrust attack so long as they are authorized by state government and subject to active governmental oversight. So, too, could enlightened agencies and courts help balance the rights and responsibilities of both workers and consumers once platform cooperatives become more popular.

The resulting regulation and jurisprudence may become quite complex. But volumes like Platform Capitalism and Ours to Hack and to Own should convince careful readers that our current, barely regulated gig economy is not sustainable. Subjecting workers to a national (or even global) reverse auction of wages and work conditions—where they are under constant pressure to perform tasks faster, and for less, than rivals will—is a recipe for exhaustion and poverty for those unlucky enough to be trapped in the platform matrix. Moreover, it is also a prelude to deflation and economic collapse, as precarious work provokes a twenty-first century revival of Keynes’s paradox of thrift. Why would anyone subject to the danger of constantly declining wages spent more than minimally? And as that frugality becomes widespread, how can whole economies avoid shrinkage?

I do not know how to answer those questions—and I suspect the gig economy’s biggest boosters have not even begun to grapple with them. But these grim prospects highlight the importance of these two books, which foreground the political aspects of work. Neither platform capitalism nor platform cooperativism is an inevitable outgrowth of natural economic forces. Rather, the relative balance of each depends on how we apply (or change) tax, licensure, labor, antitrust, and other laws. Better work is possible—but only if we collectively demand it.