Let us start with an example.
The senior author bought an apartment in a nice housing complex in the little town of Manassas, Prince William County, half an hour from the center of Washington DC. There was a little center with an office and a small staff always there, and a meeting room that could be let was also used for the annual general assembly of house-owners.
And most importantly, a competent service man who could handle all big and small problems that arise in an apartment on permanent call.
The complex was for all practical purposes a cooperative.
There was a monthly fee, of course. But the usual criterion, Q/P, Quality/Price, here Services/Fee, was more than well satisfied.
Enters “modern” business, exactly under that heading, as if “modern” can exonerate business from anything.
Not only our little housing complex but many similar ones in the neighborhood were included under their umbrella. And the handle for that umbrella was far away, in the huge district under their command.
The little office was closed, no permanent resident staff any longer, only when they made some business with gym and swimming pool. Something always happens in an apartment, but the service man was no longer there, “use internet or the telephone book”, was the advice.
Needless to say, the fee was there, constant, but with almost no services at all. Q/P suffered a dramatic decline. But no meetings helped, “that is the way we do it these days” was among the answers.
No doubt. The cooperative had become a huge company. And there certainly was a very well paid CEO somewhere with a small staff, reaping fees, subtracting almost nothing, passing it on to a Board, no doubt also using capital gained to expand their “modern” business.
Conclusion? Closing, selling our part of “modern” business, moving out not only of Manassas but also the USA–“modern” business almost everywhere.
The younger author was born into markets where paying to do something yourself seems perfectly natural. Buying things online, scanning your own groceries at the supermarket – it’s just so much faster and convenient, right?
However, impersonal pseudo-individualized modern business has dark sides in particular online and in the age of “smart” phones; meaning, everywhere and always.
There is no longer a single act of buying after which we are free to do with the product whatever we want, but a continuous dependence on a seller that likes to call this situation a “customer relationship.”
We no longer own phones, computers and media but obtain a license to use them in very specific ways. Microsoft decides when it is time to restart and update your computer, Apple and Spotify decide which music you listen to, and Google decides how you organize your emails and contacts.
One can enjoy these closed gardens but every now and then something happens. Your operating system suddenly looks different, or a function that your daily work depended on – say, a news reader or federated chat – is removed from a service “to improve and unify the customer experience” but apparently only making customers angry.
How do they get away with this? It is not that big technology companies do not care about their customers any longer, quite the opposite. But who actually are their customers have changed: Google is an advertisement company, not much else. If you use their email services, consider yourself an unpaid Google employee.
There is a parallel between our examples.
The housing market used to be a way for people to organize themselves and share costs and risks. Now in bigger cities it seems to be mainly about selling people to housing corporations.
The online markets used to be extensions of “real” ones, selling goods and services. Now the central market is attention, essentially selling people to advertisement companies.
Are there alternatives? Of course, offline and online: local and cooperative housing organizations help people buy the houses they live in. And similar groups are emerging for “digital housing” as well, providing technological infrastructure for everyone who wants to be a user instead of a product again.
Moreover, the monopolies are meeting political resistance. Just two weeks ago the EU fined Google €2.42 billion for abusing their search monopoly.
Watch out for “modern” businesses, offline and online. Who knows what housing and the internet will look like in 2030? Will it be run by corporate empires or by cooperatives? Which corporate empires will rise and fall until then? They might seem irreplaceable now, but often hang on to technologies that become obsolete – anyone remembers Kodak?
Johan Galtung and Malvin Gattinger
10 July 2017