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Dawn of the Digital Sweatshop

All over the world, workers are paid pennies to do menial online tasks in a largely unregulated, multimillion-dollar industry. Welcome to the Internet's factory floor.


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"It takes a human hand to do this," said Wilson, over the phone from his home in Chicago. "Each page has to be scanned individually." Wilson sees this kind of labor as much more closely in line with that of the industrial proletariat than with the popular image of shiny, happy Googlers eating free, sustainably-farmed sushi and zipping around on rainbow-colored bikes. "It was just strange to me, for a company that's prided on being such a great employer, that they would create this kind of secret and marginalized class — when this class is doing some of the more grueling work on campus, the more tedious work on campus." He eventually did a series of art projects that documented the phenomenon: In one, he took surveillance-style video of the workers leaving their building. In another, he collected images that showed the human touch Google works so hard to keep invisible: a finger there, a smudge here. Once the project came to light, Wilson was fired.

Google Books and microtasking aren't quite the same thing, of course, but they illustrate similar points: about the factory floor lurking just below our Internet, about consumers' ignorance — willful, or, more likely, unintentional — of the human labor that goes into the Internet, and about the lengths companies will go to keep things that way. If you think about it, it's astonishing: Turk and its imitators may have been the source of much hand-wringing within some sectors of the tech community, but in the world at large, they're largely unknown. Many of the labor activists and scholars I spoke to for this story had never heard of Mechanical Turk, nor had several of the tech employees I reached out to — even ones who work at companies that employ microtaskers by the hundreds of thousands. Like Google Books employees, microtaskers are, for the most part, invisible. And that makes them easy to ignore.

There have been moments when the cycle of attention suddenly shifts toward tech: Most recently, Mike Daisey's now-repudiated account of deplorable working conditions in the Apple manufacturing plant known as FoxConn prompted a New York Times investigative series, one of the most-downloaded This American Life episodes ever, and an international conversation about the human costs of the technologies we hold dear. Before that, it was "conflict minerals" — some of which are important components in microchips and other technology — being mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But most of the time, this isn't a discussion anyone's particularly interested in having. "We don't see where the things that we use come from on an ongoing basis," said Silberman, of Turkopticon. "I don't know who made my phone; I don't know who made the yogurt I had for lunch." And tech is even more abstract and opaque: It's not just that we don't know who's making it; oftentimes, we don't even know how it's made.

In other words: Nobody wants to see how his Internet sausage gets made — and nobody making it wants to tell him. "Many companies have an incentive to look away from the issue," said Anand Kulkarni, CEO and cofounder of MobileWorks, a company that's working on creating a more sustainable model of crowdsourcing. "We're still a little bit far away in society of understanding the true costs of unethical crowdsourcing, and the extent that it exists."

Tapan Parikh was one of Kulkarni's professors at the UC Berkeley School of Information, and he's also been trying to examine and improve upon crowdsourcing as it currently exists. "The big questions are, how good are [crowdsourced workers'] salaries? Do they have benefits? Do they have any rights? And who is responsible for those rights? Legal scholars have just begun thinking about these issues, but technologists, frankly, haven't really thought about it at all," he said. "And as technologists, we're so trained with an efficiency-first mind-set, so that immediately becomes the first and most important metric for us. It's a blind spot, and a limitation of the field."

Part of what Parikh's getting at is this: The Internet is a utility, but it's also a business — one that strives, like all others, to keep costs down and profits up, and which is faced with what's increasingly looking like an unrealistic consumer expectation about access and price. It's something of a new twist on the age-old adage that information wants to be free — as in, not just liberated, but gratis. We find ways to circumvent newspaper paywalls, pirate all our music, and borrow our friends' HBOGO passwords in order to watch premium shows for free. And that attitude, coupled with a global workforce that's willing to work for a pittance, has spawned a system in which aggressive cost-cutting is a foregone conclusion.

At the end of the day, tech companies are just that: companies, with bottom lines to attend to and, often, shareholders or investors to please — but unlike many other companies, they're sometimes more like bureaucracies than businesses, and their practices can and do have implications for the global economy, whether the companies realize it or not. Just as when Yahoo justified hacking Chinese activists' email accounts by arguing that this was, essentially, the cost of doing business with China, maybe there's an allegory to be made here: In a market that seems pitched toward an inexorable race to the bottom, using cheaper-than-cheap labor is simple cost-effectiveness — even if it has major implications for the price of such labor in the future, and even if what's justifiable on an individual level is problematic in the aggregate.


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