Digital Gleaning

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Nathan Schneider:

" gleaning practices are implicit in the Magna Carta, and its companion Charter of the Forest, as a fixture of the economy that allowed medieval commoners—especially women—to survive under feudalism. The Magna Carta suggests that even a noble woman might have no recourse but to depend on her “reasonable estovers of the common”—that is, the supplies from the shared land that she needs to survive. Gleaning allowed a viciously unjust property system to survive by offsetting its worst consequences. When gleaning rights eroded with the land enclosures of the 17th century, English commoners revolted.

We are, I think, becoming gleaners again. The economy that the dominant online platform monopolies—familiar names like Facebook, Google, Uber, and TaskRabbit—incline us toward is one in which we tread for our livelihoods on land we neither own, nor are employed to cultivate, nor meaningfully control.

These companies derive the value of their shares from the unpaid labor we perform. We share the stories of our lives, the data of our relationships and the news that interests us. It could be said that this is a practice that we enter willingly, but increasingly participation in these services is a prerequisite for maintaining relationships and obtaining employment. There is less and less choice involved. And while the user experience of these platforms is programmed to help us feel in charge and in control, the reality of our interface is much like that of Millet’s women picking at the edges of the field. We see only tiny scraps of the information about us and our “friends” that is available to the lords of the platform. We think we are getting something for free, while we hand over our valuable data for nothing. At least Millet’s gleaners knew that’s what they were.

Even platforms that pay people to work on them, like Uber and TaskRabbit, have resisted taking meaningful responsibility for their workers. (Uber, for instance, continues to insist that its drivers are not employees.) When the owning class refuses to treat workers as fellow citizens—with job security, health care, education and a decent pension—we become commoners again, depending for our livelihood on what we can scrap together. Feudalism is back.

In this situation, I think, the new commoners have two options. One is to try reversing or slowing the rise of the new feudalism. We can demand certain basic rights from the platform owners, like decent pay and reasonable privacy. We can hope for something like the old industrial employment relationship, which the platforms are unlikely to grant. But we can try.

The alternative is to embrace our identity as commoners and turn the commons into an economy worth living in. The platform monopolies might be replaced with platforms that we can actually own, govern and share. The domain of private ownership might be reduced in favor of resources that we hold and maintain for common use. If the pickings are good, and people take only what they need, gleaning might someday be better than working for the landlord." (