All posts by Alex Lancaster

“Free” isn’t free: A Ronin Research Scholar examines the web and its problems

By Ronin Research Scholar Ralph Haygood 

Remember when the World Wide Web was new and shiny (albeit somewhat rickety)? It wasn’t very long ago. Like me, many Ronin Research Scholars no doubt can recall the widespread excitement about the new medium. I was in graduate school when the web took off and became part of everyday life.

Two decades later, it isn’t just names like AltaVista, GeoCities, and Netscape that have faded into history. Instead of excitement, there’s widespread concern that the web has become problematic, possibly doing more harm than good. These days, discussions of the web tend to emphasize fake news, hate speech, compulsive “doomscrolling”, and the unaccountable power of a few big companies like Google and Facebook. How did we get here, and what should we do about it?

That’s the subject of my new book “Free” isn’t free: The Original Sin of the web and what to do about it. The book explains that a major cause of many problems with the web is what it dubs the Original Sin of the web: collecting personal information about users and selling it to marketers. Web companies offer us “free” services, on the condition that we let them “data-mine” us and sell the data to people who, in turn, use it to try to sell us everything under the sun. However, “free” isn’t free; this business model has significant costs that we all pay.

So what’s the solution? Obviously, better laws could help, particularly by limiting what information web companies are allowed to collect about us and what they’re allowed to do with it. However, I argue that the key to a better web is for us users, rather than marketers, to become the customers. This isn’t a panacea, but it addresses multiple problems with the web at once, by reducing conflicts of interests between websites and users.

Although other books cover some of the same ground, I felt it was worth writing “Free” isn’t free in order to present the main issues concisely, highlight the central significance of the Original Sin, and address objections to making users the customers. As obvious as making users the customers may seem, most discussions of the web and its problems ignore or downplay this possibility. “Free” isn’t free examines several common objections to it, arguing that although some of them are warranted, none of them is decisive. For example, although there are reasonable concerns about deepening the “digital divide” between people who can afford to pay for the web and people who can’t, there are also practical strategies for avoiding this outcome, despite being supported by users.

Who am I to write such a book? The answer may interest even Ronin scholars who aren’t especially interested in the web and its problems. Like the founder of the Ronin Institute, Jon Wilkins, I’m an evolutionary geneticist, with a Ph.D., postdoctoral fellowships, and published research. However, before all that, I was a computer programmer and researcher. In fact, I found my way into evolutionary genetics through genetic algorithms, computation schemes inspired by evolutionary genetics. During my years as a grad student and postdoc, I remained attentive to developments in computation, and since leaving academia, I’ve made a living mostly by creating web applications. So I’ve been building, using, and pondering the web for quite awhile.

One reason why I decided not to become a professor was that I didn’t relish the prospect of devoting myself almost exclusively to a single topic for many years, in order to establish myself as the world’s leading authority on that topic. As competition for jobs and funding has become ever more intense, many academics have found that professional survival demands focus to the point of monomania. So an academic career seemed too cramped for my interests, which have always been broad (e.g., before I worked with computers, I studied physics and mathematics). Of course, a project such as writing “Free” isn’t free may require sharply focused attention and effort for weeks or months at a time. However, when it’s finished, I’m free to contemplate quite different things if I wish. Fortunately, as a software developer, I’m able to make a comfortable living from part-time work, leaving many hours for other pursuits. If more people were able to do likewise, I expect that many of their “other pursuits”—art, science, environmental conservation, social justice, and much more— would enrich us all.

I’m grateful for and enthusiastic about the Ronin Institute, which encourages and facilitates scholarly work by people like me who choose to spread our attention and effort more broadly than most academics are free to do.

I thank Keith Tse for inviting me to post here.

“Free” isn’t free is available as an e-book or paperback. For links to sellers, visit the website for the book.


Ralph Haygood is a population biologist, emphasizing evolutionary genetics and mathematical, computational, and statistical methods. He is also a software developer, emphasizing web applications. He has been a Ronin Research Scholar since 2012—before it was trendy! He currently lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can read more about him and his work on his website.

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michelle King-Okoye

Michelle King-Okoye

This new installment of Better Know a Ronin Scholar” continues on the theme of public health. In late October I spoke to UK-based Research Scholar Michelle King-Okoye (pronoun: she/her). Michelle’s research is primarily in the areas of health inequality, and health and illness experience, including prostate cancer research and research surrounding men’s health and minority ethnic population research. She has worked as a Researcher, Lecturer and a Registered Nurse. She also has an affiliation with the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE) and is the founder and leader of the Ethnicity and COVID-19 Research Consortium. She describes herself as a content wife and mother who prioritizes time spent with family.

Today I’m welcoming Dr. Michelle King-Okoye to Better Know a Ronin Scholar. Hi, Michelle. How has your 2020 been?

Hi, Alex, thank you so much for having me. 2020 has been challenging so far with all the events that COVID-19 has brought especially to individuals and families affected by this dreaded disease.  Nevertheless, in the midst of the pandemic I am pleased to contribute to research in this area and policy-making to support families affected by COVID-19 and address existing disparities.  I’m really looking forward to this interview to share about this.

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of interesting work at the intersection of public health and now COVID. What has been your journey to your area of scholarship?

Firstly, I’m a nurse. I’ve been in nursing for some time. I am originally from the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad and Tobago. I’ve worked as a nurse in various specialties: ICU, oncology, cancer care, open heart surgery, pediatrics, as well as working in accident and emergency, and the operating theater. I stayed in nursing for about six years or so. And then I worked as a lecturer, after completing studies at the University of the West Indies in collaboration with McMaster University in Canada. I pursued teaching in evidence-based practice, critical appraisal and oncology assessment. After that I migrated to the UK for my post grad training and a PhD in Health Sciences. So it has been quite a journey.  

My main focus then, and now, is in health inequality, including ethnicity, culture, and health and illness experiences. 

…it goes beyond the physiological elements of the disease and treatment – seeing there is a human being that we are caring for. … I don’t see someone separate from the disease or separate from the person who’s experiencing it. I see them in a holistic way: how the disease affects them, their family, their relationships, culture and their ethnicity.

Traditional academia can be limiting by encouraging people to follow a very narrow path: school, a bachelor’s degree, PhD without any breaks. In contrast, you didn’t take a direct path to research–you worked as a registered nurse for about six years.  How do you think that experience of being a nurse influenced or shaped how you approach your scholarship?

That’s a very interesting question. I wanted to be a registered nurse because I enjoy caring for people. I know that being compassionate – especially at a time when someone is unwell—is very important for them to feel as if you’re caring for them as well as having an understanding of the disease and illness experience. So being from that background has allowed me to see health and illness from a personal experience. I’ve cared for people, I’ve experienced death (while working as a nurse) and I’ve experienced firsthand people suffering from different diseases.

So it goes beyond the physiological elements of the disease and treatment – but seeing there is a human being that we are caring for.  I have worked and cared for people of all different ethnicities, all different races. And that is also critical, because you might be caring for someone who comes from a different culture, family, traditions, beliefs and practices.  For doctors, healthcare practitioners, and all those involved in healthcare, it is so important to see patients in a holistic way. That has shaped my entire view of how I see people.  I don’t see someone separate from the disease or separate from the person who’s experiencing it. I see them in a holistic way: how the disease affects them, their family, their relationships, culture and their ethnicity. 

File released under the Creative Commons license  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Logo_of_the_World_Health_Organization.jpg

If you look at the World Health Organisation definition of health, health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. It takes everything into consideration. Sometimes we forget that. [As a nurse] seeing people being ill, and seeing them recover, and get well that has really shaped how I see people, how I care and how I teach. Now as a researcher – I’ve seen it from all different perspectives. That has truly been a blessing.

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michelle King-Okoye

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Michele Battle-Fisher

Welcome back to our occasional “Better Know a Ronin Scholar” series, where we learn more about the research and other activities of our Research Scholars. Earlier this month, I talked to Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher (pronoun: she/her). Michele’s interdisciplinary research spans public health, complex systems and bioethics. Michele wears many hats. In addition to being a scholar at the Ronin Institute, she is an Assistant Adjunct Professor at Wright State University in Ohio, a member of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of System Science, and the author of Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics. She was a TEDxDartmouth speaker and a participant in the MIT Press Pitchfest.

Welcome Michele!  2020 has been a bit of a doozy of a year thus far. How are you holding up?

Thanks for having me today. This is kind of cataclysmic for me. Between Black Lives Matter and COVID, I’m kind of in overload. But I think it also brings to the point why I do the work that I do in public health: looking at the ethics and complexity of health care systems. So right now, the ethics are: “why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?” We have an ethical issue of where we’re allocating our money–whether it needs to be on the clinical end or it needs to be on the preventative end. In addition, public health does well in expressing the overarching social determinants that make staying healthy individually and as a population overwhelmingly difficult. Yet, public health continues that fight. As a true Ronin, I use a new angle to add to the social complexity afoot.

Why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?

COVID-19 is showing that we act in–at least in the United States–very much from a reactionary position. We deal with our problems when they happen. With this pandemic, I hope we will have a larger discussion of the pre-existing health disparities of people of color, LGBTQ, plus disability. The list could go on and on. It illuminates the holes we have in society and how some of us are falling into those holes. And they’re not throwing a rope in order for us to get us out of that well. So I really dedicate myself to that work and I hope that it’s doing some good.

You published your book, the Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics by Springer back in 2016. It seems to have even more relevance now that public health is front and center.  Is there more interest in that scholarship?

In 2012, I took part in a research program with the National Institutes of Health, it was called ISSH (Institute on Systems Science and Health), that brought together 45 competitively selected  researchers in the areas of agent based modelling, social networks and system dynamics. I reaffirmed my love for systems there. 

I started writing the book back in 2015.  And it started out from a blog that I had run for about two years previously – called Orgcomplexity.  I started trying to connect this whole idea of systems thinking, which came from general systems theory and systems biology – and also the world of physics with chaos and emergence and attractors. I worked very publicly through those ideas, which to some may be foolish because I was doing something that wasn’t within the norm. I was able to actually work out ideas, have people react to my ideas and work on this framework.  

Is a systems approach always the best approach to public health?

Yes and no: it may surprise some who say: “well, isn’t everything complex?” And do we always look at it from that complex lens? We don’t always do that because it also depends on the question you’re asking. Some questions are best answered from a very linear reductionist standpoint: biostatistics measures for example. Those methods are appropriate for those questions. I am just asking that if the question is divergent in nature that we do not jump to using convergent solutions. We are all susceptible to mental models which is the first step for making sense of our world. Ecological framing is not new to public health and explains well the nested, concentric elements that make up health as we live it. Systems thinking calls us to rely on a more dynamic, time-based understanding of nested interdependent elemental systems when appropriate.   

Why did you write a book, rather than publishing journal articles?

I chose not to do journal articles, because number one, I couldn’t get past the reviewers. Because they said: “well, we had other methods and those work, so why do something new?” And then because I wasn’t doing strictly analytical work, that would just get lost by the next journal article. I wanted there to be some type of salience, the ability for me to have a bigger footprint over a longer period of time. So I thought, “Okay, let’s be foolish and write a book”. And so that’s what I did. The second thing was that I was selected as a scholar at a place called the Hastings Center, which is located just north of New York City. And I was brought there as a specialist, as a visiting scholar. And I brought this really kooky idea saying that ethics are complex and they’re like “that is new”. And they just let me do it. That was the first time I felt freedom to actually push the envelope and try to do something that wasn’t expected. 

Were there others working with this perspective?

I don’t want to say that there was nobody else in ethics doing this, but it wasn’t apparent to me that there was a large cluster who were using this perspective.  Sometimes in academia, people follow each other like sheep. And I just decided to be a cow and not a sheep: I’m chewing cud and they’re just following each other – being herded. But in all fairness, I’m still in the academic world and to be published to have any success in that field. I certainly see the worth and the need for academia, but I also know that academics can be very smothering at times. Innovation is not something that they take to readily. So taking different perspectives just takes time, effort and patience. When you’re going up for tenure, there’s little room or time to be innovative. But I love what I do. I really cannot see myself doing anything else. 

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

An academic Strike For Black Lives being held Wednesday June 10, 2020

As part of the ongoing protests and calls for action to address systemic racism in our institutions and our society following the murder of George Floyd, the group Particles for Justice is calling for all academics to pledge to suspend their academic duties for the entirety of today, Wednesday June 10:

We will stop all usual academic work for the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities. All ordinary meetings of classes, research groups, and seminars should be cancelled or replaced with discussions with colleagues about anti-black bias in the world and in academia.

We will also stop activities that advance our own scholarship, including performing research, reading and submitting papers, or sending e-mails about research.

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

Many scientific organizations, including arXiv, some publishers, and many other academics, including some Ronin Research Scholars are taking part in this day. You can pledge here:

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Rebecca Willén / Fellow Travelers IGDORE

Welcome back to our very occasional “Better Know a Ronin Scholar” series, where we learn more about the journeys of our Research Scholars and their current projects. It’s also doubling as the first post in a new “Fellow Travelers” series, conversations with the different organizations which share some common goals, approaches or philosophy with the Ronin Institute. In late 2018, I talked to the founder of one such traveler, Dr. Rebecca Willén, the founder of IGDORE, also a Research Scholar with Ronin. Rebecca has a PhD in psychology from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden in which her main focus was on deception detection and development of interrogation techniques. After finishing her PhD in 2016 she has since focused on metascience – science about science.

Rebecca Willén

In this interview, we start by discussing the motivations for founding IGDORE, how education fits into IGDORE’s mission, and discuss what “New Academia” is all about. We next talk about the importance of retroactive disclosure statements for transparency in science. We finish on the topics of co-working spaces, changing academic cultures and the future. [This is a edited version of our conversation. Full disclosure: I am an affiliated researcher with IGDORE].

Tell me a bit about IGDORE?

IGDORE stands for the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. It’s an independent institute I founded in 2016, directly after I had finished my PhD.  It’s a virtual research institute, just like Ronin. We have one non-virtual facility and that is on Bali in Indonesia.

What motivated you to start IGDORE?

There were mainly two reasons why I started IGDORE.

First of all I finished my PhD remotely. I lived the last year of my PhD, I lived in Canada and in Indonesia.  I was just working from co-working spaces, from home, from cafes. And that’s how I finished my PhD. I only went to Sweden for my actual defense. And when I started to look for jobs, just before I finished my PhD, and during the Spring of 2016, I found it difficult to find a place where I felt that, “I want to go there with my family and live there”.

I did a job interview in the UK, and when I and visited the university, I felt that, “is this really where I’m supposed to live with my family, we have no connection with this country or that town?”.  It didn’t feel right, because we were quite happy with the life we had, and it is also relevant here, that the father of my daughter – we are not a couple any longer – so it makes it more difficult to expect someone to come to a new location when you are not even a couple. So for that reason, that was one of the reasons why I started IGDORE – because I wanted to do research from wherever I was.

“I didn’t want to end up… [experiencing]…the same pressure to publish and to get the low enough p-values to get something published. I wanted to be free to do good science, and to do it from wherever I wanted to reside at the moment”

And the second reason was that during the years that I was at my university as a student, I had lost my faith in science.  Because there were a lot of questionable research practices being employed and I had struggled with that, and I struggled to change that from within, and failed. And I didn’t want to end up in a new such situation where I’m doing a postdoc or something at a new university and again experience same the pressure to publish and to get the low enough p-values to get something published. I wanted to be free to do good science, and to do it from wherever I wanted to reside at the moment.

How are the scientists at IGDORE funded? What’s the current funding model?

We have several of the people are affiliated with traditional universities so they have receive the salaries from there. Several of them are preparing, they want to become location-independent for different reasons and want to move away from traditional academia. But are right now standing with one foot in each. IGDORE is not offering any funding.

How is IGDORE set up legally?

In Indonesia we are non-for-profit. In Sweden, we are a limited company.  The plan is to become a non-for-profit too. It’s easy to do, but we haven’t done it yet.

So some of the individual scientists at IGDORE have positions, and some of them are freelancers. How do you specifically get your funding, at the moment?

I get my money from seed money from IGDORE.  I’m basically living on a minimum.

So Bali can be helpful for that, I imagine?

Bali came before I finished my PhD. No, but living in Bali, makes it possible for me to live on the money I have for a long-time.

Right, the cost of living is probably much lower than in Sweden?

Yes.

IGDORE and online education

Forensic psychology conference at IGDORE February, 2019

In the future for IGDORE, are you thinking something more like Ronin where it facilitates but doesn’t necessarily provide salaries. Or are you thinking that IGDORE would provide some of that centrally?

I haven’t given it too much thought yet.  I want IGDORE to start offering online education, and if we get that going, then there might be the possibility to hire someone. To be able to pay proper salaries to a bunch of researchers.  Because I think education will be the main thing that is needed if you want to be able to pay salaries to researchers.

And that’s the “E” in IGDORE?

Exactly.

Where do you see IGDORE evolving the future?

The long-term plan for IGDORE is to become a proper university.  A location-independent university. I hope we will have co-working spaces, and laboratories in different parts of the world.  And then if people are working for, or studying at IGDORE, then it doesn’t matter where in the world they are, they can be at home, they can choose to go to their nearest campus, co-working space or laboratory.  But the long-term plan is to become a full non-formal university.

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Rebecca Willén / Fellow Travelers IGDORE

What do our scholars know? Find out at Blogs of the Ronin

Almost since the beginning of the Ronin Institute we had – what used to be called back in the aughts – a “blogroll” – of all Research Scholar blogs.   As part of last year’s site refresh – the “Blogs of the Ronin” are now properly displayed sidebars.   We also have a new dedicated page – Scholar Blogs –  displaying the most recent post from each blog (those that have an RSS feed).    Go and check them out!


If you’re a Ronin Scholar and have a blog that you would like to have listed, please contact us with the link to the blog, and RSS feed, so we can add you to the aggregation. (Conversely, if you are currently listed and would like to be removed, also let us know).  Ideally the blog would contain a good number of posts related to your scholarly interests, but this is by no means a requirement: a blog that mixes personal and research interests is also fine.  If you have several blogs, probably choose the one with the most scholarly-related content.  It’s may also be possible to filter and only aggregate posts within a certain category, let us know if you would like to do that.

Michele Battle-Fisher presents at the Boston Book Festival

Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher was at the Boston Book Festival at MIT Press’ “Pitchfest” on October 13, talking about cyborgs, CRISPR and body hacking.  She was presenting her book proposal on the transhumanism movement, associated with the documentary on the same that she is co-producing.  Lucky for those who weren’t able to be in Boston, you can see her talk on YouTube here:

The Ronin Institute at Performing the World in NYC

Performing the World (PTW) is a biennial conference with a focus on building communities, social change and performance. This year it is being held in New York City on September 21-23. Here’s the description from the conference website:

Since the first PTW in 2001, the conference has been a gathering place to explore and celebrate performance as a catalyst for human and community development and culture change. PTW is now a global community of hundreds who creatively engage social problems, educate, heal, organize and activate individuals, organizations and communities, and bring new social-cultural-psychological and political possibilities into existence.

Building on the conversations started in the related CESTEMER meeting  last year, several Ronin Institute Research Scholars will be holding a session “Performing New Models of Scholarship at the Ronin Institute” at 5:15pm on Saturday afternoon. I’ll be joining Research Scholars  Kristina Baines, Victoria Costa, (Kristina and Victoria are also co-founders of the Cool Anthropology collective), Jocelyn Scheirer, and Jon Wilkins. They will be giving short presentations on their different projects and how they feed into new models of doing research in their fields and beyond. The panel after will invite the wider PTW community to collectively explore a better future for scholarship.

If you’re in the NYC area and interested in attending, come join us! I believe it’s not too late to register. Let us know if you do!

Revisiting the “gig economy” for science on Labor Day

The Ronin Institute’s Research Scholars are drawn from many different career stages, levels of experience and backgrounds.  As we don’t advocate a single model of a career in scholarship (in contrast to the traditional academic pipeline), it isn’t surprising that Research Scholars explore many different means to support their scholarship (this is supported by preliminary analysis of our  independent scholarship survey).  One means of support, more common in the sciences, is freelancing: being hired for short or long-term projects by academic institutions, private companies or non-profit organizations. Projects may hire researchers either in  full-time or part-time capacity, generally as an independent contractor or consultant. Ideally these projects utilise the scholars’ unique research background and the experience and skills gained during consulting activities will help the scholar’s ongoing research, ultimately resulting in both science-informed solutions for the client and more grounded research for the scholar.

The rise of freelance science has noted by both the trade science press and science news outlets over the last couple of years.  A piece on NPR’s Science Friday earlier this year mentions Ronin Institute by name:

For example, the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship offers meet-ups and online discussions for people working in the field…And the website Kolabtree, which pairs freelance scientists with employers, boasted over 3,000 members as of October of last year.

Last year, Nature interviewed several freelance scientists, including our own Anne Thessen, in an article “Science in the gig economy”, prefacing the interviews with:

The global gig economy has influenced industries from taxi driving to software engineering. With the rise of websites and apps such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Upwork, more workers than ever are selling short-term services to many clients rather than holding down single full-time jobs. People with scientific training are adopting these practices as well, either by offering services on sites such as Upwork or finding projects through their previous academic networks.

As Labor Day here in the United States draws to a close, it’s worth reflecting on how Silicon Valley-style  gig economy “platforms” actually work in practice in science, and asking whether they are providing a sustainable future for freelance science, or whether we need a better model.  Although most of the coverage thus far, has been detailed and nuanced, there is a tendency to invoke “Uber” as a point of reference, being the most well-known gig economy platform.

The Science Friday article was titled “Uber, But for Scientists”, and  although the phrase was probably not intended to be taken too literally, as scholars we should be extremely wary of the Uber comparison, even casually.  And we should be even more wary of organizing freelancing around anything like Uber’s business model. The business models that underlie many “gig economy” companies are simply not designed for freelancers to build sustainable businesses of their own. They should not be emulated.  Here’s two reasons why:

Not true self-employment

Companies like Uber or TaskRabbit style themselves as a means for flexible self-employment, a means to create independent businesses. However, in practice, many users of these services have the worst of both worlds: all the control of the employer with all of the risk of being self-employed. Uber effectively exerts the power of an employer (through the ability to “deactivate” drivers for a variety of reasons) but none of the benefits of actually being an employee (healthcare, retirement savings etc) all of that risk is transferred to the driver. As reported in an early August editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the California Supreme Court did not buy tech companies attempts to reclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid providing healthcare, overtime and other benefits:

The unanimous high court ruling…held that workers should enjoy minimum wage and overtime protections unless their employers can prove that they are running independent businesses. Under the court’s sensible standard, an independent contractor must be generally outside a company’s “control and direction,” do work that is not central to the company’s business and regularly perform similar services for others.

That hews to the traditional understanding of what constitutes a contractor. As such, a wide range of companies in tech and beyond, having disingenuously classified de facto employees as contractors, will fail to meet the standard, and rightly so.

If this business model was deployed in research it might be something like being a postdoc constantly being loaded up with projects you couldn’t refuse, but with worse-than-grad student benefits and wages.

Mismatch between research and gig economy platforms

Most research takes time, requires patience, and a high degree of tolerance for error and backtracking.  Although in some research fields, projects can be “divided up” into smaller more predictable pieces, especially in highly regulated areas like biomedical and biopharma research, this is not the norm.  Classic venture-capital (VC) sharing economy companies are likely to thrive in areas where they can rapidly “scale”: meaning taking a fairly simple and somewhat anonymous task (e.g. driving), using technology like an app or website to coordinate and monitor the work, and then taking a cut of each transaction. Research tasks that can scale in that way, are likely to be the most menial and uninteresting parts of any research project – which doesn’t mean to say that they should not be rewarded – but that they likely only represent a small portion of any meaningful research project.

VC-backed companies are really only interested in building platforms that can scale and grow to an eventual monopoly status. Because the users (whether a driver, or a scientist or scholar) don’t actually own the platform, these platforms are unlikely to ever be good substrates for thriving, creative independent self-employment. As author Tom Slee puts it, in What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy (OR Books, 2015):

What started as an appeal to community, person-to-person connections and sustainability and sharing has become a playground to billionaires, Wall Street and venture capitalists… there is a lot of talk about democratization and networks, but what’s happened instead is a separation of risk (spread amongst the service providers and customers), from reward, which accrues to the platform owners.

Platform co-operatives

A more successful and humane freelance and consulting model for scholars will, I hope, be of a more traditional sort: growing a sustainable business by developing a client base over time, building relationships with people in academic and private organizations on many different kinds of projects of various size and scope. In other words: these are very kinds of projects and relationships that are likely to resist the “digital Taylorism” and anonymization of the platforms being developed by the mainstream gig economy  Reflecting the overall shift towards precarious employment in the economy in general*, the challenges of freelancing are still experienced by those in more traditional positions, as noted in the Science Friday piece:

But not even the traditional path of a scientist is immune to some of the issues freelancers encounter. “To be fair…you could interview an academic researcher who has funding this year and not next year and it would be the same sort of scenario.”

However, even if digital platforms never become the bread-and-butter for independent scholars, the basic idea of platforms to coordinate research labour, seems to me, not intrinsically bad, if the business model is not exploitative and the platform participants both own and actively participate in platform’s governance. These are the principles behind the “platform co-operativism” movement, which attempts to ensure that social and financial value stays within the users and platform, and are not whisked away to Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Several successful business have run using platform cooperative principles, including a stock photography company and taxi cooperatives in Denver and elsewhere (for more examples see Ours To Hack and to Own by Trebor Scholz & Nathan Schneider, OR Books 2017).

I’d love to see platform co-operatives specifically for research and scholarship becoming part of this new movement.

But please, let’s stop saying, “it’s like Uber, but for…”


* The issues that face freelancers now are likely to be the same issues that non-freelancers will face in the future, and as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, an extensive rethink of the benefits system, including the provision of universal healthcare and basic income, will likely be needed in the long-term to restore the kind of security that long-term employment once provided.