Aim of the project
An exploration of alternative forms of digital peer-to-peer value creation, bolstered by a critical discussion of the disruptive backlash following the rapid advance of commercial peer-to-peer platforms. Subsequently, a comprehensive assessment of different governance structures and corresponding assignments of responsibility that these alternative forms may choose to adopt.

Theoretical background
Over the past decade, a rising number of major online ‘peer-to-peer’ platforms have succeeded in (radically) transforming the societal and economic dynamics within and across countries around the world. Epitomizing the third phase of internet history, these platforms’ activities are governed by a vigorous brand of innovation that has “allowed the digital realm to expand into the physical one” (Stone 2012), thereby opening up a whole new realm of possibilities, not least for cultivating trailblazing business models.

In the course of their swift advancement within the arena of the world economy, digital peer-to-peer platforms such as Uber and Airbnb have outmoded the ‘archaic’ métier of their predecessors—the digital bulletin boards that passively facilitate matches between supply and demand. In fact, these new generation of platforms have come to “structure behavior and remuneration of individuals” and, accordingly, obtained a “growing influence on the substance and organization of social transactions” (Frenken et al. 2017). It is this observation, in addition to the fact that these platforms’ activities involve the orchestration of basic services like temporary housing or transportation that has led several commentators to characterize them as new institutional forms.

Ironically, however, it is the bypassing of institutions that forms a key business strategy of many peer-to-peer platforms. Their economic achievements are for a considerable part due to their “steamroller approach to laws and regulations” (Cagle 2014). On the whole, while western societies used to be governed by institutional bodies intent on social welfare maximization, nowadays people’s livelihoods are increasingly being shaped by commercial entities primarily driven by private revenue maximization. As (negative) externalities and redistributive concerns are typically excluded from the latter’s objective function, it is hardly surprising that this new socio-economic paradigm is marked by a host of problems and agitations. Without being exhaustive, topics of concern include: unfair competition, excessive nuisance, tax evasion, income deprivation, rising house prices, social and economic exclusion, hazardous situations due to lack of safety precautions, and pervasive labor market precarization.

Premised on the undesirability of this ‘uberization of society’, the pivotal question becomes whether, and if so, how we can turn the tide—and push back against the unsettling backlash of the peer-to-peer economy. The first attempts to do so have already exposed the challenging nature of this endeavor, the complexity of which stems from the absence of a reliable architecture of accountability as well as uncertainty about the allocation of (individual) responsibility within the context of the peer-to-peer economy. Notably, the online reputation mechanisms that serve as trust proxies offer no solace in this respect. The environment of hyper-accountability that these ubiquitous digital rating systems produce not only exacerbate the “perfect storm of bad incentives” (Slee 2016), captivating the peer-to-peer economy. The mirage of risk elimination simultaneously functions as an ethical smoke screen, covering up the underlying abuses and wrongs.

“[Platform] capitalism turns out to be amazingly ineffective in watching out for people,” as Trebor Scholz (2017) observes. It was Georg Hegel who already famously proclaimed in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right that within a realm strictly governed by economic incentives—void of institutional market barriers— responsibility and charity are too volatile to structurally persist. All things considered, therefore, shifting our critical focus from platform capitalism toward alternative forms of peer-to-peer value creation seems to be a more viable strategy. This venture currently takes shape in the form of platform cooperatives, which Niels van Doorn (2017) describes as “grassroots, community-based initiatives that mobilize platforms for more egalitarian and equitable modes of value creation and distribution”. As democratic ownership and collective decision-making are core elements of these new initiatives, a clear account of responsibility as well as a fair and transparent mechanism for its assignment, will be essential ingredients of their success.

Research design
This project will involve in-depth reviews of both qualitative and analytical literature from multiple disciplines for the purposes of a comprehensive inquiry into the functioning of the peer-to-peer economy in its present state. This will also include a historical overview and a taxonomy of peer-to-peer platforms, as well as a discussion of their socio-economic repercussions of the disruptions they effectuate. The ensuing analysis of online reputation mechanisms will also be informed by (philosophical) literature on the assignment/adoption of responsibility within a strictly (orthodox, neoliberal) economic realm. This methodological framework will then be applied to the assessment of alternative (i.e. cooperative) forms of peer-to-peer value creation—in terms of feasibility (i.e. the ability to foster steady cooperation among members); viability (hinging on scalability, public awareness and attractiveness); and credibility (i.e. the likelihood of living up to promises made).

Francisca Wals 

Prof. dr. Frank Hindriks
Prof. dr. Martin van Hees
Prof. dr. Rafael Wittek 

Philosophy, Sociology

February 1, 2019 - January 31, 2023



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