Sareeta Amrute: Hi everybody. Welcome to Data & Society. My name is Sareeta Amrute. I'm the Director of Research here. It's my sincere pleasure and honor to welcome you to data and Society for this discussion inspired by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri's recently-released book Ghost Work: How To Stop Silicon Valley From Building a New Global Underclass.

Mary Gray is Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research and Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Mary also maintains a faculty position in the School of Informatics, Computing, & Engineering, with affiliations in anthropology, gender studies, and the Media School at Indiana University. Her research looks at how technology access, material conditions, and everyday uses of media transform people's lives. And today she'll be talking to us about her latest book, written with Siddharth Suri who's based in Seattle. Take it away Mary.

Mary L. Gray: Thank you. Thank you every­one for com­ing out. And I see some famil­iar faces and I just real­ly want to voice my appre­ci­a­tion for all the sup­port I’ve had over the years doing this work. First and fore­most to my coau­thor Sid Suri, but to all the work­ers who have giv­en their time and let us into their lives to learn about their expe­ri­ences. This work would­n’t be pos­si­ble with­out the time that they’ve giv­en to us.

So with that I want­ed to start by giv­ing you a sense of where this work came from. And for me, I was think­ing about my own research ques­tions before com­ing to Microsoft Research. Most of them cir­cled around the ques­tion of how do we become more or less seen? How are we known and val­ued as peo­ple? And what role do tech­nolo­gies play in that? And much of the herald­ing of the Internet was that we’re going to become more vis­i­ble. We’re going to be able to speak our truth, hear all voic­es. And much of my ground­ing in anthro­pol­o­gy and crit­i­cal media stud­ies brings me to the ques­tion of how so? When is that not true? And what are the con­di­tions under which peo­ple make that more or less true?

So, I come to this project with that back­ground. And in many ways What I’m hop­ing to do is incite you to care about this world of work that is more or less seen, known, and val­ued, depend­ing on where you are in this uni­verse. It real­ly start­ed with com­ing to Microsoft Research and ask­ing a basic ques­tion about how arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is made. I had no idea.

And so when I start­ed ask­ing com­put­er sci­en­tists and engi­neers in my lab what goes into devel­op­ing algo­rithms and the mod­els that are built to be able to advance arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, it turns out that there are a lot of peo­ple involved in that work out­side of the coders and the engi­neers and com­put­er sci­en­tists that are the­o­riz­ing these tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions. It’s a lot of peo­ple who are effec­tive­ly clean­ing and man­ag­ing data, the train­ing data that become the mod­els for build­ing algo­rithms out. And there isn’t a case of any arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence that exists that does­n’t depend at some point in some­one touch­ing that data, curat­ing that data, and tak­ing some­thing that’s oth­er­wise kind of struc­tural­ist non­sense and putting it into some struc­tured sense that a com­pu­ta­tion­al process could then mod­el and learn from.

So the goal of this book, if there’s noth­ing else you take from this book, is to under­stand that arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence always has human hands in it. That we are ben­e­fit­ing from a lot of peo­ple con­tribut­ing to advanc­ing these tech­nolo­gies. Even in cas­es where we might ful­ly auto­mate one process along the way, par­tic­u­lar­ly as its impact or its appli­ca­tion to a domain it was­n’t expect­ed to enter. Say lan­guage, like text trans­la­tion that’s done in real time. If you’re a speak­er of mul­ti­ple lan­guages and you’re code switch­ing, odds are pret­ty good that the AI isn’t going to be able to keep up with you. So look at those cas­es where you then have to bring peo­ple back into the mix to be able to devel­op a mod­el that would be able to cap­ture what kind of exchange is hap­pen­ing.

That’s real­ly the begin­ning of this book, is to under­stand who are the peo­ple who are doing all of this work. And it turns out that when you ask com­put­er sci­en­tists and engi­neers, often their respons­es are, I don’t real­ly know.” I’ve nev­er real­ly met these peo­ple. The beau­ty of this tech­nol­o­gy is that I don’t have to meet them. And I say that now with all seri­ous­ness. The sense is that this is a tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion often called human com­pu­ta­tion” or crowd­sourc­ing.” The tech­nique of being able to thread a per­son into a moment of judg­ment where you need a per­son to be able to eval­u­ate or decide some­thing that a com­pu­ta­tion­al process can’t quite fig­ure out?, bring­ing that per­son into that moment, that judg­ment, and then thread­ing them into a com­pu­ta­tion­al process, an auto­mat­ed process so that you can car­ry on with an out­put.

So, we’re some­what famil­iar with some of the appli­ca­tions. They’re are lit­tle bit vis­i­ble to you today. This is an ice­berg. Most of you are famil­iar per­haps with your Uber dri­ver. You’ve met them. Maybe you’ve chat­ted with them. You might be famil­iar with oth­er plat­form ser­vices, on-demand ser­vices, that effec­tive­ly are using the same tech­nol­o­gy of human com­pu­ta­tion to match a per­son who’s able to deliv­er a ser­vice through a mix of appli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming inter­faces that calls that per­son to the job, what­ev­er it might be. Whether it’s to pick you up at the air­port, or to pick up some food and bring it to your door. Or if it’s a con­tent mod­er­a­tor.

And I think what’s fas­ci­nat­ing is two years ago if I’d said the phrase con­tent mod­er­a­tor” or con­tent mod­er­a­tion,” I would’ve just got­ten blank looks. How many of you know what con­tent mod­er­a­tion is today? It turns out they’re doing an incred­i­bly impor­tant job. They are peo­ple who effec­tive­ly curate, look at pieces of text and images that are beyond the capac­i­ty of any com­pu­ta­tion­al process to ana­lyze and eval­u­ate and say, Ah. That’s pornog­ra­phy.” Or that’s spam ver­sus some­one shar­ing infor­ma­tion.

So it turns out that we’re not that far along in being able to eval­u­ate text and images to fig­ure out is that con­tent that should or should not be there. You could say any­thing that’s hard for a human to eval­u­ate and decide, Is that mis­in­for­ma­tion or just a fact that I’m not famil­iar with yet?” the odds are very good a com­pu­ta­tion­al process isn’t even close to being able to fig­ure that out. If it’s hard for a per­son to fig­ure out it’s going to be intractably, a tech­ni­cal­ly hard process for com­pu­ta­tion to mod­el. You have to have real­ly cer­tain this or that, yes or no, to build code with accu­ra­cy to be able to auto­mate some­thing.

So again, take away how much this world that’s com­plete­ly depen­dent on hav­ing peo­ple at a moment of judg­ment enter the scene, like con­tent mod­er­a­tion, and then look below that sur­face. And that sur­face below that ice­berg, that is this spi­ral­ing, grow­ing, expan­sive world of ser­vices that effec­tive­ly are build­ing to keep a per­son in a com­pu­ta­tion­al loop. Because it turns out it’s much more effi­cient and effec­tive to be able to match a per­son to a task like cap­tion­ing and trans­la­tion, or a task that might be image tag­ging for a new set of images that you’re try­ing to eval­u­ate, whether it’s for train­ing AI or that you want to do a mar­ket­ing project. In all of those cas­es, all of these busi­ness­es that’re prob­a­bly unfa­mil­iar to you that are on this slide, are quick­ly mak­ing the best of a busi­ness mod­el that brings contract-driven, task-oriented work to peo­ple most­ly doing work in their homes, or if they’re in a set­ting they’re cov­ered by what are called ven­dor man­age­ment sys­tems. And again, they’re peo­ple that you will nev­er meet as an end con­sumer, but that you ben­e­fit from every day.

So when I’m ask­ing engi­neers and com­put­er sci­en­tists about this work of human com­pu­ta­tion and the role of peo­ple in the loop, it turns out that most of these busi­ness­es are effec­tive­ly doing what these engi­neers are doing, which is bring­ing peo­ple in as quick­ly as they can and then mov­ing on to the next project. They’re not ask­ing who are these peo­ple? Under what con­di­tions might be be work­ing? And in most cas­es they’re work­ing on con­tract for that spe­cif­ic task itself. So the moment of engage­ment might not last more than a few min­utes at best. So it’s a pret­ty kalei­do­scop­ic world.

So, at Microsoft Research I feel incred­i­bly lucky to be around peo­ple who do reflect on this ques­tion of what are they build­ing for the rest of the world. And in many cas­es when I meet a group of peo­ple who are say­ing, I don’t real­ly know who are the work­ers who are here,” there’s at least a sub­set of those folks who will say, I don’t exact­ly know but you know, the tech­nol­o­gy real­ly keeps me at a dis­tance.” And then there was a third set that would answer fair­ly reg­u­lar­ly, I don’t know and I don’t know if I want to know.”

And as you can imag­ine, for any anthro­pol­o­gists in the room that’s just…that’s…you real­ly want to pur­sue that ques­tion. What makes some­body uncom­fort­able about know­ing who is on the oth­er side of a screen? What makes it seem an intractably, socially-uncomfortable ques­tion to find out about their work con­di­tions?

So when I met Sid Suri, he was real­ly one of the first peo­ple who gen­uine­ly com­ing out of com­put­er sci­ence want­ed to not only know what work con­di­tions peo­ple might be engag­ing but what their lives were like. And so we start­ed on the jour­ney, and I don’t use that word light­ly. It took us five years to devel­op a method­ol­o­gy for being able to bring the val­ue of qual­i­ta­tive crit­i­cal work that engages peo­ple in their every­day lives and fig­ure out where you could inte­grate mea­sure­ment and com­pu­ta­tion­al analy­ses to build out a pic­ture of this world of work.

So, often will get this ques­tion of well, how big is this mar­ket? Underneath that ques­tion is often peo­ple who feel like why should we both­er car­ing? This is work that’s going to be auto­mat­ed any day. If you buy the begin­ning premise of this book, and I hope you do, this work isn’t going away. The tasks will change. But in fact we’re build­ing towards a world of a ser­vice indus­try, infor­ma­tion ser­vices, knowl­edge work, that isn’t a niche job. This is the dis­man­tle­ment of full-time employ­ment. The dis­man­tle­ment of full-time employ­ment for any­one who does cre­ative work.

So we might not be able to see how large that mar­ket is. Arguably we’ve nev­er done a head count. There is no effec­tive way to do a work­er cen­sus of an envi­ron­ment that is by design dis­trib­uted, glob­al, and often does­n’t have a cat­e­go­ry of work that peo­ple would rec­og­nize and res­onate with where they could say, Yeah, that’s me. I do that work.” So this is both a world in which our old cat­e­gories of what job do you do” is being blown apart. And, it’s a world in which we don’t have any mech­a­nisms for track­ing and hold­ing account­able the sup­ply chain that’s going into this world of work.

But let’s take some guess­es here. And some of this is draw­ing on eco­nom­ics and the sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture about the pos­si­ble size of this mar­ket. Right now we know that there’s about an esti­mate of about 5% of the US pop­u­la­tion alone, accord­ing to Pew, that’s doing some form of online work. So at least in part, the work is sourced, sched­uled, man­aged, shipped, and built through an appli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming inter­face (an API) and the Internet; 5%. That does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean they’re doing their entire job online. It means that a form of income that’s impor­tant to them is com­ing from one of these jobs.

Now this is real­ly strik­ing if you take into con­sid­er­a­tion we’ve only had the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing an income from this form of work for about a decade. So to have 5% of the US pop­u­la­tion already doing this work, start think­ing through the size of this mar­ket, the growth of this mar­ket.

And if that’s not quite enough, think about how large the glob­al mar­ket for the busi­ness­es gen­er­at­ing val­ue will be by next year. It’s a $25 bil­lion dol­lar indus­try already. And that’s not a small num­ber if you think about how it com­pares to oth­er indus­tries that are fair­ly mun­dane. So that ice­berg that I showed you, all of those busi­ness­es that are spin­ning up below the sur­face of our vis­i­bil­i­ty as con­sumers, is build­ing an incred­i­ble amount of eco­nom­ic val­ue that up to this point does­n’t seem to be mov­ing to the oth­er side of the screen, to the work­ers them­selves who are doing the work.

Another pro­jec­tion here of think­ing about the impli­ca­tions of dis­man­tling employ­ment is to imag­ine this is not the dis­place­ment or the full automa­tion of occu­pa­tions and work. It’s the semi-automation of work and being able to task­i­fy it that is the tar­get of most of these indus­tries and the tech­nolo­gies that com­pa­nies are build­ing. Everybody would like to fig­ure out how to break down things like sched­ul­ing, man­ag­ing any sorts of appoint­ments, any of your work­flow. Figuring out how to break that down and turn it into a task that you can hand off to some­one else so that you can up what­ev­er it is that is your main point of view or val­ue, right. That this is again the object of most of the indus­try on build­ing out the tech­nolo­gies. At the rate we’re going, we’re look­ing at 38% of jobs with­in the US mov­ing to being semi-automated by the 2030s.

Now, that might sound like a shock­ing num­ber but let’s just make it mun­dane. That means tak­ing most of office work, knowl­edge work, infor­ma­tion ser­vices, and turn­ing it into con­tract work. That’s already hap­pened, in a lot of places. So it’s not as though this is so futur­is­tic. And in many ways the goal of this book is to say it is not too late to rede­fine what this world looks like. We’re real­ly just at the begin­ning, but note that it’s mov­ing quick­ly.

So the kinds of work that this entails… Again, because you can’t see it it’s often real­ly hard to describe. It’s every­thing from edit­ing, copy edit­ing, con­tent cura­tion. If any­body par­tic­i­pates in these kinds of jobs, you might see your­selves in these these tasks. Taking sur­veys, mar­ket­ing design, any sort of graph­ic design. Any sort of data entry. And label­ing, which is a pret­ty labor-intensive, cognitively-hard job. If you’re con­stant­ly look­ing at again, data that’s com­ing in that scraped from some­where with not a lot of con­text and you’re try­ing to fig­ure out what would you call this mate­r­i­al? Analyzing some­body’s atti­tude about a prod­uct; how would you assess that atti­tude? It’s actu­al­ly pret­ty chal­leng­ing work. And it goes very quick­ly, kind of task by task.

We were study­ing very spe­cif­ic com­pa­nies. I’m going to just go through a bit of the method­ol­o­gy that we used. But we were look­ing at com­pa­nies that gen­er­ate sales leads. So you can scrape the Web and get an idea of who your con­tact per­son might be if you sell air con­di­tion­ers. But you’re going to do much bet­ter doing your sales if you know who you should call in that office. Turns out gen­er­at­ing sales leads, that’s a par­tic­u­lar kind of on-demand ghost work. Being able to take what is oth­er­wise just a web scrape of peo­ple’s con­tact infor­ma­tion, and curat­ing that list and fig­ur­ing out who should I con­tact, and then hand­ing it over to a busi­ness that wants the best con­tacts. That’s a very spe­cif­ic ver­ti­cal with­in this indus­try.

And then trans­la­tion. TED has one of the largest open trans­la­tion projects that was the begin­ning of a vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ty invest­ed in mak­ing videos avail­able for hard of hear­ing com­mu­ni­ties and for lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty. And it was the the heart and soul of ama​ra​.org, which is one of the orga­ni­za­tions that we stud­ied.

And then the oth­er kinds of tasks that again are becom­ing more famil­iar to some of you, con­tent mod­er­a­tion, clas­si­fi­ca­tion tasks, that are meant to opti­mize your search query expe­ri­ence. So if you’re typ­ing in something—and this will hap­pen hap­pen every elec­tion year. If you have a new can­di­date up for elec­tion, odds are pret­ty good if you’ve nev­er seen that can­di­date before they had to do some work to make sure that when peo­ple were search­ing that term, search­ing that name, that it matched to the prop­er biog­ra­phy or per­son­’s offi­cial pres­ence online. So it’s kind of this renew­al of a need for mak­ing sure the infor­ma­tion is rel­e­vant.

I love the exam­ple of— How many of you remem­ber a moment dur­ing the past elec­tions when Romney made a ref­er­ence to binders full of women? Right. To be able to fig­ure out should that be a trend­ing top­ic? Because if you just think about that phrase, that’s a non­sen­si­cal phrase. Aside from who said it. And so real­ize that took a lot of con­tent mod­er­a­tors work­ing very quick­ly to be able to iden­ti­fy oh, the con­text for that. Oh, it’s an elec­tion cycle, a can­di­date debate. Yes, trend­ing. Makes sense. That’s hap­pen­ing below the sur­face. You will nev­er see it hap­pen, and it’s not some­thing that can be auto­mat­ed, any­time soon would be my argu­ment.

And then last­ly think­ing about these mun­dane uses of loca­tion ver­i­fi­ca­tion. How many of you had a favorite restau­rant that went out of busi­ness last month? Odds are if it moved some­where the loca­tion need­ed be rever­i­fied and updat­ed with­in search queries. That’s still very much the hand­work of peo­ple below the API.

So, there’s a lin­eage here. This is not so new. And we take great pains to point out that the ten­den­cy to treat con­tin­gent work that seems like it’s going to go away any­time as there­fore not that valu­able and some­thing we don’t need to care about in terms of our employ­ment rela­tion­ships. That’s old news.

So if you think about the expe­ri­ence of the Industrial Age and piece­work and the work that was lit­er­al­ly some­thing that could­n’t be accom­plished by the new­ly quickly-moving loom but that could be tak­en to most­ly fam­i­ly farms in the United States con­text, and be able to share that raw mate­r­i­al and the mate­r­i­al that’s been cre­at­ed, say a shirt. And to have the but­ton or the flour­ish of bows that could then be attached by a per­son. That’s the kind of work that the entire time the hope was even­tu­al­ly that would be auto­mat­ed away. And yes, even­tu­al­ly the machines were able to attach the flour­ish, the but­ton, the bows. That did­n’t mean that the work entire­ly dis­placed oth­er kinds of work that need­ed to be put on the table.

This could go on for gen­er­a­tions, and did. In man­u­fac­tur­ing arguably. The only rea­son automa­tion can knock it out of the park is pre­cise­ly because you can build the fac­to­ry around the auto­mat­ed mechan­i­cal process­es and get peo­ple entire­ly out of the build­ing. But in any case where you’re work­ing with peo­ple, and effec­tive­ly when you’re try­ing to serve their inter­ests and antic­i­pate their needs, you’re in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent world of required task on a per­son­’s time and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty.

So, if you think about the next gen­er­a­tion of lin­eage here, and the com­put­ers behind being able to put peo­ple in space or to be able to do some amaz­ing tech­ni­cal achieve­ments, we’ve always had these moments where the assump­tion was there’s some­thing rote and uncre­ative about this work. It can be done by, and often is done by, the same sus­pects gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. But their work is not seen as inte­gral to what is real­ly val­ued and worth retain­ing or under­writ­ing through full-time employ­ment.

So for much of the women who were involved in the Cold War projects through NASA and through oth­er aero­nau­tics insti­tu­tions, they were on con­tract. They did­n’t have full-time jobs. They could be released at any point, and par­tic­u­lar­ly before it was ille­gal to fire women because they were preg­nant, women could be dis­missed as soon as they mar­ried because odds were good they would get preg­nant.

So think­ing about this lin­eage it’s impor­tant to imag­ine who is often invit­ed to take on these con­tract posi­tions pre­cise­ly because into the 60s they were imag­ined to be the per­fect tem­po­rary work­force. Both able to do the work, as in Kelly Girls, and sell­ing Kelly Girls as the oppor­tu­ni­ty for busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als to have some­one take care of their needs and then quick­ly exit to bring in fresh minds, fresh bod­ies, for the work that needs to be done around the office. So, you might see a pat­tern devel­op­ing here in this lin­eage of who is seen as replace­able or less valu­able and there­fore ripe for con­tract work.

As we move into the ear­ly 80s to late 90s, and the Internet and con­nect­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices allow the work­flow of office work that oth­er­wise seemed the domain of pro­fes­sion­als, from account­ing to human resources, to any sort of finan­cial ser­vices, it becomes quite easy to take that work and move it to oth­er con­ti­nents where you have enough lin­guis­tic capac­i­ty to be able to take advan­tage of labor arbi­trage, a cheap­er work­force, and still be able to get the work done.

So, what I’m hop­ing you see in this lin­eage is pre­cise­ly the set of assump­tions that say who’s not so valu­able here? Who is the per­son that should hold this tem­po­rary job? Because we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need to care about them too much. And what are all of the ways in which con­tin­gent work, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the United States, set in motion a fram­ing of con­tract work as dis­pos­able, less impor­tant? Contingency becomes a val­ue propo­si­tion to the busi­ness, not to the work­er.

So, the way in which we went about study­ing this, and I can go into this in the the Q&A, it’s real­ly hard to fig­ure out how to find peo­ple behind a dis­trib­uted sys­tem who are work­ing glob­al­ly in their homes. I’ll be the first to con­fess that. I’m some­one who real­ly likes to find the peo­ple that peo­ple assume are oth­er­wise real­ly hard to find. Because it turns out if you just ask peo­ple, Hey, where are those peo­ple?” they’ll quick­ly iden­ti­fy them­selves and say, Oh I do this work.” This was a whole oth­er lev­el of chal­lenge.

And so, the way we went about it was to find four insti­tu­tions, orga­ni­za­tions, that were pro­duc­ing this kind of labor and then to fig­ure out ways in which we could meet the work­ers who were par­tic­i­pat­ing in these labor mar­kets. We work agnos­ti­cal­ly with the assump­tion that this is con­tract work unless it’s oth­er­wise called some­thing else. And we worked with the terms of the peo­ple who were engag­ing in these projects.

So we stud­ied Amazon Mechanical Turk, which set the base­line for how most of task-based work is framed and treat­ed, and the side­step­ping of any legal frame­works or clas­si­fi­ca­tion that go with it.

And then we also looked at the Universal Human Relevance System, which is the inter­nal plat­form that Microsoft has. Please note, every large tech com­pa­ny has an inter­nal plat­form, that you can’t see, that’s larg­er than Amazon Mechanical Turk, that has far more work than you could ever track. Because when it comes to the account­ing of this work­force, it’s effec­tive­ly the equiv­a­lent of paper. It’s not con­sid­ered labor cap­i­tal. It’s just an asset being bought and sold through a pro­cure­ment farm, or through a pro­cure­ment office.

So I say that cold­ly because impor­tant­ly, that’s part of the legal frame­work and arrange­ments that exist between busi­ness­es hir­ing out­side of their com­pa­nies to be able to have full-time labor on tap through oth­er firms that are the employ­er of record. So it’s a real­ly impor­tant lin­eage to under­stand how it pipes into the back of sev­er­al of these com­pa­nies.

The oth­er two com­pa­nies we looked at, or orga­ni­za­tions that we looked at, LeadGenius is a social entre­pre­neur­ship… It was a start­up found­ed in Silicon Valley that gen­er­ate sales leads. And they have a glob­al work­force, with a lot of recog­ni­tion that try­ing to do the work that they want to have done in the United States is not some­thing they could legal­ly do with­out being clas­si­fied as for­mal employ­ers. So they’ve moved a lot—almost all—of their work­force out­side of the United States.

And then a fourth orga­ni­za­tion that we stud­ied, Amara, Amara On Demand. I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by Amara On Demand. And one of the cofounders and orga­niz­ers of it, Dean Jansen’s going to join us for a con­ver­sa­tion lat­er. But what fas­ci­nates me about Amara is that it start­ed out as a vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ty, again doing cap­tion­ing and trans­la­tion of video, which is tech­ni­cal­ly a very hard prob­lem to solve. To be able to look at video in any robust way and inter­pret what are the actions that are hap­pen­ing in that video, that’s way beyond com­pu­ta­tion right now.

And this com­mu­ni­ty of vol­un­teers effec­tive­ly became a mag­net for com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions that want­ed to be able to trans­late and cap­tion their videos in oth­er lan­guages. So com­pa­nies start­ed approach­ing them say­ing, Can we just pay you to do this fast?” So it cre­at­ed a labor mar­ket that from it’s very begin­ning was orga­nized by the vol­un­teer ener­gy and the atten­tion to the work­ers doing the work for this com­mu­ni­ty. And I think it’s a won­der­ful exam­ple of what we could be doing dif­fer­ent­ly in terms of orga­niz­ing these worlds of work around work­ers them­selves.

So, in look­ing at these four com­pa­nies it became an oppor­tu­ni­ty to start from there and to put out sur­veys on each of those plat­forms to be able to reach work­ers them­selves and ask them about them­selves. And at the end of those sur­veys to be able to ask them, Would you be will­ing to meet in per­son for an inter­view?” And the map that you’re look­ing at… For work that is in the­o­ry work that can go any­where, that’s avail­able to any­one, you should see some pat­terns. There’s some­thing that maps onto the infra­struc­ture of out­sourc­ing, of places where there are not many job oppor­tu­ni­ties that are com­pa­ra­ble to ser­vice work at retail stores or in oth­er set­tings where the pay­ment is about the same as what you might be able to get in these online mar­kets. So note the pat­tern, because that should tell us there’s some­thing struc­tur­ing again, who does this work, where they do this work, what are the oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties that it fore­clos­es or sug­gests are not avail­able?

And on top of those, once we had enough peo­ple inter­est­ed to do the inter­views it just turned into old-fashioned anthro­pol­o­gy in a lot of ways. Of go to where the peo­ple are, meet peo­ple, see who would be will­ing to allow us into their lives for a long enough peri­od of time to be able to under­stand the ebb and flow of their engage­ment with this work. So it becomes real­ly impor­tant for exam­ple to be able to be in India and see what hap­pens when the mon­soon sea­son hits, and how peo­ple then whether (no pun intend­ed) the work that they have to do, which is effec­tive­ly being online and hav­ing to be hyper­vig­i­lant to pick up tasks that are then delayed by what­ev­er might be get­ting in the way of their Internet access, for exam­ple.

The lay­er… And you know, hats off to Sid for fig­ur­ing out the ways that he would be able to mea­sure this world. Because I have to con­fess, I did­n’t real­ly care that much about mea­sur­ing. I cared about if there’s any­body expe­ri­enc­ing this world that’s enough for me. And thank­ful­ly, he helped me see there’s a lot of val­ue in being able to under­stand the dis­tri­b­u­tion of this work, the oth­er pat­terns. And so what I want to share with you is real­ly the out­come of merg­ing these two approach­es.

What we found was, and this is to me one of the most strik­ing find­ings in the book, is that there’s a real Pareto dis­tri­b­u­tion of par­tic­i­pa­tion. And when I say that, like so many oth­er pow­er laws that are out there it turns out there’s a con­cen­trat­ed few that are pick­ing up and doing most of the work in these mar­kets. So a good…depending on the plat­form, a good 10 to 15, 20% at most are pick­ing up most of the tasks to be had.

And then there’s this core group of peo­ple that we call reg­u­lars.” That first group, we call them always on.” And they lit­er­al­ly are. They’ve turned this into an income stream that main­tains their liveli­hoods. And they might have oth­er income streams and often they’re work­ing on mul­ti­ple plat­forms. They’ve turned it into full-time work for them­selves.

The sec­ond group. There’s about 30% at most but clos­er to 20, are what we call reg­u­lars. They’re step­ping into this, they’ve sunk the costs of fig­ur­ing out how to make these plat­forms pay off. They’ve learned what they need to learn. And impor­tant­ly they’ve con­nect­ed with peers. Much like the always-on have, they’ve con­nect­ed with dis­cus­sion forums, oth­er peo­ple who help them man­age and fig­ure out how to reduce their costs get­ting this work done. They are the bench, the deep bench, that is always able to step up into this labor mar­ket and pick up a task and do it. And it is what allows any­body who’s always on to step away and not have the entire mar­ket just fall apart. The argu­ment we have here is there’s no way to turn this into ful­ly on time, always on work. To turn it into full-time work pre­cise­ly works against what it is that peo­ple who have entered this world have said is impor­tant to them about enter­ing this labor mar­ket. I’m going to come to this in a moment.

But last­ly and most impor­tant­ly, there’s a good 70% of peo­ple who walk into this—we call them experimentalists”—try it, and they’re like, Peace out. Don’t wan­na do this.” They have a range of rea­sons they decide they don’t want to do it. All of them are still pro­vid­ing val­ue, both to the com­pa­nies that are able to claim that they have 500 thou­sand work­ers on demand. So think about any time you’ve used Lyft or Uber, being able to see enough of those lit­tle cars that tells you okay, I’ll both­er. That’s the val­ue all the exper­i­men­tal­ists are bring­ing to this mar­ket.

And pick­ing up one task or two tasks, it is pre­cise­ly being avail­able that they are offer­ing. Being will­ing and avail­able. That’s the most valu­able thing that they’re doing. And I think it rais­es this ques­tion of, And yes, isn’t that valu­able?” Why isn’t that con­sid­ered valu­able? They’re bring­ing an incred­i­ble amount of val­ue cer­tain­ly to the busi­ness­es. They weath­er all of the costs. These are in most cas­es the peo­ple who could not fig­ure out how to tap into a com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work to make this man­age­able, often felt iso­lat­ed, and alien­at­ed.

So, col­lab­o­ra­tion is key in this envi­ron­ment. The thing that allowed peo­ple to find their foot­ing; to be able to make enough mon­ey to make this worth­while; and again, the trade-off being being able to do it on par­tic­u­lar terms, was tap­ping into a net­work. This is from an exper­i­ment that Sid Suri and one of our coau­thors Ming Yin devel­oped to be able to iden­ti­fy what were the com­mu­ni­ties that peo­ple were engaged in—discussion forums. The dif­fer­ent col­ors are the dif­fer­ent dis­cus­sion forums for—this is just for Amazon Mechanical Turk. So an incred­i­bly robust, rich, nuanced, com­pli­cat­ed envi­ron­ment of inter­ac­tion. And all of the small dots are the soli­tary work­ers.

So the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple who haven’t con­nect­ed with some­body are there, still pro­vid­ing val­ue, but you’ve got this tight clus­ter and groups who are orga­niz­ing around spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ties who again real­ly scaf­fold with each oth­er and make this man­age­able work.

If you have to work through the night, you plug in ear­phones, put the phone to charge, and talk all night.
Akbar, an on-demand work­er in Hyderabad, who talks with oth­er work­ers while he works nights. [slide]

I want­ed to share this quote from one of the work­ers talk­ing about how impor­tant it becomes to be able to con­nect with oth­er peo­ple doing this work. I think the deep irony here is that the plat­form builders assumed this is great work because you can do it alone, and you don’t have to inter­act with any­body, you don’t need any help. what they had­n’t antic­i­pat­ed, per­haps because they did­n’t have enough anthro­pol­o­gists and soci­ol­o­gists in the room, was that peo­ple might still be invest­ed in hav­ing social con­nec­tions. The social con­nec­tions are actu­al­ly incred­i­bly valu­able to get­ting work done. It’s just immea­sur­ably valu­able. And that’s part of this envi­ron­ment, is fig­ur­ing out how to rec­og­nize the val­ue of that con­nec­tion.

The moti­va­tors that came up most often, and this might sound trite, it actu­al­ly maps on entire­ly to the lit­er­a­ture we have already about how peo­ple talk about their work, what they val­ue from work, par­tic­u­lar­ly when they decide to be self-employed or to try and free­lance. It’s about con­trol­ling your time, and I’d like every­body to stop using the word flex­i­bil­i­ty” if you please. Because this isn’t about flex­i­bil­i­ty. It’s about hav­ing oth­er con­straints on your time and need­ing to con­trol your sched­ule, often hav­ing to do with fam­i­ly care, elder care. child care, oth­er work respon­si­bil­i­ties and oth­er inter­ests. Having inter­est in oth­er edu­ca­tion. Other hob­bies, oth­er joys. And in most cas­es peo­ple doing that cal­cu­lus of how can I make this kind of work sus­tain me so that I can make my life run the way I want it to run?” That’s aspi­ra­tional to be sure but it’s cer­tain­ly part of what moti­vates peo­ple to keep at this.

The sec­ond thing they’re after is to be able to con­trol what they work on. And I’d imag­ine many peo­ple in this room share that. They’d do just about any­thing to be able to define what their project is rather than have some­body else tell them what to do.

And the third is con­trol­ling your work envi­ron­ment. And if you’re pushed to the mar­gins, con­trol­ling your work envi­ron­ment is not a nice-to-have.” So peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, queer-identifying peo­ple, women who felt mar­gin­al­ized by the for­mal employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties in their area all talked about this work being away of relief from those oth­er con­straints.

I can make mon­ey wher­ev­er I am and work on things that mat­ter to me. All I need to do is take my com­put­er with me. I’m liv­ing my ide­al life.
Carmela, an on-demand work­er in the US who does ghost work to sup­port her dream of being a chore­o­g­ra­ph­er [slide]

So when Carmela is talk­ing about effec­tive­ly being able to turn to this work because she can then pick up her com­put­er and do it from any­where, I want to take very seri­ous­ly and not dis­miss her claim­ing that this is the kind of work that lets her live her ide­al life. It’s how do we rec­og­nize, take that at face val­ue, and still remain crit­i­cal of a sys­tem that might still take advan­tage of her desire to do this work, with­out some­how think­ing that Carmela is the prob­lem here?

So, I want to move into think­ing about where do we go from here? What have we learned from the way these work­ers not only sur­vive this work but make it mean­ing­ful, that we could then use to rede­fine this world of work? Because I’ll con­tin­ue to say, this is ear­ly days. We have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to real­ly design this pur­pose­ful­ly, with peo­ple at the cen­ter of our equa­tion.

So I want to focus on two things. If you get the book, the entire con­clu­sion is just here’s what we could do. It’s my buck­et list, that comes from the buck­et list of the work­ers we engaged.

But the one I want to focus on for this con­ver­sa­tion is to think about what it means to rede­fine the social safe­ty net and job clas­si­fi­ca­tion. I’m just going to say it, I would like to com­plete­ly blow up employ­ment clas­si­fi­ca­tion as we know it. I do not think that defin­ing full-time work as the place where you get ben­e­fits, and part-time work as the place where you have to fight to get a full-time job, is an appro­pri­ate way of address­ing this labor mar­ket. And par­tic­u­lar­ly if we con­sid­er that glob­al­ly there are so few peo­ple in the world who have ever had access to full-time employ­ment that pro­vid­ed any ben­e­fits.

So let’s start orga­niz­ing our clas­si­fi­ca­tion and treat­ment of employ­ment with all of the con­tin­gent work we’ve seen in this lin­eage and imag­in­ing that we will be those work­ers in the future. And if that is the case, then the best thing we could do is say there are some basics here. That we’re build­ing a com­mons. We have a labor com­mons that every com­pa­ny ben­e­fits from being able to draw from. They can dip in and out of this pool. So, how are we going to sup­port that pool? How are we going to make it sus­tain­able? So that the val­ue propo­si­tion isn’t here, let’s just exhaust this pool and drain it. Because that’s a tragedy. We know of the tragedy of the com­mons. Apply the same log­ic. Imagine if Healthcare4all isn’t just a nice thing to do because it’s char­i­ta­ble, it’s like that makes busi­ness sense. You need a healthy work­force. You need peo­ple to be able to step in and out of it to be able to make it sus­tain­able.

Continuing ed, there was­n’t a per­son that we inter­viewed who did­n’t talk about how often they were going to online resources to be able to con­tin­ue explor­ing what were the kinds of mate­ri­als they need­ed to fol­low up on and choose to read to be able to do their next project. We all ben­e­fit from being able to do that. Everybody had a base­line of a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion. The big news is, a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion and learn­ing how to learn is the base­line for every work­er in this mar­ket. Because it’s cre­ative work. All of us had to learn how to learn as that base­line and then build from there. This is not spe­cial­ized work. This is using your brain all the time. So the basic edu­ca­tion that comes with crit­i­cal think­ing is key. And then being able to make every­thing else avail­able becomes crit­i­cal.

And then think­ing about cowork­ing spaces, I just want to leave you with this vision. When I saw all of the home office setups of every­body we inter­viewed, and at the end of the day thought of the health and safe­ty admin­is­tra­tion and what our work­place around health and safe­ty was set up to do, it was to pre­vent pub­lic health crises. We have a pub­lic health cri­sis in peo­ple set­ting up their home offices and not hav­ing resources to do it in a way that’s healthy. So I know that sounds small, but every munic­i­pal­i­ty could have cowork­ing space that is think­ing pub­lic health. That’s an inter­ven­tion at the pub­lic health lev­el. Everybody should be able to get to a space where they can get relief for their back, for their neck. Again, sounds trite, but if you’re doing office knowl­edge work, it’s crit­i­cal.

And then last­ly I want to dwell on this notion of a retain­er. So, there’s a lot of con­ver­sa­tion about uni­ver­sal basic income as a solu­tion here. What frus­trates me most is the fram­ing of that sug­ges­tion is that these are the poor souls who can’t out­run the robots. That does­n’t real­ly account for how much what we real­ly need is to retain the cog­ni­tive and cre­ative capac­i­ty of peo­ple to be avail­able to busi­ness­es, to each oth­er, for ser­vice work. So peo­ple should be on a retain­er, for sure. Give every­body who’s a working-age adult a retain­er that says here’s your base­line so that you don’t have to think about paid leave or unem­ploy­ment. But that lit­er­al­ly you have what sus­tains you to be able to step away when you need to step away. Have chil­dren, take care of some­one. And at the same time know that you are going to have the finan­cial means to get back into that com­mons, right.

Very dif­fer­ent atti­tude than uni­ver­sal basic income. The idea that some­how the poor are going to rise against us, and there­fore we need to give them some small amount of mon­ey com­plete­ly miss­es where is this econ­o­my head­ed? It’s a ser­vice econ­o­my. It’s an infor­ma­tion ser­vice and care econ­o­my, where we’re car­ing for each oth­er. And so to be able to do that, we real­ly have to imag­ine how would we give every­body the basic sup­port finan­cial­ly to do that, to be able to come and go in that work?

So, the last thing we have to do is on us. If you use any of these ser­vices, now is the time, and today is a great day to do it. There’s a strike by Lyft and Uber dri­vers. If you’re a con­sumer of any ride-hailing app, be think­ing about, crit­i­cal­ly, if you’re some­body who con­sumes with care, if you think about where you buy your clothes or buy your food, there’s noth­ing small about that move­ment. Consumer advo­ca­cy and boy­cotting have been incred­i­bly pow­er­ful. They led to the Bangladesh Accord, which was the begin­ning of hold­ing com­pa­nies account­able for the long sup­ply chain involved in get­ting the shirts on our backs and in think­ing about agri­cul­ture and places where know­ing the sup­ply chain became crit­i­cal to mak­ing sure the qual­i­ty of food, but the qual­i­ty of peo­ple’s work con­di­tions grow­ing that food was some­thing every­body could know, and then make your choic­es. And that will nev­er be enough. This is not a land of let busi­ness­es be kind to work­ers, or let con­sumers be self-interested con­sumers. It’s about set­ting up the pos­si­bil­i­ty for the right reg­u­la­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion for employ­ment of the future.

So, the key take­away, oth­er than AI always requires peo­ple so we’re not get­ting rid of them any­time soon, is that this is a com­mons. This is a labor com­mons that relies on peo­ple com­ing in and out. And what will it take for us to be able to sup­port and val­ue labor? No mat­ter where it hap­pens, no mat­ter how many hours some­body puts in. Because in fact, the val­ue of these mar­kets, it’s aggre­gat­ing up what we do. It is lit­er­al­ly the aggre­ga­tion of every­body’s input. And from there, what it’s pro­vid­ing. So think Uber. It’s all of those dri­vers being avail­able to you. It’s not just the one dri­ver who took you to the air­port. So to be able to val­ue all of the aggre­ga­tion of that labor and say what will it take to say each of the peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in that are equal­ly impor­tant to our liveli­hoods, to our lives?

And with that, I want to thank my col­lab­o­ra­tors. Because there’s noth­ing like a book about this kind of work to make you hope­ful­ly always aware of how much— Everything that went into this book came from an incred­i­bly rich team of peo­ple bring­ing a range of exper­tise. From Greg Minton, who made the beau­ti­ful maps. To all the research assis­tants who were involved in doing the fact-checking. To the key research assis­tants that we had in India to be able to main­tain the con­tacts with the peo­ple we had met through field­work. So there was­n’t a per­son on this team who did­n’t do some­thing inte­gral, that if they weren’t here I don’t know that this book would be here either. So with that, thank you.

Sareeta Amrute: Thank you Mary. That was amazing. I'd like to invite Dean Jansen to join us here at the front of the room. Dean is the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Participatory Culture Foundation, the parent organization of Amara on Demand, co-leading PCF with Aleli Alcala. Amara is featured in Ghost Work and we're thrilled to welcome him into the conversation.

So as moderator I'm going take the host privileges of asking a few questions of Dean and then Mary. And then I'll open it up to the floor for discussion.

Dean, maybe I'll start with you if you don't mind? Okay. If you could tell us a little bit about what's changed for Amara since the book was written.

Dean Jansen: Sure, yeah. This was a great question and one that you know, thinking about what has changed as an organization, we've gotten bigger. When we started, and when AoD was first starting, I think the staff was about nine to…twelve people? The initial group of folks that were doing the translation, around two hundred. And today the staff is closer to thirty. There are thousands of different folks who have signed on and are working with AoD at this point.

And then as far as just the marketplace, that's something that you know…when we began there was obviously a robust translation marketplace. But the audiovisual subtitling and dubbing side of things was still pretty nascent. And that's really starting to pick up more and more today. So those're two areas that have changed significantly.

Amrute: One thing that Mary talks about in the book is this idea of the double bottom line. And she talks about that specifically when it comes to Amara's work, which tries to create fair and collaborative labor practices for people who are doing translation and subtitle work. And so what I wanted to ask you Dean is, how do you respond to people who say that the double bottom line is a nice idea but it's not really practicable. That in fact a business like yours can't sustain itself with that model in place.

Jansen: Yeah, that's a great question. And one that I think might be answered well with another question, which is what does it mean to be sustainable from organization to organization? Again, in the space that we're in, in translation, we saw early on these kind of more-established players had very high margins. And so again just a just a question of, how do you define sustainability? Sustainability for whom and for what?

I think if you're asking more maybe about kind of the lower-margin end of things? We're talking about some companies that are the biggest and most powerful and profitable in the history of the planet. And so I think it's a question less, in our eyes at least, of is it sustainable? More a question of how can we make it sustainable?

Amrute: I'll just name MTurk as one of those companies, since Dean was too polite to say it.

Another question I wanted to ask about is really playing off of what Mary was talking about at the end of her talk. We can think about consumer advocacy. We can think also about regulation. In your mind from where you sit, what are the possibilities and limits on what a business enterprise can do to value and protect micro labor?

Jansen: Hm. Another great question. I think… Well, let's see. So, as far as the limitations go, I think there are a lot of things that organizations can and should be doing. And we were kind of joking about the—not joking, but a couple of weeks ago talking about how low the bar is when the bar is "recognize that these are human beings that are doing this work." Early on when speaking with Mary, one of the things that really struck me was her describing conversations she would have, as she mentioned, with engineers who really didn't see where all these layers existed with human labor in them.

So to me in many ways, the work that Mary and Sid and all the people that have made this book possible, all the people that Mary spoke with, shining a light on it and making it visible as like the first step in figuring out… I think I've just…skipped your question, but in terms of like, zooming out and looking at societally what can we do and how can we accomplish some of these things? Just that first step of having some recognition of who and where people are is really important. But obviously on an individual organizational level, there is a ton that can be done.

Amrute: Can you give us just a few examples from your own experience?

Jansen: Sure, yeah. So let's see. In terms of… I mean, again, providing people space to communicate and work with one another, one of the things that we found in translation was there's this kind of stereotype of the lonely translator. Someone who is working in an isolated sort of— And in many ways, that's…again, I'm not a translator so this is just my learning and understanding of it. But historically people do…it has been a more isolated kind of work. So for us, bringing the collaborative side of the tools and platform that we're providing and building, to continue listening to what sorts of things people need to do their work better, and to collaborate more effectively. That's been something that's been…that's kind of the bread and butter of some of what we've been doing.

Amrute: Thank you. Being cognizant of time, I will just ask Mary a few short questions and then open it up to the floor.

So Mary, one of the key concepts in your book is this paradox of automation's last mile. Could you pull that out for us a little bit and maybe relate it to the lineage of contract/contingent labor that you put up for us, which in your book actually very interestingly starts with the experience of slavery in the United States.

Mary L. Gray: Yeah. I mean, to think about this paradox in many ways is to grapple with what has been the use of the lion's share of manual labor, for example. And early days with you know, if we think about what defines modernity, what defines our modern era, it's imagining we're going to get our hands out of the soil and be able to put our minds to work. It's an erudite notion of what does advancement look like? What is progress, and progress driven by technology?

And so the paradox is that as we strive to pull ourselves out of manual labor, I believe we start recognizing that it actually takes quite a bit of creativity and complexity to be able to do any enterprise, to be able to do anything productive. So starting the lineage with slavery in the book is to say that was really our first labor law in the United States. It defined who could be owned, who could be used in a way that only treated their bodies as valuable, and didn't imagine that any kind of work that we do involves a human capacity…not to be too humanist here…but a human capacity to be able to bring creativity, to be able to bring responding to spontaneity, to whatever we're doing.

So that moment of delaying recognizing the value, the real deep integration of creativity with everything that we do, I believe that is this moment. It's this reckoning with a paradox we keep introducing of thinking we're just gonna…we're going to get the thinking and the talking out of it. It's just going to be something we can automate. And then we're just left with things that are really hard, you know. The professional class will be able to do the really hard work. It throws to the wind the idea that taking care of…if you've ever taken care of an elderly parent? That takes a lot of thinking. A lot of creativity.

There's a beautiful book that really for me sets up the discussion of the paradox and it's by Levy and Murnane. They're a computer scientists and an economist who talked about the new division of labor. And they were trying to analyze what is it that a computational process can do, and what is it that a human can do, that are really distinct? What is that division?

And so we're trying to theorize why it is as we strive to automate things we keep discovering anew that the capacity to think creatively is in the thick of it? And that as we keep pushing to automate and reaching for having something else do things for us, we'll keep discovering those bits that are really the heart and soul of what what humans do, which is sense each other's needs, anticipate, and I joke often: be able to apologize when we get it wrong. Like, computation can't do that.

Amrute: I'm going to just ask one last question. I know there's a lot of people waiting.

One thing I wanted to underline which I loved in your presentation, and in the book, is the way that you use the task of Mechanical Turk itself to set tasks to get research for the book. I think this is a brilliant methodology. So I just want to put a big fat line under that. And then based on that I wanted to ask you if you could pull out for us the significance for you in doing transnational, comparative work, especially as it relates to identifying the challenges and opportunities in labor organizing?

Gray: Yeah. No, I mean I think from the… To be clear, starting with India and the United States in some ways was following the labor markets that Amazon Mechanical Turk had created by paying in both cash and rupees. They had built this labor market by design, without probably much thought, certainly, about the kinds of workforces it would create. And in drawing that comparison, it meant we were constantly able to pull out the places where connection broke down. The kinds of nationalisms that would spark around different workgroups, for example. So the transnational comparison gives us a chance to see where do people throw boundaries back up.

And I thought it was most striking in India how quickly a kind of pan-Indian way of orienting to work, across all the platforms, also came to the forefront. So the number of women and men who would start referring to each other as sister and brother to navigate the gender politics of working in settings with somebody of a different gender. The amazing use of English as a way of navigating linguistic boundaries, and what that can mean. The meshing and sidestepping of religious and caste differences. Those complexities could come out, and in some ways being able to see the complexities around class and race that played out in the United States in different ways, really came to the fore with that comparison.

The technique of putting the surveys online…I think in many ways I'm really dedicated to us always imagining that anthropology, sociology…of engaging people's lives means getting in their lives? I have a difficult time feeling like stopping at a discussion forum and letting that stand in for people's experiences can answer the questions I'm interested in. I think it has everything to do with the question you're asking. But for the most part the question we were asking was "What does the rest of your life look like?" And so there was really no way to ask that without moving from those platforms into their living rooms, into the cafes they circulated in. And that became the the methodology.

Amrute: Thank you. Who would like to ask a question? danah?

danah boyd: This is Mary's fault, she set me up. She was like, "You have to ask a question." and I was like—

Gray: A hard question, please.

boyd: Yeah. Alright, ready? So, much of what you're grappling with is a dynamic that we've seen iterate over and over again throughout history. And you've pointed to them by talking about the enslaved people and as a form of contract within labor markets, where different versions of capitalism have evolved in response to these different governing structures. And we keep seeing a regulatory move, and capitalism evolves. We are now at a late-stage capitalism structure, where we're not only seeing the efficiencies that are produced by capitalism as an operating system but reinforced, as you point out, by technical systems.

But we're doing it in an environment, to sort of riff off of Sareeta's point, where we're not actually dealing with bounded nation-state structures. And I've noticed you're not screaming to tear down late-stage capitalism…mmm, maybe yeah—you know I know you. But part of it is how do we actually think about the boundary work of nation-state structures and the evolutions of late-stage capitalism as something that can actually grapple with this so that it doesn't just keep slipping and evolving?

Gray: So two things popped in my head the last week or so. One is thinking multinationals have figured this out in some ways. They know how to cash flow. And so to take at face value that multinationals generating quite a bit of wealth internationally and circulating it internationally can't figure out how to circulate and distribute the value seems—

boyd: [inaudible] saying they should govern?

Gray: Uh, hell no. No, they should not govern. No. It is to say there's clearly a way to exchange money, globally. I'll just…I'll say it flatly like that. And that means in terms of governing the revenue generated, the redistribution of it, that is a global conversation. We know that multinationals are regulated in in specific countries; start there. So, make the United States, make the EU, the battleground for saying, "New classification. Everybody gets basics. Go from there."

I think it's for me very frustrating to realize how many large companies—and we're pretty much in a monopolistic world here. How many of the large companies that have merged and acquired each other have been able to stay on the sidelines of a conversation around universal healthcare in the United States. That makes no sense. And it should be on everybody's mind to be advocating to these companies, and it can't be about just advocacy but certainly making the case "Why are you on the sidelines? You benefit from being able to see this healthy workforce."

And in fact one way to think about this is supply chains and good work codes for enterprises to say there should be a call for regulation that if you are hiring a vendor, you should make sure that vendor provides healthcare, just as you are required or at least benefiting from providing healthcare. I think there's a business case there. Can it happen without regulation? No. We all need to say this is ridiculous that we don't provide basic healthcare. And I would just keep making that case.

But the second thing that came to mind is that it really is on all of us to stop letting liberal and neoliberal economics define the value of labor. To call labor a marketplace and not see the moralism within that… Like, I'm just going to spell this out just plainly. We have allowed people in elite positions, both government and private enterprise, to say that our labor is the same kind of capital as a set of records or a car. We're not durable goods. Labor means something else. So let's stop assuming that the marketplace sets the value of our labor. My salary is not coming from some magically-discerned value of me on a marketplace. It's coming from power. I have a particular kind of power and privilege to command a price. And that is a set of irrational power moves. It's not the logic of the market playing out.

So I really want us all to start questioning. There should be no turn to the market "what is the market paying for this task?" It should be, baseline, labor deserves support, because we need healthy workers to move the world forward. I'm a pragmatist, that's why I'm not that interested in blowing up capitalism writ large. I don't know, you could probably get me there, danah.

But there are alternative versions of marketplaces like cooperative marketplaces. Marketplaces we haven't even imagined yet because we haven't let ourselves think that the market can't set the value of us. Nor should it. And that's why that lineage started with slavery. Why would we have ever imagined that the market, or a market, should define the value of humans? Let's stop that, and set a baseline. And then go from there. Perks, sure you get perks if you're an extra good worker.

Audience 2: I think I might have a simple question, but I'm sort of thinking as you've been talking about people's power and how we might choose a baseline that might be a retainer or some sort of work for all. Do you think that that might be really difficult as more and more people are doing labor unwittingly? Like for example Google uses verification to make sure you're not a robot. And we're like, "Great. That's great. I want to prove I'm human," but you're actually doing work for…you're doing that task and you don't know that you're doing it. So do you think that like Hulu or subscription services are going to start making people do work in order to watch a video, and because they want to watch it they're going to do work like in these microtransactions? Do you see that maybe killing the labor force, too, because all the work's going to be spread out to everyone that are very willing to watch their content to do it?

Gray: So, love that question. Two really optimistic reasons that I think that won't happen. One is that when people become more aware that when you check the "I'm not a robot" that you're actually doing work for a company that makes a lot of money and doesn't actually make your service better, we should all be saying, Hell. No." And it's not that we're going to walk away from it, because we're all enjoying those services. It's that we're all going to become publicly aware that you are having your time taken. You are having your time taken without your permission. That should never be okay, right. So, one answer to your question is we absolutely have to have more public awareness of the sheer robbery of our time that's happening.

We make pains—the second response to your question—we make pains in the book to distinguish between paid labor and unpaid labor. And the reason to focus on paid labor is precisely to say that it's a different relationship. It's a social— it's not a charity when you get a job from somebody. You're providing value. It's a business transaction. Be cold about it. So that we can start living our lives and stop having work define who we are, right? Like this is— Kathy Weeks is one of my favorites on this. It's like, why are we not fighting for the end of work rather than for a forty-hour work week? Hell, no, right? So let's go there. And I think the beginning of it is with an awareness of when we are giving away…and actually I think that's the wrong framing. When our time is being taken from us. Let's stop saying we're giving it away. Because our time is being taken from us. Without our permission. And we have to say that's not okay. That's the first part.

Amrute: Okay, last question.

Audience 3: Thank you guys. This is just great. So I wanted to ask about… I'm looking at the cover of the book and intensely wondering who is this person. But it brings back the question, the topic of the visibility of people doing this work and their relative invisibility. And I wondered if you could talk about that and talk about why or how that visibility might be important to the bigger equation of change that you imagine.

Gray: There's not a day that goes by that somebody doesn't tell me about their Lyft or their Uber driver when I talk about this book. And so there's clearly something poignant and pressing for people when the person that they're worried about is right in front of them. I mean and that's a good thing. And I think in some ways let's tactically deploy that if you're an organizer.

I do think we care. I mean you know, I'm a relentless optimist. I think when we see someone in pain we want to relieve it? Usually we save that for people we love the most, but our impulse is there. And so I want to believe that by raising visibility, by seeing the people who do this work, that it changes what we want for them. You could just be crass and cynical and say, "This could be you. So don't you want to change your circumstances?" It will absolutely be someone in your life. Do you want to see their life better?"

So I think it is for me— It's funny you raised that. The cover was actually really… I was uncomfortable with that cover. I found it sensationalistic. I'll just say this, I love my press, I don't know if they're here right now. Clearly what they wanted was to get this book in peoples' hands and they wanted something that people might reach for. And it might have that effect. I hope it does. That was their reason. For me I'm now on this mission to find out who is he, you know. And I'll get back to you. I'll post something. I'll find out who he is.

Audience 3: [I mean?] how else can you make people visible. Other than [indistinct] book.

Gray: Yeah. And that is actually a really complicated question. Because at the end of the day, for the people I interviewed, they're folks doing their jobs, living their lives, and they're not particularly interested— And actually for the folks I've asked, "Do you want to be on any of the TV shows I might be on?" And the first thing they say is, "No." And the second thing they'll say is, "I don't have time." And the third thing they'll say is, "I don't want to be seen as one of those people who's a victim." So what I don't really appreciate is most of the coverage out there frames the people who do this work as victims, or dupes, or unaware of their circumstances. The people doing this work are painfully aware of their circumstances. And we would do best by listening to them. I think we could just listen rather than need to see them. This isn't really about making you see everybody who's had a hand in making your social media palatable. It's about knowing there are people who are helping you. And they're working. So how do we support them?

Amrute: Thank you very much. Buy the book. It's over here. Thank you, Dean.

Further Reference

Event page

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.