Revisiting the gig economy: a Labor Day post

Biosystems Analytics

Reposted from my Ronin Institute blog post

The Ronin Institute’s Research Scholars are drawn from many different career stages, levels of experience and backgrounds, and given that 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 (we are still analyzing the results of the independent scholarship survey we did last year, but this much is clear). For many Research Scholars who are also freelancers, especially those in the sciences, one common means of support is being hired for short or long-term projects by academic institutions, private companies or non-profit organizations. This may be in in full-time or part-time capacity as an independent contractor or consultant. Ideally these projects utilise the scholars’ unique research background and skills and the experience and skills gained during consulting activities will…

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Decoding Turnbull: what his 2015 acceptance speech really said

On the day of the 2016 Australian Federal election, let’s rewind to last year.  On September 14, 2015, Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the party Liberal Party leadership, and Australia breathed a collective sigh of relief as the brief, but strange and destructive, reign of Tony Abbott came to an abrupt end.  There was a sense, especially amongst Australian progressives, that we might see a return to a more moderate Liberal Party. And if you cursorily examine Turnbull’s acceptance speech, it sounds thoroughly sensible and moderate, touching on now-familiar bromides of “creativity” and “innovation”:

“This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government. It will be a thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market. It’ll be focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it.”

Who can be against any of that?  Sounds good, right?  Being agile, creative, innovative! Yeaah! But having lived in the United States through the first dot-com boom, the Global Financial Crisis, and now the current tech-boom that creates only a relatively small number of jobs (and wealth for only a few of those in those jobs) and the rise of the predatory “sharing economy” of AirBnB and Uber, many of these phrases ring hollow to me. Phrases that use words like agility, creativity and innovation are very handy because they sound great as sound-bites, but are more often used as a fig leaf to disguise the true agenda.  Cognitive linguist George Lakoff in Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics has written extensively about how US right-wing think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have been successfully using words and metaphors to “frame” otherwise unpalatable policies for decades.  These think-tanks have, in turn, been diligently exporting these framings around the world through exchanges with Australian equivalents like the Institute for Public Affairs. Creativity and innovation used in the context of the LNP are code for a corporatist neoliberal set of policies that is focused on one thing and one thing only: enriching those already wealthy with even more wealth.

Many progressive Australians didn’t really see this true agenda clearly and wanted to believe that this would be a kinder, gentler Coalition government. I, too, shared this hope (although there were some commentators at the time who were not buying it). And, while the rhetoric on social issues like gay marriage has clearly shifted in a more moderate direction, in the areas that affect the most people: economics, benefits, job security and investments to build a better future, the Turnbull government has doubled-down on the economic rationalism. (The Labor Party under Shorten, by mostly sticking to economic rationalism-lite, has failed to offer a truly compelling alternatives).

So before today’s election I offer this handy decoded version of Turnbull’s acceptance speech to reveal what he really means:

“This will be a thoroughly NeoLiberal Government. It will be a thoroughly NeoLiberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the converting any  remaining  institutions devoted to the public good over to market-based solutions even in areas where they demonstrably do not work like healthcare, labor markets, carbon emissions regulation and financial regulation. It’ll be focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive because we’ve engineered it to be so through deregulation and capital market expansions and flexible labor market policies and there is greater misery opportunities for ordinary people, we are able to the lucky and the wealthy can take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile and jumps when transnational corporate interests want us to jump as specified in “trade” agreements like the TPP, that is innovative in creating wealth for a smaller number of people with fewer stable jobs through more complicated financial services and instruments, that is creative in moving money around but is not creative in challenging corporate interests and we will defund the those in the sciences or arts organizations that do so. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves by collectively deciding where we allocate our resources democratically. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology  neoliberal policies that deliberately transfer wealth up the hierarchy by invoking an outdated notion of  technological determinism to disguise those policies, and that the volatility in change is our friend if we are for those of us who are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it, and we will heap scorn and derision and demonize those who question these policies. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today if you’re in the 1% and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian in that 1%. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future for its wealthy friends in the corporate class and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it, by privatizing Medicare, deregulating the public university system and introduce US-style student loans and removing people or groups in positions of authority in institutions such as the CSIRO or the ABC that question these policies.

In the Turnbull/Liberal National Party “vision” there is no sense of the common good, of building a democratic future together, of supporting and strengthening civil society, of investing in basic science (outside of narrowly defined biomedical science, funded through cuts to Medicare), or growing sustainable (i.e. non-venture-capital based) small and medium sized businesses that create long term value for Australians. Just every agile man and women for him or herself in the global marketplace.

Get jumping!!

Resisting cheaters will be the big challenge for “platform cooperativism”

The promise of the Internet as a means to “level the playing field’ has seriously gone off the rails. A two-day conference at The New School that just wound up this last weekend, explored the emergence of platform cooperativism.  Platform cooperativism aims to return the democratic promise of the Internet away from the rapacious, heavily-leveraged extractive models of the so-called “sharing economy” such as Uber and AirBnB, and towards models of true user ownership and governance.  As pointed out in a set of 5 summary essays that appeared in The Nation, these are not (mainly) technical challenges but legal and political ones.  An example is FairCoop:

FairCoop is one among a whole slew of new projects attempting to create a more democratic Internet, one that serves as a global commons. These projects include user-owned cooperatives, “open value” companies structured like a wiki, and forms of community-based financing. Part of what distinguishes them from mainstream tech culture is the determination to put real control and ownership in the hands of the users. When you do that, the platform becomes what it always should have been: a tool for those who use it, not a means of exploiting them.

Many of these efforts will face an uphill battle, and as pointed out by Astra Taylor at the conference (she follows Douglas Rushkoff’s presentation in the video link), will probably be fiercely resisted by the newly entrenched platforms of Google, Facebook and the like.  But we can also say the same thing about those platforms many of which were just small upstarts back in the 1990s. The real challenge is one that is familiar to evolutionary biologists in game theory: building systems that reduce the chance of “invaders” or “cheaters” (in this case, rapacious VC firms and super-capitalism in general) from swamping a population of mutually beneficial co-operators (or turning those cooperators into cheaters). It doesn’t have to be, and could never be, perfect: you’ll never reduce the population of cheaters to zero, but at least keep them from taking over your population completely.

Read more about platform cooperativism at The Nation

Biologist Mickey von Dassow on collaboration, citizen science and ctenophores

Biosystems Analytics

Mickey von Dassow is a biologist who is interested in exploring how physics contributes to environmental effects on development. He created the website Independent Generation of Research (IGoR) to provide a platform to allow professional scientists, other scientists, non-scientists or anyone to collaborate and pursue any scientific project that they are curious about. I talked to him recently about his new site, citizen science and the future of scientific research and scholarship.

Mickey_headshot Mickey von Dassow

Can you describe your background?

My background is in biomechanics and developmental biology. My Ph.D. asked how feedback between form and function shapes marine invertebrate colonies. During my postdoc I worked on the physics of morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos, specifically focusing on trying to understand how the embryo tolerates inherent and environmentally driven mechanical variability. Since then I have been independently investigating interactions among ecology, biomechanics, and development of marine invertebrate embryos, as…

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What innovation isn’t

Biosystems Analytics

Innovation.  It’s as American as apple pie.  From the US President on down, everybody is talking about innovation.  From university presidents and corporate leaders to Silicon Valley tycoons, all agree that we need more of it.  Airport bookstores have walls of books on innovation: a quick search on Amazon resulted in 70,140 titles containing the word “innovation”, 711 of which were published in the last 90 days alone.  Many of them are little more than generic business advice books with the word “innovation” shoehorned into the title, including gems such as Creating Innovation Leaders (earning bonus points for including buzzwords “leadership” and “creativity”).  So it was with some trepidation that I recently picked up Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation – first published in 2007 – and found it had a refreshing and unpretentious take on the subject.  Since it has become such an overused buzzword, Berkun argues that…

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All Big Data is equal, but some Big Data may be more equal than others

Biosystems Analytics

We are in the era of Big Data in human genomics: a vast treasure-trove of information on human genetic variation either is or will soon be available.   This includes older projects such as the HapMap, and 1000 Genomes to the in-progress 100,000 Genomes UK.  Two technologies have made this possible: the advent of massively parallel “next generation” sequencing where each individuals’ DNA is fragmented and amplified into billions of pieces; and powerful computational algorithms that use these fragments (or “reads”) to identify all the “variants” – any changes that are different to the “reference genome” – in each individual.

With existing tools this has become a relatively straightforward task.  Identification of single nucleotide polymorphisms or variants (SNVs) – single base differences between the individual and the reference genome – especially medically relevant ones –  is beginning to become routine. A project I worked on with…

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