Work Without the Worker, book review: Microtasking, automation and the future of work

Nancy J. Delong


Operate Devoid of the Employee: Labour in the Age of System Capitalism • By Phil Jones • Verso • 144 pages • ISBN: 978-one-83976-043-3 • £10.99  

“Will we be retired — or unemployed?” the chief of a futurist conference asked in 2007 while envisioning a earth filled with AIs possessed of superhuman intelligence. Extra recent — and far more restrained — researchers such as Kate Darling have argued that our best solution lies in human-equipment partnerships, while with the caveat prompt by Madeleine Claire Elish in her paper Moral Crumple Zones that the human companion will be the 1 that gets the blame when factors go improper. 

On the other hand, in the large majority of the human-equipment partnerships now in existence, the human companion is 1 or far more invisible microtask workers remaining paid out little amounts to label visuals, remotely get above a faltering delivery drone, or transcribe bits of textual content. 

We have found these workers’ lives documented in advance of — for case in point, in Mary L. Grey and Siddharth Suri’s 2019 book Ghost Workers, Sarah T. Roberts’ 2019 book At the rear of the Display screen, and Kate Crawford’s recent guide on the extractive nature of the AI sector, Atlas of AI. In Operate Devoid of the Employee: Labour in the Age of System Capitalism, Phil Jones sets these workers in a much larger world wide context.

SEE: Managers are not concerned about maintaining their IT workers pleased. That’s poor for absolutely everyone

But to start with, some figures. As Jones documents, the variety of microtaskers is enormous and escalating. There are 12 million at China’s Zhubajie, two million at Clickworker, above 1 million at Appen. In the British isles, in accordance to surveys, as a lot as 5% of the performing-age populace employs these platforms at minimum the moment a 7 days. This is an occasion in which scale issues: the far more of the labour drive that is shifted to and splintered throughout microtasking platforms with phrases and circumstances, the a lot easier it is for workers’ rights to be eroded in the “financial state of clicks”. 

Short term adjustment, or lasting reality?

Is the rise of precarious microtasking short-term, when the workforce reskills and reconfigures — as has been the case traditionally, and as the technological innovation firms like to forecast will occur this time, much too? Or is it a lasting reality as people turn into aspect of the computational infrastructure of “synthetic synthetic intelligence” — the phrase Jeff Bezos likes to use to explain the Mechanical Turk platform? (This kind of linguistic absorption of people has a record that Jones does not investigate: the earliest “computer systems” were women carrying out intricate calculations at NASA.) 

Jones argues that present day circumstances are different: what we are observing is work remaining carved up into responsibilities, a process that transforms specialists into “wage hunter-gatherers”. Rather of developing new ranges of occupations, this marketplace is developing “marketplace fugitives” who need to wait right up until a piece of function turns into obtainable. The end result is economic inequality far more akin to the nineteenth century than our eyesight for the 21st. In Jones’s darkest chapter, workers are paid out pennies to coach the AIs that will sooner or later change them fully. 

Jones ends on a hopeful observe as microworkers begin to organise, partly driven by hopes that the write-up-pandemic earth can be developed to be fairer. In an epilogue, he explores the “write-up-shortage” earth. If present day microwork automates our work absent, what then? Jones chooses optimism: we will have to think about a new earth for ourselves. In phrases of that 2007 concern, his best hope for us is pleased retirement. 

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