Tag Archives: economics

“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.

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.