The passion economy is a ploy

An interview on technology and meaningful work with the cyberneticist Ron Eglash

Happy Wednesday, friends.

Welcome to a veryyyy special midweek edition of Links, designed to INVIGORATE your hump-day slump (... or at least distract you from your inbox for a few minutes). 

In early June, I interviewed the cyberneticist Dr. Ron Eglash for a story about something I ended up calling “the hustle economy”: this growing constellation of online platforms where people can monetize their own digital products, whether newsletters or cooking classes or video game streams. You know these platforms; you may have accounts there yourself! I’m talking Patreon, OnlyFans, Twitch, Etsy, Gumroad, Teachable, Substack … on and on, you get it.

Ron was a compelling and fascinating dude, full of tangents on African fractals and European cuisine and working conditions in the former Soviet Union. Outside of academia, he’s probably best known for this TED talk from 2007. But he also currently runs a project at the University of Michigan that seeks to develop new, “generative” economic models for independent workers, using technology to empower them. (Some examples here.) And he’s an outspoken critic of the gig economy, which is why the Harvard economist Larry Katz first suggested I speak with him.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with these things, only one crumb from the interview ended up in the finished product. But I’ve thought back a lot on it ever since. Since my story published, the hustle economy has only gained more ground — unfortunately under the moniker “passion economy,” which still strikes me as the most amazing euphemism. 

So! For this very special edition of Links I am sharing, with Ron’s permission, a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation from last June. As you guys know, I’m in the process of adding a paid tier to this newsletter, which will include exclusive essays, reading guides, rabbit-hole excursions and behind-the-scenes interviews like this one. Ironically, though, I first have to decide if I want to venture out on my own in some form — or remain, in Ron’s words, “a worker bee in the big hive” that’s owned by Substack. 🙃

Please let me know what you think of this special edition! You can hit “reply” or ping me on Twitter. See you Friday!

— Caitlin


When I emailed you to request this interview, I explained that I was working on a story about this phenomenon that many people have dubbed the “passion economy” -- and right off the bat, you wrote back that “gig economy” was the more accurate term. Can we start there? What did you mean by that?

Ron: Well, yeah -- it’s a thinly masked renaming. It’s pouring the same old wine into new bottles. In the Uber version of this model, which surely people are willing to call the gig economy, I’ve got my little car and I’m a lackey, a worker bee, in the big hive that’s owned by Uber. But supposedly, if I’m putting my labor into a sewing machine instead of a car, that vastly changes the nature of the beast. It’s essentially the same problem, which is that the value of what you’re doing is largely being extracted.

When I talk to engineers, I start with the example of agriculture: These mass factory-style farms, millions of acres of corn or whatever, they deplete the soil. You can’t keep farming one thing and adding in artificial fertilizers and pesticides. That doesn’t solve the problem, which is that the soil is declining in quality and you’re destroying the soil ecosystem.

But there are alternative types of farming. Agroecosystems were done by Native Americans long before Europeans showed up here. And in Native American farms, they didn’t try to monocrop thousands of acres of one type of plant — they were all networked together. The famous example is the “three sisters”: corn, beans and squash. Each supports the other.

That whole ecosystem is a productive agricultural system, so much so that when you look at the bushels per acres of corn initially produced in places where Europeans displaced Native Americans — and we have this data — you can see in the first year they were so excited, because they were producing tons of corn. But then they started monocropping, and so you see steady decline in yields over time. All these years later, scientists have realized they need to go back to older forms of agriculture to create biodiverse farms.

So if I’m understanding this metaphor correctly, the issue with both the gig and the “passion” economy — which you see as a single phenomenon — is that they deplete the ecosystem of labor, so to speak. 

This is all a way to start thinking about the value of labor and the extraction of that value. When you are, as Karl Marx would say, a liberated person living in a free village, you make shoes or something, you’re proud of your shoes, you know your customers, there’s a little bit of yourself in every shoe. But that’s not true if you’re working in a factory where you’re hammering pin 9 all day long — you don’t even know what you’re producing, in many cases. 

What my group has been trying to do is find instances of work that is still unalienated and ask: How can we bring tech to empower those folks more? The answer is not to become a little worker drone on a giant platform owned by somebody else, not the same vacuum cleaner trying to suck up value out of folks — it has to be a platform that they have control over themselves. That’s technology designed not to alienate value.

Have you found examples of unalienated labor?

We find it among artisans, often. Typically when we encounter artisans, they say “it’s low pay, but I love this. My grandmother taught me this.” But you see it in a range of places. Another great example, for instance, is Black hair salons. These hair salons have an amazing history — developing through the last century or so, surviving Jim Crow — and have been a kind of sanctuary for unalienated labor. Once you land in a hair salon, it’s like: wow. Here’s a whole realm of experience and expertise, where people love their work.

What kinds of technology might empower those workers? What has your group developed?

Well, the group moved from New York to Michigan in 2018. So we just started with a new group of adults and held our first workshop with Black hair salon owners here.

We did a workshop last summer in Ghana, training people to use heritage algorithms software to create adinkra symbols. [Note: Adinkra symbols are intricate geometric patterns often used in textiles.] Folks had sort of set the two aside: “this is cultural heritage,” “this is engineering.” But there’s an opportunity to bring the two together. We got a group that started producing examples of this, using laser cutting and heritage algorithms to create the symbols, and then traditional embroidery skills to finish the cloth. That’s one commercial venture that’s close to launch.

There’s another issue there, too, in that tourists buy this stuff, but have no idea what’s made by artisans, versus what was made in a factory and imported. Some students are training an AI to distinguish the difference between the two. So when tourism comes back to Ghana, it will be free to install this little app — which will not only help them distinguish between the two, but will teach them how this cloth is made to begin with.

I’m curious, as we talk about this idea of “unalienated” workers — does it matter what people’s subjective experience of labor alienation is? Like if I’m a cog in a machine, but my subjective experience is that I enjoy the work … to what extent does that change your interpretation?

Absolutely, yeah. So in every context you go to, nothing’s pure. There’s going to be some element of unalienated labor, some element of enjoyment of what you do, in any context — even flipping burgers. And there’s some element of exploitation, even if you’re running your own workshop. None of these things are islands of purity.

What we’re trying to do is track those hot spots of unalienated value, where someone is just loving what they do. If it turned out an Uber driver absolutely loved what they did, we would then ask: “Great, how could we enhance that effect?” And there’s an easy model for that in Colorado, it’s called Green Taxi. It’s like Uber in that you dial in and get a car. But it’s owned by the drivers, that’s the big difference. In a lot of cases, this is really about making artisanal or unalienated labor financially viable, so that you’re getting the value out of it that you put into it.

There is an obvious counter-argument here, which many platforms (including Uber!) have made — and that’s that they have, in fact, given people new opportunities to earn income and make a living doing something they enjoy. And then there are others platforms that talk a big game, at least, about empowering their users/workers.

So one final question before you go: Does your critique hold, even if the platform is benevolent? Do the intentions of the platform matter? 

Yes, it holds. Because in the long term, there’s going to be an economic downturn or a change in ownership, a point at which the situation changes. Why not have direct, democratic control over it?

Here’s a final example from agriculture. In 2011, the global fair trade movement split in part because Europeans refused to give fair trade certifications to giant plantations, and the Americans weren’t having it. They came up with their own version. “Fair trade,” in America, is fair in name only: It means your coffee was produced on a giant plantation, which is admittedly not paying starvation wages -- but which is also not turning ownership over to farmworkers. Whereas under the European certification, the fair trade project means getting rid of pesticides, getting women in charge of farms, starting educational programs -- because the workers own the platform. I use that word platform broadly: It’s Uber, it’s Etsy, but a plantation is also a platform. 

So one trend, as you note, is to just scramble to grab whatever side-gig you can to survive, on whatever platform is available. The big winners are the folks who own the platform.

The other possibility is one in which workers own their own platform. That might be set up as a platform cooperative. But we need to think about "platform" as something that can be as small as one worker's self-owned shop, and that can be used in ways that prevent value extraction and alienation.