In the 1st of a new series Aleks Krotoski gets down to work. From micro-taskers paid pennies to be the janitors of our digital services to car drivers jumping on the Uber bandwagon.
Aleks speaks to technology writer Kashmir Hill who spent a month as an invisible girlfriend writing loving texts to service subscribers for a few cents per message. This is just one example of ‘micro-tasking’ made famous by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. For Vili Lehdonvirta of the Oxford internet institute they’re examples of the hidden human effort going into services we would assume were automated. Its a new form of piece work undertaken by a causal workforce doing it where and when it suits them.
This type of work treats you like part of a system managed by algorithms an artificial, artificial intelligence. In some senses this isn’t anything new as work historian Richard Donkin explains using the examples of the time and motion studies pioneered by Fredrick Winslow Taylor and later taken up by Henry Ford.
What is new is that having an algorithm as a boss runs the risk of having only the appearance of freedom and flexibility. Its what attracts people to the so called gig economy, where tasks are farmed out by the app to a willing freelance workforce. Aleks hears both sides of that experience from two people who make their living off a digital platform; one by day and the other by night.
So what promise do these new forms of digital work offer? Aleks discovers they have the potential to be both a race to the bottom for labour markets and usher in a new era for those currently unable to work.