Public presentation for Comparative Media Studies' thesis day (4 April 2014)

The normative understanding of work is imploding. Throughout most of the U.S.’ twentieth century, landing a job was equivalent to a lifetime of smooth sailing, but today’s Americans are always anticipating the next round of layoffs. The American middle class has been bottoming out for the last 30 years, and fresh models of work are waiting on the horizon.

My nomadic professional life has taken me to many places, and I have seen work’s imprint on the way people value themselves. Underemployment, exploitation and ageism—some of its darker sides—leave behind lasting scars. I have held on to these intimate portraits with each move. Over time, I saw that some people were not just making do with what they had but making what they had work for them. Some people sold handmade goods on Etsy. Others used Airbnb to rent out parts of their living space to travelers. Ordinary people could use their own cars to become private car drivers for a few hours a day. I learned to identify these as hints of the peer economy. At its base are online peer-to-peer marketplaces that enable people to monetize skills and assets they already have.

At its peachiest, the peer economy promises greater socioeconomic justice as well as income security on people’s own terms. However, these promises are not without significant risks. Through qualitative field research in the form of participant observation, interviews, and focus group interviews, I produce blueprints for a worker support infrastructure across a distributed sector network that includes investment firms, advocacy organizations, cities and municipalities, analysts, media, foundations, scholars, and companies.

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