Towards Work 2.0? — Power, Data and the Exponential Thaw
We need to change the rules of the game — not just the tech involved
Could a decentralised system like blockchain be the solution to the question of data ownership, and ultimately be a type of universal basic income? When I read this question, proposed by Michael K. Spencer, I was intrigued as there are few subjects which I find more interesting than crypto technology, data sovereignty and UBI. However, after thinking about this question for a while, I’m inclined to think this is nonsense.
With three major components, thus there are three major legs on which this argument stands. Firstly, automation demands some response as jobs are lost, such as UBI. Secondly, the proliferation of Big Data raises questions about data sovereignty. Thirdly, blockchain, operating as a decentralised system capable of handling monetary transactions bridges both problems. Now, I have no problem with this logic per se (and is it very much A = B = C sort of logic); but often the solution to problems is not found in the future, but in the past. Why might prolific automation cause tremendous problems? Why is Big Data in the hands of Big Corporations increasingly problematic?
I’ve always been sceptical of UBI, and my scepticism can be summed up like this: raising all ships doesn’t solve the problem of needing a bigger boat. Something similar I think could be said of blockchain — when you get down into actually existing cryptoeconomics, who really cares whether you’re paying in dollars or bitcoin?
Articles about Crypto Bros. are a dime a dozen, so I don’t think it’s fair or helpful or even correct to make any such comments here. Likewise, it’s far too lazy of an argument to write an idea off as being too utopian, as many do with UBI. The likes of Russel Jacoby’s The End of Utopia and Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future offer compelling defences of the value of utopian thinking. Equally, one shouldn’t ignore the common tendency among many crypto and UBI enthusiasts, respectively, to see these things as magic bullets to a whole host of problems.
And, to an extent, I think the problem both policy prescriptions (that’s essentially what Spencer is advocating) is they’re not utopian enough. This is a criticism I’ve had of Scott Santens’ recent writing on the emancipatory benefits of UBI. In his argument, Santens is basically channelling the arguments of Robespierre (whether he knows it or not), necessitas non habet legem — necessity has no law, suggesting UBI means no one will have to work for the basics of life (presumably fulfilling the B in UBI). Again, invoking the ‘iron law,’ of necessary, Santens has staked his position in the argument that UBI is not a right/left issue, but one of human dignity. A full account of why this is problematic will — I hope — be finished eventually, but for now I will summarise.
UBI does not tackle, and in fact perpetuates, capital markets which require employment and thus, by extension, maintain the risk of invoking the law of necessity. As long as necessary goods are distributed via an exchange mechanism, rather than provided at the point of simply being necessary, the foundations of the system do not change. UBI simply ameliorates the problems of capitalism by tempering its excesses, perhaps why UBI seems so at home with Keynesian-esque ideas such as MMT.
The problem which UBI attempts to solve is resource distribution, without fundamentally changing the system by which resources are distributed, which are capital markets. To tackle this behemoth, we must ultimately tackle problems of ownership, which — frankly — is a politicised, right/left issue (again, more than has been said here could be said; but in brief, I do think UBI could potentially serve some transitionary purpose, either for the individual moving from job to job. This would not be too dissimilar, in effect, to how tax incentives for businesses already work. I advocate such an approach in my essay on the economics of global warming. Further, UBI seems like a necessary component in a market-socialist system for distributing publicly owned but scarce resources. See, for example Peter Frase’s Four Futures, specifically Californian parking spaces).
Given these thoughts, perhaps you can imagine why I say UBI raises all ships but doesn’t provide us with a bigger boat. Neither, really, does blockchain, but I would be remiss to continue this argument without bringing in the third pillar on which Spencer stands, that of data sovereignty and data ownership. Reading Spencer’s article, it brought a slightly sardonic warmth (if that’s possible) to my heart as he suggested blockchain might be used to compensate internet users for providing their data to companies — the same idea I suggested in my Modest Proposal for a New Social Media. I have sympathies, therefore, with the broad concept.
Yet, despite my great desire to revel in the reality that someone might — even slightly — agree with me, I find the argument flawed. Firstly, Spencer conflates data with currency and with oil, something I’ve addressed previously; Big Data is only value because it is big, but your data is valuable because it is yours. Tackling the problem of data sovereignty (and sovereignty is a better word than ownership, because in this discussion what we care about control primarily) involves returning agency to the data provider.
There is a massive difference between Google paying me to give them my data and my consenting for Google to use my data how I see fit. This is not a problem the decentralisation of blockchain resolves. Like UBI, decentralisation (whatever that means; see my article about Cryptocurrencies and Corpocracy if you want to see the glass half empty version of this story) simply changes appearances, when what we need to do is change the rules of the game. This requires tackling the dominant and monopolistic behaviour of the big tech companies (which blockchain will not do. In fact, it might make the problem worse. See the immediate link above).
Power matters. A core flaw in Spencer’s article is the glanced over assumption that big tech will buy into this system, rather than entrenching their interests (see, for example, the rumblings of corporate backed cryptocurrencies). Likewise — and often overlooked by blockchain enthusiasts — are the power dynamics of the state. Maybe UBI could happen (Richard Nixon of all people nearly passed it, and arch small-state economist Milton Friedman famously discussed the concept, albeit as a negative income tax. In this vein, recent proposals from the New Economic Foundation think tank offer what I think is the most realistic — as in politically possible — version of UBI), but why would the United States not pay it in dollars? Why would China not pay it in Renminbi? If there’s any danger in utopianism, it’s that people overlook power that is necessary regardless of will, and once power is introduced into this dynamic, I just don’t see why or how blockchain (in Spencer’s article) precipitates the return of data sovereignty or the development of a UBI.
In fact, would this holy trinity even produce a UBI? First, let us be clear where the origin of Spencer’s UBI is, “In the future, a rather large component of our basic income will likely come in the form of how we barter our data.” This is but the first of two times Spencer invokes the notion of bartering, “[D]ecentralized [sic] access to services and the bartering of our data would be fluid, and a basic income would not just be a lump sum, but part of a virtual currency where our data would be a bargaining chip to a better world.”
The conceptual problem here is this: by assuming our data is the equivalent of currency, through the simple act of existing, we generate enough, ‘funds,’ to purchase all that we require, and as such something akin to UBI emerges. But, this is nonsense. The likes of Google exist to make profit, and in the same way classically political economy recognises employment only exists when the employee is paid less than the value of their labour, a compensation scheme reliant on the transfer of data must necessarily compensate users with less than the value of their data. Not only is this not tackling the problem of data sovereignty, it is tantamount to a form of employment — work 2.0 if you like — one which continues the monopolising power of big tech.
Further, this compensation will likely be insufficient to adequately tackle the problem of job losses from automation (I remain on the fence about whether impending job losses threaten the state of civil society. This isn’t the purpose of this article — let’s just assume it does), and so additional policies will have to be enacted. Forgive me if I’m missing something, but I just don’t see it.
I would like to remark that Michael Spencer and myself appear to come from different political schools. When he talks about, “[An] internet that’s more like a decentralized marketplace,” he captures a certain libertarian spirit which my previous writings on the subject clearly show my scepticism of. Such ideological differences will frequently result in disagreement, not necessarily about the technology and questions, but about the wider context in which the technology is applied and the questions asked.
I would also like to say that both Spencer and I will be wrong, in an innumerable number of ways. We cannot know the future, and in fact, knowing the future seems certain to change it. But that doesn’t mean these conversations are not worth having, because there are real problems facing us very shortly (in my opinion we should be more worried about global warming than the over-hyped spectre of AI or automation, but that’s just me). Because we can’t know the future, we can’t know the ideal solution; however, in having debated the problems with respective ideas, we can predict problems and ease our journey through crisis.