Jonathan Zittrain, Ubiquitous Human Computing, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, vol. 366 no. 1881 3813-3821  (28 October 2008).

A banana usually sells for about 30 cents.  On average, the plantation owner gets 5 of those cents; the shipper, 4 cents; the importer/ripener, 7 cents; and the retailer, 13 cents.  That leaves one penny for the worker who picked the banana.  Fruit economics helps drive the politics of “banana republics:” as the unpaid laborers and netizens at Wikipedia note, such countries are “politically unstable,” “dependent upon” commoditized crops, and “ruled by a small, self-elected, [and] wealthy . . . clique.”  Oligarchs at the top set the direction of society; workers merely play the roles assigned them.  Truth doesn’t matter much; as Paul Krugman noted, one political party promised voters to save money on gasoline by “building highways that ran only downhill.”

Commentators have begun to wonder if the United States is becoming a banana republic.  Nicholas Kristof concludes that “You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe . . . rapacious inequality. We now have it right here at home.”  Chronicling endless financial industry shenanigans, critical finance blogger Yves Smith seems to label every third post “banana republic.”

Wasn’t the internet supposed to solve these problems? Wouldn’t a “wealth of networks” guarantee opportunity for all, as prediction markets unearthed the “wisdom of crowds?”  It turns out that the net, while mitigating some forms of inequality in the US, is accelerating others.  Jonathan Zittrain’s essay “Ubiquitous Human Computing” examines a future of “minds for sale,” where an atomized mass of knowledge workers bid for bite-sized “human intelligence tasks.”  Zittrain explores some positive aspects of the new digital dispensation, but the larger lesson is clear: without serious legal interventions, an expansive global workforce will be scrambling for these jobs by “racing to the bottom” of privacy and wage standards.  This review explains Zittrain’s perspective, applauds his effort to shift the agenda of internet law, and argues that trends untouched on in Zittrain’s essay make his argument all the more urgent. Continue reading "Banana"