Benkler on the Uber-ification of Services

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler gave attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos a dire warning about future instability if the “Uber-ification of all services” continues.  In his intense six-minute talk, “Challenges of the Sharing Economy,” Benkler notes how open networks and collaborative production models have led to the “destabilization of the firm," and ultimately threaten to bring about “the potential reorganization of the entire services sector.”

In light of this epochal shift, he declares, the critical question is: “Will [this shift] allow embedding economic production in the same kind of social solidarity trust models that we saw with the emergence of Wikipedia? Or will the externalization of risk onto the people formerly known as employees create severe disruption?” 

The big challenge today, he argued, is that the social and the political have diverged, as demonstrated by the Occupy movement. And this leads to worrisome social pressures that the political system is disinclined to address.

I realize that Benkler must have been under a strict time limit -- he was talking quite rapidly for this talk -- but it sure would be nice to hear his proposed solutions for re-integrating the social and the political in functional ways, and how he proposes moving that agenda forward.  But at least the Davos crowd was alerted to this fundamental political challenge. Whether they will deign to recognize the issue and move beyond their adulation for the Uber, Airbnb and other lucrative forms of network monopoly is another matter.

While most people think that answers can only come from Washington, D.C. -- FCC regs, antitrust law, etc. -- rots of ruck on that, for all the obvious reasons.  I think the only effective solutions will come from P2P architectures and legal innovations that technically and legally stymie the consolidation of services by a single, dominant network player. Neither Congress, regulatory agencies or the courts are capable -- politically or intellectually -- of delivering satisfactory answers, I fear. The natural “power law” outcome of networks will ineluctably prevail unless some sort of intervention is made.  And if the answer is not going to involve social disruption, as Benkler warns, it’s high time that we begin to address challenges of legitimate, responsive, accountable governance in the network age.