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

Operate Without the need of the Worker: Labour in the Age of System Capitalism • By Phil Jones • Verso • one hundred forty four web pages • ISBN: 978-1-83976-043-three • £10.99  

“Will we be retired — or unemployed?” the chief of a futurist conference asked in 2007 while envisioning a globe stuffed with AIs possessed of superhuman intelligence. A lot more new — and far more restrained — scientists this kind of as Kate Darling have argued that our best option lies in human-machine partnerships, although with the caveat prompt by Madeleine Claire Elish in her paper Moral Crumple Zones that the human spouse will be the a person that receives the blame when items go improper. 

Having said that, in the huge majority of the human-machine partnerships currently in existence, the human spouse is a person or far more invisible microtask employees being paid tiny amounts to label photographs, remotely get more than a faltering supply drone, or transcribe bits of text. 

We have seen these workers’ lives documented right before — for illustration, in Mary L. Grey and Siddharth Suri’s 2019 book Ghost Employees, Sarah T. Roberts’ 2019 book Behind the Monitor, and Kate Crawford’s new reserve on the extractive nature of the AI industry, Atlas of AI. In Operate Without the need of the Worker: Labour in the Age of System Capitalism, Phil Jones sets these employees in a much larger world-wide context.

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But initially, some quantities. As Jones files, the quantity of microtaskers is large and escalating. There are 12 million at China’s Zhubajie, two million at Clickworker, more than a person million at Appen. In the United kingdom, according to surveys, as significantly as five% of the working-age inhabitants takes advantage of these platforms at least at the time a week. This is an party in which scale issues: the far more of the labour force that is shifted to and splintered across microtasking platforms with phrases and conditions, the less difficult it is for workers’ rights to be eroded in the “economic system of clicks”. 

Short term adjustment, or long lasting reality?

Is the increase of precarious microtasking temporary, when the workforce reskills and reconfigures — as has been the scenario traditionally, and as the know-how organizations like to predict will come about this time, much too? Or is it a long lasting reality as human beings become component of the computational infrastructure of “artificial artificial intelligence” — the expression Jeff Bezos likes to use to explain the Mechanical Turk platform? (This form of linguistic absorption of human beings has a heritage that Jones won’t discover: the earliest “desktops” were women undertaking intricate calculations at NASA.) 

Jones argues that present day conditions are diverse: what we’re viewing is work being carved up into jobs, a process that transforms industry experts into “wage hunter-gatherers”. As a substitute of building new ranges of occupations, this market is building “market fugitives” who need to wait until a piece of perform gets available. The result is financial inequality far more akin to the nineteenth century than our eyesight for the twenty first. In Jones’s darkest chapter, employees are paid pennies to teach the AIs that will ultimately switch them solely. 

Jones ends on a hopeful note as microworkers get started to organise, partly pushed by hopes that the publish-pandemic globe can be crafted to be fairer. In an epilogue, he explores the “publish-shortage” globe. If present day microwork automates our work away, what then? Jones chooses optimism: we will have to consider a new globe for ourselves. In phrases of that 2007 concern, his best hope for us is joyful retirement. 

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