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Silicon Valley’s “Flexibility” Fetish

How one seemingly benign concept has been used as cover for all kinds of self-serving proposals.

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Last month, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that would hinder businesses’ ability to designate workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Long overdue in an increasingly precarious labor landscape, the decision would theoretically challenge the business models of companies—Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Postmates, and GrubHub, among others—known for their reliance on contracted drivers and deliverers.

The ruling stipulates, among other things, that an independent contractor must be “free from the control and direction of the hirer.” Uber, for one, contends that its drivers already enjoyed that perk, and that furthermore this was of paramount importance to them. When asked by The Verge last week about the changes, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi insisted, “When I asked drivers what they like about Uber, then every single time their top answer is ‘I get to be my own boss. I get to use you when I want to. I can do whatever I want.’”

The previous week, Jianming Zhou, CEO of SherpaShare, which makes a management app for rideshare drivers, voiced staunch opposition to the ruling. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he fretted that the changes “might make a lot of people unhappy,” adding, “If they become employees, the company will tell them when to work.”

The message Khosrowshahi and Zhou convey—that flexibility, above all else, is what employees crave—is endemic to Silicon Valley. As the tech industry faces mounting challenges from the courts and regulators, it is increasingly weaponizing the concept of flexibility to sell its utopian-libertarian vision of the future.

For years, gig-economy corporations have vaunted worker flexibility, even naming themselves after it. Yet, despite Khosrowshahi’s and Zhou’s assertions, rideshare workers continue to seek employee status and union protections to counter their dwindling wages and fiscal burdens as contractors. Moreover, as Benjamin Sachs has noted, worker flexibility doesn’t require independent contractor status; reclassifying contractors as employees would have no necessary bearing on workers’ schedules. (A look at any Fast Company- or Inc.-profiled firm touting “flexibility” for full-time white-collar workers, for instance, dispels this notion.)

To be clear, Khosrowshahi has conceded that drivers’ working conditions have grown too austere. Yet in lieu of heeding drivers’ demands for more comprehensive legal rights, he has championed the conceit of a business-friendly “portable benefits system.” Espoused in recent years by tech executives, venture capitalists, and pro–Silicon Valley think tanks, the proposal would entail an Affordable Care Act–inspired “basic set of protections”: benefits that are independent of employment and transferable from job to job (or lack thereof).

Inherent in the portable-benefits boosters’ message is that contracted gig labor is the ineluctable way of the future, and that worker-benefit structures must adapt from the traditional employer-based model. Businesses, we’re told, should have free rein to “innovate” safety-net options “regardless of the worker classification they utilize.” Just as tellingly, Uber’s benefits bid is padded with an endorsement from Nick Hanauer, a billionaire venture-capitalist who supports a $15 minimum wage as a means to forestall the “pitchforks” of the hoi polloi. The portable benefits system, in all its flexible glory, would thus preserve the labor stratification of the gig economy, simply in a marginally more palatable form.

The flexibility racket doesn’t stop at labor. Sidewalk Labs, the urban-planning vertical of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is designing a data-centric district in Toronto, optimized for high-tech amenities and Google’s Canadian headquarters. Among the corporation’s proposals is modular housing: a configuration of stackable, uniform micro-lofts it likens to Legos as a futuristic effort to address a tech-inflected housing crisis—evoking Google’s and Facebook’s plans to construct employee housing near their Northern California offices.

These lofts, Sidewalk Labs indicates, would ideally be “flexible”—that is, outfitted with removable wall panels that would allow developers and landlords to reconfigure and convert spaces as they see fit. The units’ malleability is portrayed as a pioneering next step in the evolution of housing. Nowhere, however, does Sidewalk Labs address what this augmentation of landlords’ power might morally or legally imply, let alone for tenants struggling to pay a month’s rent thanks to Silicon Valley’s price-inflating incursions into cities across the world.

In these ruses, efficiency reigns supreme. People aren’t individuals with material needs and desires for a certain standard of comfort; they’re faceless data points, to be shuffled around until Alphabet and its real-estate allies are satisfied. In theory, Alphabet promises residents that landlords will ply them with the space they need, ensuring that they can remain in one place as their families grow. In practice, however, the renters would conceivably be forced to adjust to the restructuring whims of their landlords—not the other way around.

Relatedly, Sidewalk Labs’s project invokes a sharing-economy ethos. Among its propositions are “new [home] ownership models”; while the company doesn’t elaborate on the phrase, it’s hard not to think of “co-living” startups like Common and WeLive—a subsidiary of workspace-rental behemoth WeWork—which urge millennial urbanites to live like dorm denizens in “flexible” apartments.

Echoing the laissez-faire affability that buttresses the brands of Lyft and Airbnb, Common and WeLive flaunt the opportunity to foster relationships through communal kitchens and suites. In the process, they relegate basic, traditional in-unit amenities to central, shared spaces, disguising them as trappings of community—a convenient pretext to corrode tenants’ personal space, pack them in like sardines, and garner YIMBYist plaudits in the process.

If technocratic future-fantasies of labor and housing are cause for chagrin, so too are those of wealth transfer. Nowhere is this clearer than in the modern school of philanthrocapitalism, wherein billionaires establish charitable organizations not as nonprofits, but as for-profit LLCs.

Recently, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article on Silicon Valley’s spate of for-profit “charitable” corporations, a trend exemplified in Emerson Collective, founded by Steve Jobs’s widow Laurene Powell Jobs; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network; and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). “By operating outside the strictures of tax-exempt philanthropy,” author Dana Brakman Reiser writes, “for-profit LLC offers tremendous flexibility, provides its founders a protective shield of privacy, and enables them to retain complete control.”

In 2015, shortly after the inception of CZI, Zuckerberg explained the LLC classification: “What’s most important to us is the flexibility to give to the organizations that will do the best work—regardless of how they’re structured.” This “flexibility” arrives in the form of limited financial regulation: As Brakman Reiser notes, federal law gives philanthropic LLCs far more latitude than nonprofit private foundations over their (for-profit) investments, asset expenditure, and lobbying. Furthermore, while a nonprofit must disclose such information as compensation and internal transactions, an LLC’s records are private.

As a number of critics have observed, the LLC approach to philanthropy is far from a social good; it’s an individual investment vehicle, thanks to the tax code. Harnessing the seduction of agility, it further privatizes and obscures the distribution of “charitable” funds, offering, in true technocapitalist form, no opportunity for public input.

Flexibility, of course, isn’t intrinsically negative; when it oils the Silicon Valley hype machine, however, it commands a second look. The world tech elites seek doesn’t adapt to the rank-and-file; the rank-and-file adapts to it, navigating the tottering jobs and cramped quarters that ever-wealthier plutocrats insist are hallmarks of innovation.