Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: 'Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass' by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri

Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass by [Gray, Mary L., Suri, Siddharth]

Ghost workers are on-demand, disposable people who work behind the curtain to ensure the internet lives up to its promise. In Ghost Work, Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri have gone behind the curtain themselves, gathering data and interviewing the people who do the work. It is the first to penetrate this domain, which clearly needs more such efforts.

In the world of ghost work, jobs last for seconds, not years. Workers must spend far more hours searching for quick gigs than actually performing them. And despite the divide-and-conquer nature of everyone working on their own, ghost workers have found ways to communicate, link up and share knowledge of new gigs that people working in isolation might not see. The network effect is at work as much as the Pareto Effect, or 80/20 rule as it is better known. Teamwork pays, despite the dictates of the algorithm in charge. But even as the few stars grab most of the revenue on offer, it doesn’t amount to a living. They are the hamsters in the wheels that run the internet.

The workers are all homeworkers. They get no offices, uniforms, computers, software, training, supervision, encouragement or praise. There are no bonuses, vacations, promotions or awards. They sit in front of their own screens, madly searching for mini-gigs that pay a cent or two each and can, no must be completed in seconds. They are nameless. The platform they log onto gives them a coded string of letters and numbers as their ID. They have strict rules of performance, as measured by the time it takes them to complete tasks, and how seriously they fall afoul of the rules, like using a different IP address, or working alongside someone else, or using someone’s bank account (because there are none locally).

On the other side are the requestors. Companies need work done quickly and cheaply. They put out a request through the broker platform and the islaves grab them before someone else does, a feeding frenzy. If the requestor doesn’t like the results, s/he can claim they were unacceptable, and the islave doesn’t get paid. And their reputation gets dinged. The authors found that islaves lost 30% of their expected and contracted remuneration. Often, the requestor wrote the request badly, and got what s/he asked for, but it wasn’t what was desired. Garbage in, garbage out – and no pay.

The work is usually really basic. Captioning, tagging, translating, classifying, categorizing and grouping are typical examples. Some firms do a little more, like finding everyone in a city who has been convicted of a crime, so lawyers can cold call them to sell them reputation restoration services. Uber uses them to verify that drivers’ selfies when they log on are the same folks in the profile.

The conceit here is that even artificial intelligence isn’t up to a lot of tasks, so the internet actually works with millions of people doing really short tasks more cheaply and faster than AI can. Today. There are hundreds of companies, brokering tens of millions of islaves doing their bidding around the clock and the world.

Their pay is pathetic. One American woman who excels at it says she can make as much as $40 for a ten hour day. A young woman in southern India has the highest income of anyone in her village: $350 a month.  The money gets transferred to the islave’s bank account – for a $2 fee. There are no benefits, no taxes withheld, and of course the workers have no rights. They can be terminated at any time, and their accumulated balance forefeited, for any reason and no reason, without explanation or recourse. There are no humans to appeal to, no HR department to set people straight, no payroll department to correct seeming errors. There is no directory, no contact information.

Ironically, these isolated workers are finding each other. They are creating forums, direct messaging each other, sharing leads, sharing strategies, tactics, tips and stories. They are creating the work environment their “employer” denies them. But every minute spent on chat is a minute not paid. It is a brutal, unfulfilling life.

The authors say 60% of all work will be on-demand by 2055 at the rate we are going. They cite the paradox of automation, which demonstrates that for every automated process, the need for human intervention actually increases. It just doesn’t pay a living wage. They call for stronger unions, a registry where islaves’ work records can help maintain or restore their reputations when the algorithms they work for cut them off for, say, not being logged into the system long enough or often enough. The sweatshop of the 21st century is the comfort of your own home. Laws need to catch up.

There are, of course, lots of people who benefit from on-demand work. Those caring for a loved one, the disabled, the housebound, the shy, the insecure, the unemployed, those unable to work with others, those with few skills or no experience. The list is endless.

Ironically again, the authors did not use ghost work for their research. They actually visited and studied the ghost workers in the USA and India to inform their book. Ghost Work points to many little companies that seem to care. They try to improve life for their on-demand workers. But they are few and far between. And they can’t get too close to the workers, or the law would consider them employees with rights. Mostly, the companies are huge beasts like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, totally anonymous, impersonal, uncaring and driving for ever bigger tasks for ever less pay.

For all the pain and difficulties it describes, the book is remarkably positive about it all. Ghost Work is a glass half full book.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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