Platform as commons

Power and public good

Most governments, as agents of power, bother about creating and maintaining public good only so far as it helps the cause of those in power. Governments are shaped by the need of those in power to remain in power. Govt can afford to bother about public good only when the electorate is wide enough – when there are many essential and influentials. (Refer ‘The dictator’s handbook‘ for the concept, or this video for a quicker appreciation of it.)

With the rise of digital platforms we have seen rise of super rich, super powerful corporations and individuals. Their rise has contributed to the the deepening of inequality. They have  boldly ‘disrupted’ lives of many for concentrated profit for a few people. Economically, platforms are disenfranchising people while creating a few super powerful elites.

What does it mean for democratic power?

Rising inequality means fewer ‘essentials’ needed for rulers to remain in power. (In a dictatorship typically, there is a ruler, a few essentials and many ‘interchangeables’: Whereas in a democracy, there is no absolute ruler, ideally there are many influencers, many essentials and few interchangeables.) Rising inequality directly affects the power and leverage that people hold. It leads to dictatorial power relationships. In a sense, in the domains of knowledge, markets and online relationships, Google, Amazon & Facebook are quite dictatorial, even if their beliefs are egalitarian. They can dictate the terms of accesses to their services. Indeed, have you ever thought of disagreeing to their ‘terms of conditions’? Is there a space to negotiate? and what happens when you start depending on these services completely, but cannot engage with these services meaningfully to negotiate with them?

When power relations are conducive for dictatorships, why would governments or corporates bother about the public good? What incentive do they have?

Platform monopolies are a threat to democracies. The possible knee jerk reaction to their hegemony, would be as well.

Facebook, Google, Amazon… are behemoths shaping our world. They are doing so not for public good, but rather private gains. Consider Amazon’s stock market performance for example. Why would people be investing in a loss making company? They are doing so for the long punt. People are investing in a monopoly of tomorrow in the form of Amazon. They are investing in Bezos’ vision of a complete monopoly. They want a piece of that monopoly’s obscenely fat profit. That is why investors allow him to put all the money at its disposal to expand its reach and locking consumers in its value chain. Consider the impending value explosion when Amazon can start leveraging the IOT (Internet of things) at its disposal – usage, user preferences, supply chain intelligence, user financial wherewithal, spy called alexa, vendor data… It is about to become the single biggest market that consumers across the world would have to deal with. It will not make economical sense for consumers to pursue an alternative. Amazon plans to be the default platform of economic exchange. Do you really want the complete global market to be owned by a few individuals?

Amazon hopes to become the ONLY global market platform for a majority of earthlings.

Similarly – Google is almost the ONLY global definitive knowledge and information platform.

Facebook hopes to be the ONLY global online relationship building platform.

Thank god, Uber faltered and hopefully can’t be the ONLY mobility platform.

Uber faltered because it very visibly threatens existing economic exchanges and consequently current livelihoods. It is visibly pitting one labour force against another. Amazon does too, though it is surprising that it hasn’t faced public wrath yet. Wars have happened for lesser losses of power & economic leverage. Consider the Knights Templar in 13th Century, the early European Banking Platform. They were burned at the stake by France’s king then, to take back the financial leverage that he had ceded to them. It is not 13th Century anymore, but it isn’t an utopia either. There are massive number of people who are getting left behind with the platform revolution and they are bound to react, in modern ways perhaps, hopefully peacefully, but there will be a reaction.

The most plausible reaction could be regulations. There is a trade-off there. The libertarian ideals of most of these platform owners meant that the digital realm was a egalitarian & non-judgemental space for conversations, exchanges. That libertarian ideal is under threat from regulations. China has successfully managed to create an internet for its citizen that is heavily censored and spied through. Unfortunately, other governments would be just as keen to use the economic loss to legacy businesses due to platforms as an excuse to change the nature of platform instead – from trustworthy exchanges to tools of surveillance.

Understanding the power of platforms

I define platforms as enabling environments/ infrastructures, that –

  1. Gives egalitarian access to other people/ services through
  2. Unique and valuable exchanges that would not be possible outside of that platform
  3. And allow people to improve upon, enrich the platform – either with APIs or engagement

Historically, such platforms were either pre-existing, or created and maintained by governments or community collectives. No private enterprise had the incentive or wherewithal to create platforms. Consider a road that gives access to people to move through that would not have been possible without it – a road is a platform then. It was cost intensive to build, so governments built it. It was a public good. It was part of the ‘commons’.

Consider a river. Communities access water for their use through it. Communities built dams, turbines, irrigation channels for the benefit of the collective. As such, a river is a platform for access to water that is also a part of ‘commons’. No one, in right conscience, would think of owning it.

Consider the 6 inch of top soil that the earth is blessed with. Without it humanity would not have existed. It is the platform of food supply. It enables farming, forests and the food cycle. No one can own it, unless they want to destroy humanity.

Consider the renewable energy decentralised grid that is powering much of Denmark. In this grid, people with solar panels installed on their roofs, sell their surplus electricity to the grid and can tap into that grid electricity when they are in want. Now this is a platform with an exchange of electric power too. Many private companies facilitated its creation, installation and maintenance.  However, they don’t stake a claim on the electricity thus generated. They understand themselves as enablers, not usurpers or rent-seekers.

Soil, water, electricity, roads… these are fundamentally empowering platforms, the access to which is a fundamental human right.

In the 21st century, similar access to knowledge, financial exchange, access to markets, relationships-at-distance… are all fundamental human rights.

Can you imagine a life today without being plugged into these various platforms? Such a life is possible, but it would be very disadvantageous for the minority activist. Without access to google & FB powered intelligence and communication, without amazon’s substantially cheaper goods, without uber’s efficient mobility, without convenience of credit cards/e-money, the minority activist is at a severe disadvantage.

So if these accesses are that crucial, can we trust them with far removed private interests? Typically, a white male from California is embedding his biases in these platform’s algorithms. A few of these men own the vast platforms that men and women from the farthest corners of the globe depend on. Even if they were to be epitome of moral righteousness (which they clearly aren’t), they are still just individuals amenable to influence of their investors, their immediate social circle, the government where they operate from. Consider Facebook’s misuse to influence election in US for example.

There is a fundamental conflict of interest. Lack of subjectivity allows for evils such as hate speech to gain access. But imposing a certain subjectivity curtails freedom of speech for another set of people, perhaps as an unintended consequence. There is no easy way out of this catch-22 situation. Consider the example of facebook banning breastfeeding pictures. It had to #freethenipple eventually. But the same issue will get vastly different responses in more conservative countries. How does a global platform manage such differences? Facebook is trying its luck with denial – “we are not a media company“.
But soon enough, it will have to take sides. Like when Scott Galloway implies for it to be American first!

In his otherwise excellent talk here exhorting these big platforms to be broken up, he brings in nationalism and suggests a smaller solution – to break them up. If global platforms earn revenues through global operations, why should they put any one nation first? Why should they prioritise paying tax in one country? They must give back in every country where it gains from. To be a global entity is to be globally accountable, globally responsible, globally adaptable.
Secondly, the solution of breaking the companies up – is inadequate. If the ownership does not change, what difference does it make if Zuckerberg presides over one large corporate or a dozen smaller ones to the same effect?

Besides, the integration of amazon, aws, alexa etc makes sense. It makes markets more efficient. The aggregate efficiency due to integration increases, which is good news for Humans who are going to soon suffer with human-excess-led climate change.

Scott Galloway has a soft corner for capitalism and its potential. He doesn’t want to see the obvious socialist ramifications of his argument.

Platforms as commons ruled by the principle of self-rule

The integrated platforms are powerfully useful for all. They should not be broken up.  The ownership has to be broken up. More accurately, they should not be privately owned at all. Private ownership creates disparity of wealth, invites biases and prioritizes innovations that serve the needs of elite, instead of the majority. And unlike other businesses, platforms are critically important for civic life. Would you want water, road or soil to be privatised? For the 21st century that list will include mobility, relationship, intelligence and market platforms too.

Ideally Bezos, Zuck and Sergey should create a plan to divest their companies’ ownership to the commons. They should steward their companies into becoming true platforms relinquishing their direct control. If Buffett and Bill Gates can give away their wealth, why can’t these platform makers instead give away control? Keep the wealth created thus far. Let the future wealth go into commons to make the platforms more resilient, useful and responsive to the diversity of the global exchanges.

Imagine all these platforms employing open source principles, becoming openly accessible, and evolving with the people they serve.

Imagine, all cab drivers, logistic companies, courier companies having access to the Uber algorithm, modified to serve their needs; modified to give every driver and rider a say in formulating the policies that govern them  and others like them in their locality. Imagine, all businessmen and individuals with access to amazon-based markets, governed by direct digital referendum based consensus making.

Amazon and Uber cut out the middle men. In turn they themselves became giant middlemen. It is time we do away with them too.

A solution like this would not have been possible 5 years ago. But with blockchain technology, there is a potential for mass democratic participation in platform management.

Blockchain based democratic platform management

Blockchain is an elegant solution to an important societal problem Earth is facing. It’s most promising feature is its ability to enable strangers to cooperate and trust each other. It enables ‘decentralised consensus’. This is a powerful ability that, I believe, has the biggest possible impact in democratic processes in every aspect of civic enterprise.

This technology would enable governing of platform by direct participation and consensus among users and vendors possible.

Watch this interesting documentary by Mr. Jeremy Rifkin. He talks about the three essential enterprises that shape us – energy, communications and mobility. And with digital technology and principles of open source, humanity can finally increase the aggregate efficiencies, productivity of human enterprise and bring down marginal costs of these enterprises down to almost zero. Why does this matter? Because, without this idea, we are at an economic and ecological dead-end.

Again like Mr. Scott Galloway, Mr. Rifkin too is afraid to unsettle the capitalists and shies away from taking his argument to logical conclusion. (look how he cleverly deflects the TTIP question. I won’t hold it against him though. He has a great idea and he needs to sell that idea to humanity. Tact is more powerful than hardheadedness when you want to bring about real change.)

Now consider this – every conceivable platform – energy platform, utilities platform, knowledge platform, mobility platform, market platform… Consider all platform are components of collectively owned infrastructure for humanity. Like with renewable energy platform in Europe, there might be an initial cost that consumers and vendors would have to pay in the form of taxes to help build them or buy them off. But then the marginal cost of running them in the future is minimal.

Imagine that world – People being able to access platform services in their context whenever they want, on their terms and without the fear of losing control of one’s own agency, one’s own destiny.

I believe that that would be a better world – a world which won’t depend on a single currency (read the first section on the link to understand why single currency ‘money’ is not that good an idea). The integrated platforms would enable seamless exchanges of products and services, the utility of the individual to the collective becoming the currency du jour.

The world would not need the ‘universal basic income’ that is being touted now as the solution to the impending mass class of ‘useless people’ and the Goliathan inequality that AI revolution will engender. If we charter an integrated platform access to all humanity as a human right, we will, in a sense, enable basic welfare of all individuals. Rifkin’s view of bringing the marginal cost down to zero is critical here… which means that there is gradual upfront cost of creating that infrastructure, that integrated platform of platforms. But once that is done, the costs would be manageable.

To make it a reality, it will require a ‘disruptive’ shift in corporate ownership, structures of governance and redrawing of notional national boundaries. All tall orders. It is a humongous project that would pan the globe and require cooperation among all governments. Not an easy task at all. But I am convinced of it being an essential disruption. Let me know if you have a better idea.

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The precariat agencies

I am interested in the changing dynamics of agency business. So I tend to read whatever I can about new efforts being made to reinvent businesses. Some of the efforts are truly astounding – the AI agency Born, for example – sounds very interesting. Then there is Maana, a big data company that helps make sense of internal data.  I don’t completely understand them yet, but I know what need they are fulfilling and how they are relevant. They are trying fairly interesting new things.

And then I come across news from advertising agencies – and it feels as if all that ad agencies do is bullshit, not actually innovate. Just came across an article on adage that I had to read twice to make sense of. Here it is. So the article packages the desperate efforts of some small agencies to stay relevant as ‘new business models’. Sure, what they are doing is indeed a new ‘business model’ – like depending on freelancers instead of investing in teams and infrastructure or to charge only by hours instead of guaranteed scope under contract. But is any of it in their own long term interest? If you are not engaging in contractual  partnerships, you are simply creating a cheaper alternative to traditional agencies while absorbing the uncertainty for yourself.

A ‘business model’ that essentially creates ‘less value’ is similar to a ‘business model’ of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to ever poorer countries. The client gets a cheap deal and the labour at home suffers. That is not innovation. It is desperation.

precariat2

In the article, BETC LA, (a dance company? an agency?) boasts about spending ‘only’ a quarter of a million dollars on a launch campaign. I tried to dig a bit deeper trying to understand why would an agency need to spend that kind of colossal sum on a ‘launch’? The agency website still say that it ‘will’ launch in oct 2017. Doesn’t compute.

It feels like somebody had to do wild mental gymnastics to portray these various precarious agencies as pursuing bold new ‘business models’. If you get into cost wars, the cheapness spiral will only drive down the industry.

In a way it is poetic justice. The industry that played a role (even if indirect) in destroying unions and collectivist utopia of 20th century finds itself on the other side of the table – capitalism draining it out and rendering it into a commodity.

There is time still to do the right thing, to grow by increasing the ‘value‘ of what we do, by being more conscientious of what we do. Here’s a few ideas for ad men/ women to grow in the future –

1. Recognise your  precariousness and Unionise to gain strength.

2. Recognise your human potential and look for opportunities ‘beyond ads’

3. Learn from beyond the narrow world of advertising and create new value, don’t sell old wine in new cheaper bottle.

May you find your way out of precariousness.

 

A capitalist industry can only be saved by a communist ideal – unions

Everyone whines about the bane of free pitches. Everyone knows that it is bad for business. It strips away dignity that should be afforded to agency’s labour. Why should any labour be free? Besides, it increases uncertainty about businesses with increasing frequency of pitches. Clients behavior is changing – it is getting conditioned to treat agency as ‘vendors’ rather than strategic partners. Agency heads and industry leaders appear intelligent when they talk about agency business model looking towards consultancies and looking to eat their pie. Their inaction towards improving dignity of agency labour belies these tall talk. There is too much gas in the upper echelon of holding companies and agencies and not enough will to do what is right.

The industry association in advertising doesn’t do anything that other industries do. They don’t organise in the interest of industry or its people. They only organise around narcissistic games of chest thumping and celebration of individuals – Awards. Clients don’t care  nearly as much about awards as agencies do. If it doesn’t help companies as much (it’s a competitive edge, but an expensive one to maintain), it doesn’t help its people (apart from egos of a few. It doesn’t empower anyone. It creates false ideals), it doesn’t help its clients… what good are awards for?

The inevitability of marginalisation of agencies in marketing world can be reversed. But not by its leaders. They still get paid well. They aren’t hurting much personally with the slow erosion of industry’s value.

The change will be effective only if creatives and studio people unite across companies and countries in a union. It doesn’t help that most of us in agencies are hopeless narcissists. We want individual glory. Anything that is achieved collectively makes us doubtful of our own importance. So unless we grow up from that infantile tendency, we are doomed.

Creative people imagine themselves as free birds. But in reality, they are more like the rocks at ocean face – sitting in the office, unmoving, against the assault of never ending and scarcely ebbing waves of briefs and reworks. The rocks need to grow roots and connect with each other across agencies to grow. Otherwise, neither their creativity will improve nor their lives.

The idea is to simply assert self-interest. Why should you (people in agencies) work for more than 8 hours a day?  What good are those annoying timesheets if they can’t help bring in accountability of labour. There should be compulsory overtime payment for hours worked beyond office times and other perks and compensations for opportunities lost in the darkness of late night cubicle dwelling. The idea is for over hours to become an exception, not rule. It is an escapist’s ideal to dwell in his cubicle to escape having to face real life and real relationships at home. For people like these, leaders need to intervene and help them grow in healthier ways.
If the agency has to pay creatives for each hour spent extra, they will be pinched for free work and pitches too. Hopefully, that will inspire pitch fees to become norm in all agencies. The idea is to not absorb the shocks of overwork. Make the management feel the pinch too.

Stop whining. Start organising.

The theater of freedom

In the sense that security guards at an airport are part of the ‘security theater‘ – for e.g., the guard mechanically moving a beeping baton across your crotch for explosives might not actually reduce the risk of  a terrorist attack as much it makes people feel secure that someone is doing something to reduce the threat of terrorism.

Advertising plays a similar role. It creates a ‘freedom theater’ for the creatively inclined within the system. In the straight jacketed world of corporate hypocrisy, the capitalist system has advertising in its midst to let go of steam of the most dangerous lot of people; the people with imagination. Imagine if all the creative folks who could be thinking of utopias, who could write dangerous ideas of alternatives to ‘status-quo’ were let to do that. Instead, they get hired in corporate jobs. ‘Hey. I get to think of ideas and get paid for it too!’. In an anarchist, communist society, ideas would be freely shared without any premium. In a capitalist world, ideas and even half-baked perspectives are worth millions in speculative dollars.

Entering offices wearing T-shirt of our choice creates that false sense of freedom. There’s that sense of being not a machine yet. It is superficial, but we at least have that.

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

The amoral tounge

In my earlier years of advertising, I was fairly uneasy with the thought of working in advertising on moral grounds. There is a sense of lack of control over the truth about what we are talking about on behalf of the brand. In a sense, advertising is just a rented tongue for an organisation. The tongue doesn’t control the hands and legs or even the mind of the organisation. The disembodied nature of corporate makes it easy for morality to escape its being. Advertising says sweet things, it serenades consumers with beautiful tag lines and jingles, it says sorry on behalf of insincere suitors when shit hits the fan. It would all have been fine if advertising industry had the ‘agency’ to direct and compel organisations to ‘walk the talk’. But it can’t. and there in lies a problem.

The agency-less agencies

For example I worked on Volkswagen’s campaign for ‘blue planet’ early in my career, talking about their ecological innovations. And then it turns out that it is a fucking decepticon of a brand that innovated a lying machine to save itself from it’s ecological responsibility. What a douche brand.

Then came Nestle’s asshole MD talking about privatising all water of the earth. And then came the lead laced maggi. How fucking irresponsible. And I was working in Publicis then, it’s Agency On Record, globally. I managed to not work on that brand for most of the time. But I was not comfortable working in the company that worked for Nestle, and I quit soon after.

I jumped the ship the first chance I got with Junxion strategy, an agency working in the social sector (NGOs, CSR etc). The opportunity to do something good with my narrow skill set was tremendously exciting. But it couldn’t sustain.

I returned to advertising with a clarity there after. I joined Dentsu a tad bit mature from the earlier angry phase of working in advertising. I accepted the role with the realistic appraisal of its limitations and morality.

Advertising industry is a symptom, the disease is Capitalism

Systemically, advertising is morally problematic. But once you accept that you are within the system, then you can try to work with good people and better brands from within the system. That choice is liberating: If you can’t cure the disease, then it your duty to at-least alleviate the symptoms. There is always a choice to be made, to rebel and to strengthen an alternative system (to cure the disease)  or to work with the system (to alleviate the symptoms until you can cure the disease). But until you have the wherewithal and clarity of rebelling constructively, work within the system, as constructively as possible within the small domain of your existence.

I know that systemically, I am contributing to the capitalist engine of pollution – polluting minds, polluting ecology, polluting communities. But there’s a large distance between the immediate ‘good’ that I am doing and long distance ‘bad’ I am contributing to. It’s a trade-off with which I have made my peace for now.

Irresponsible brand #56: Bisleri

See these ads -> Bisleri500 Angry bride, Bisleri500 Casanova, Bisleri500 Superhero

Tell me you didn’t find them disturbing. If you did, stop drinking this irresponsible brand, and if it can be helped, bottled water altogether.


Story of the bottled water

If not, let me shepherd out the outrage.
What do you think is the brand trying to do through these ads? Its a classic advertising attack on your current behavior.
Not all behavior change objectives are bad, but they always have a big responsibility – In your quest for increased usage/ preference, you don’t want to bring harm to a culture or people. I believe Bisleri has been tremendously irresponsible in multiple ways.

The behavior shift sought here is that from shared drinking to individualistic drinking. While traveling you would often see us Indians sharing a bottle, sharing food. Sharing is a big part of how Indians define themselves.
However, sharing is perhaps a newer value that India tried to inculcate in its socialist days. Deeper in Indian psyche is the notion of ‘impurity‘ – the impurity of low caste that might pollute your food/ drinks. In marathi the word for a vessel/ plate/ food item that is eaten/ touched by someone else is ‘ushta’. In Hindi, is it ‘zootha’ (false?) All local cultures have a word for this sense of ‘pollution’ of food when it is touched by someone of lower caste.
The socialist ideal sought to change this corrupt culture. The culture of sharing was born in reaction to the divisive culture of caste. And Bisleri goes and sabotages the whole 60 year exercise in undermining the caste structure.

See the reactions of all girls in the ad film. Then see this documentary – ‘India Untouched’. (Every Indian must see this documentary.)

 India untouched

What do you think now? What is Bisleri advocating? Why the outrage? why the slap? Bisleri is asking Indians to react strongly to anyone drinking from ‘your’ bottle.
I work in an advertising firm. Ads try to propel individualism further as it is usually beneficial for brand. But the objective here is not individualism only. The objective is the reaction – a violent reaction. 

Perhaps there is a slight distinction here. The purity sought here (consciously. Though subconsciously this ad will turn the wheels of caste) is not from a caste perspective. Its from the modern phobia of ‘germs’. See any westerner in India – how obsessively they drink only mineral water. They have a valid reason for the same, India is a large dumping ground and hence dangerous to their health. If you drink from tap in Mumbai, you might as well be drinking from sewer. It would be absolutely foolish for anyone to drink from open source water in urban India.
But what has happened is, carrying a mineral water bottle (Plastic) has become a ‘class symbol’. You would see idiots buying and then throwing the plastic bottles near the pristine Himalayan streams in Uttarakhand and Kashmir. Monkey see monkey do – Indian ‘aspirers’ see westerners drinking only from plastic bottles, and then mimic them blindly. (And then restaurants (the modern arbiter of class) use this wonderfully to their advantage where if you ask for tap water, the server would look at you quizzically – as if sizing you up. )

Bisleri is not trying to instill a new culture. It is taking a small culture of fear of these aspirers and then propagating it further.
Why is it always women who get angry in the film? Its not a coincidence. The pallbearer of hygiene and traditions, women are the early adopters Bisleri is after. There’s another insight about Indian women here. You won’t find as many Indian women traveling alone as you would foreigners in India. Why do you think that is the case? Yes, India is a despicable place when it comes to Women safety and hygiene. But how do so many westerners manage it, whereas so many urban Indians cannot? Why do urban women forever live in bubbles of their own? What does it say about us? Perhaps a debate is to be had later.

Finally, I come to the ecological aspect of this brand exercise. What is the ecological cost of a individual plastic bottle used once, shared never? Undoubtedly, the brand is trying to increase its usage – frequency and units (more people more often). So this translates to quadrupling of plastic waste. How is Bisleri going to do its bit to unclog Indian waste?

I believe brands must be taxed for the cultural costs, ecological costs that they outsource to tax payers. Right now the Bisleri500 bottle is priced at Rs. 10. Which does not take into account its ecological cost to Indians. The bottle will wound up in a sewer, clogging it, causing floods. It would stay around for thousands of years polluting the atmosphere. It is undermining traditional practices of water harvesting/ water distribution and even the traditional free tap water distribution systems. (Why do you think, these days so many of the public drinking water faucets are broken or tampered with? The local Bisleri dealer had nothing to do with it?)

Lastly, see the end of all the TVCs. Everyone is as if slapped into behaving in the new 3 step way. Isn’t it time, India slapped brands like these into behaving more responsibly?

P.S. – You might like to join this community started by a friend ‘Planet trash’. and also check out the cool venture called ‘waste ventures‘.