Crowded Out

Ouch. This hurts to read.


No bad big idea achieves its full cultural potential without first being sacralized by Wired magazine. Crowdsourcing is no different. In June 2006 the tech industry’s bible ran a story called “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” (the cover headline was more typically hyperbolic: “A Billion Amateurs Want Your Job”). “The new pool of cheap labor,” the article’s writer, Jeff Howe, explained, is “everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R&D.”

The casual characterization of human beings as something like modular computer components, complete with their “spare cycles,” was a revealing tic, one that has gone on to mark much of the subsequent popular literature on crowdsourcing. In this field, humans are required only so long as they complete the minimum amount of work that cannot be done by software. Even if they are replacing highly paid and skilled human beings, they are still treated like vestigial parts of a machine. As a driver for UberX—a vast, imperious experiment in crowdsourcing amateur drivers to replace cabbies, with their thorny regulations and job security—told Re/code as part of a complaint about Uber’s company policies, “We have become the functional end of the app.”

And that’s the ugly, dystopian truth at the heart of the networked digital economy: crowdsourced workers are expected to work seamlessly with software, following its commands. Software has replaced corporate bureaucracy as the inscrutable taskmaster. It’s become practically a legal entity unto itself. Millions of dollars in potential tort awards now depend on if and how Uber drivers are interacting with the app when they get into traffic accidents, run over pedestrians, or assault passengers. In March Uber announced new limited insurance coverage for UberX drivers, but the company continues to downplay its liabilities. After all, it’s not even a transportation or taxi firm but a “transportation network company” or, as it’s also been referred to, a “peer-to-peer ride-sharing service.” Uber engineers just make the app; what happens to people using it is of little concern to them.

This combination of treating humans like machines and recasting work as something different—something casual, informal, and frivolously fun—is a perennial selling point for the digital world’s army of crowdsourcing consultants. At the same time, it’s an all-too-obvious horror show for anyone still clinging to any critical detachment from the booster-mad tech scene. “Distributed labor networks are using the Internet to exploit the spare processing power of millions of human brains,” Howe explained, as if people are just waiting for corporations to call up and ask if they have any extra neurons available. The corollary is that people shouldn’t expect much for donating these spare cycles, but corporations can profit tremendously.

Read the entire article here.