HotE Review: Annie McClanahan's “Tipwork, Microwork, Automation: The Insecurity of 21st C. Labor

This year, the Humanities on the Edge speaking series celebrates its 10th year of operation by reflecting on the history of HotE as well as its purpose. As he introduced the speaker, Dr. Annie McClanahan of UC Irvine, Roland Végső explained how Dr. McClanahan’s research dovetails with the spirit of inquiry that the series espouses. Dr. McClanahan’s talk was titled “Tipwork, Microwork, Automation: The Insecurity of 21st C. Labor.” Roland pointed out that the name, “Humanities on the Edge,” bears multiple possible interpretations, among them being the concept of the Humanities standing on the Edge of crises. Dr. McClanahan’s talk delved into the market crisis of 2008 (and beyond), mining that freshly-tilled soil under the looming possibility of yet another global recession.

Dr. McClanahan split her talk into three sections following the topics identified in its title. She argued that the metamorphosis of the job market over the last decades has been such that the “gig economy” has begun overtaking the notions we once held of stable, 9-to-5 work. To set the stage, she invoked the muse of Westworld, the 2016 HBO show, in which humanoid robots populate a theme park the theme of which is worker exploitation. As she points out, the show begs the comparison between these supposedly non-living beings and current real-world members of the service economy. Where does the line of exploitation lie at which a person would say, “No, you may not shoot me for money”?

The idea of “tipwork” falls within the spectrum of this question regarding labor. The idea of tip credit relies on a give-and-take between the employer and the consumer in which the wage of the worker is supposed to be balanced between both. However, this arrangement leads to stunted steady rates which often fall below the federal minimum wage when the tips are removed from the equation. Unfortunately, the economy is such that these jobs are still desirable and even necessary. As automation progresses, more tasks are performed by robots and machines, and we are now seeing that progress bleed over into the service industry.

Citing Marx, Dr. McClanahan noted that capital “sets free” productive force by investing in the advancement of industrial technology, but this process often does not account for wages or standard of living. This phenomenon is by no means new; it can be said of the kinds of “tipwork” which existed in the early 20th century (musicians, wait staff, janitors, most people in the service industry) that one had to be flexible and amenable to the whim of employers in order to carve out an income. As automation of the textile and factory industry drove people into the service industry, the service industry implemented automating factors of its own. Today, upwards of 5 million people in America rely on “contingent work” also called “gig work” to make ends meet.

Gig work is similar to tip work in that it is less stable than the 9-to-5 job model, but it takes the lack of stability to a new extreme. Not only are the wages unstable, but the employment itself is by definition temporary. Dr. McClanahan points out the reference of the term gig to the transitory employment of musicians in the beginning of the 20th century; a gig was like a one-night-stand job where one could be assured of a single payout of whatever was agreed to. However, with the intervention of the internet, the kinds of gigs people score are likely to be temporary on an hour-to-hour basis, rather than day-to-day.

At this point, Dr. McClanahan mentions Baumol’s Cost Disease, the notion that instability follows a rise in the salaries of positions that do not see a correlative increase in labor productivity. Wages have become so far divorced from production that capital itself has begun to exclude workers in the service industries. These jobs can be seen as a “waste product” of the industrial forces of tech companies and other large corporations. As technology makes it easier for workers to be exploited from further away, say from home via the internet, workers are tasked with the responsibility of overseeing themselves. In this way, middle-management positions are simply collapsed into the tasks performed by the gig worker as more jobs are supervised by apps and algorithms.

In the first years of the 21st century, the process of automation and wage exploitation allowed the emergence of Microwork. Instead of work that is done in public for a tip, microwork is usually done alone over the internet for cents at a time. Dr. McClanahan provides the example par excellence in the form of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The name “mechanical Turk” refers to a machine that was supposed to be a chess-playing automaton. In reality, the Turk was just a box with controls that hid a man inside who would make the chess moves. Amazon invokes this dynamic with the subhead “artificial artificial intelligence.” In fact, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is not an algorithm that streamlines labor but a conglomeration of laborers that fulfill the work of an algorithm.

Workers for the Mechanical Turk (also referred to as “Turkers”) go to a list on the platform’s website and select simple tasks such as image recognition, transcription, and categorization. They will then perform as many simple tasks as they can, as quickly as they can, to accrue enough successes to make a paycheck. In a way, this online moderation gameifies the workspace, injecting a kind of dopamine hit which convinces workers to keep going even though they may be making as little as 10 cents per task or $1.25 an hour.

Advocates for this kind of work, Dr. McClanahan says, are displaying their optimism in Capitalism rather than observing the actual trends. She points out that the calculus which identifies a fair wage differs between piece-rate and time-based systems. In a piece-rate system, like the one under which Mechanical Turk operates, the amount of labor time produced may not be honored. As a disturbing example, Dr. McClanahan indicated one of the pieces of conceptual art which was created using the MTurk platform; Emoji Dick, a translation of Melville’s Moby Dick told only using emojis, was created for only $3,600 despite taking 1,111 hours to complete; yes, that means the contributors who produced the book (which can be bought for actual money online) were compensated at a rate of $3.34/hr.

The online reviews (which editor Fred Benenson is using as advertisements for the book) claim that Emoji Dick “...highlights the innovative ways in which the labour pool of bored internet users is being tapped to complete complex tasks,” (Telegraph UK) and is “A true testament to the value of the distributed human intelligence task” (Aaron Koblin, TheSheepMarket). These reviews either forget or never knew the size of the workforce which produced this artifact and how they were paid. Dr. McClanahan calls this extreme disparity between company profit and contributor wages “hyper-exploitation,” and it truly comes to roost for academics, like myself and many of those reading this, when we consider the fact that 36% of all MTurk projects are submitted by academic project managers.

This section of the talk is dotted with examples of exploitation in the computer age. A website called Upwork hires workers based on algorithmic automation, including 70% of the people who work for Upwork. A project called Samasource automates the process of connecting workers to microwork centers in the name of increasing employment but actually increasing the number of exploited employees. A video project called “Workers Leaving the Cloud Factory” parodies the 1895 film “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory,” by cutting together clips of MTurk workers walking out of their many, disparate work stations to the sound of whirring fans and monotonous, humming electronics. The image of an entirely new class of workers emerges, which Dr. McClanahan likened to “wage hunter/gatherers” in reference to Michael Denning’s essay, “Wageless Life.”

Her examples became more and more bleak as she approached the conclusion of her talk, terminating in perhaps the most dismal and blood-stilling sound this writer has ever heard. Organized by some dark heart, “A Bicycle Built for 2000” was recorded and released in 2009. MTurk workers were asked to record themselves mimicking a given soundbite and these recordings were then synthesized to play the song “Daisy Bell,” which many may recognize as the song sung by HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The result is a tone-flat drone that follows the melody of “Daisy Bell” but removes any semblance of human voice from the recordings becoming another computerized nonsense. More disturbing than the sound of video is the description of such mechanical art as a tribute to the “wisdom of crowds” and not a sign that millions are being exploited for little to no good.

Unfortunately, there is no deus ex machina for this developing story. As Dr. McClanahan points out, the advent of “ubiquitous human computing” positions us all within a Capitalist system willing to mine our every living moment. Dr. McClanahan identifies people who might be induced to do microwork as members of the “Lumpenproletariat,” people who cannot even afford to have class consciousness. For these people, exploitation is not optional. It is the only way to pay for necessities. Even the arguments of people trying to assuage our anxiety about the advance of automation seem to pass over this lack of dignity. Yes, “there are still plenty of things egregiously underpaid people do better than robots,” according to this essay by Astra Taylor, but just how egregiously underpaid can people be?

As the algorithmic automation of human labor and life continues, the new jobs created may not be able to counterbalance the new forms of exploitation which are uncovered. To quote Dr. McClanahan’s concluding nod toward hope, all we can do is keep our eyes on these systems and await a time when “one’s life nor livelihood depends on wages at all.”

With Love and Respect,

Phillip Howells

Recent Posts