Digital piece work

Digital Piece Work: The New Workers and Geographies of the Digital Economy

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Featuring: Lilly Irani (UC, San Diego), Lisa Nakamura (Michigan), and Greig de Peuter (Wilfrid Laurier). Hosted by Nick Dyer-Witheford (Western)

25 March 2021, 7PM

How can we support workers in communities on the margins whose jobs and livelihoods are being threatened or transformed by developments in AI, big data and machine learning? How we can demand accountability from the powerful platforms that are engendering these transformations while denying the rights of their workers to fair pay and safe working conditions?

The third in our Big Data at the Margins series examines the ways in which digitization and AI are profoundly transforming the kinds, nature, and location of work, often with severe consequences for those on the social and economic margins or living in smaller towns and rural communities. As traditional manufacturing jobs have disappeared or moved overseas, new forms of AI and digitization have moved in, threatening jobs such as construction, maintenance, food preparation, service and agricultural work, and pushing workers into new forms of ‘gig’ or ‘micro’ work – short-term, standardized, precarious and low-paying jobs, which take place primarily on powerful digital platforms such as Uber, Task Rabbit, or Amazon Turk. These jobs are most often held by women, young people, migrants, indigenous people and people of colour, intensifying already existing forms of social stratification and deepening economic inequality. And, while these platforms publicly praise their workers as ‘entrepreneurs’ or ‘partners’, behind the scenes they work tirelessly to deny, punish or bust any attempts by workers to organize unions or demand legal recognition and protections.

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Panel discussion summary

Dr. Lily Irani addresses the precarity of work conducted by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers and the design of the Turkopticon platform as an avenue for labour organization. Mechanical Turk is a gig-work platform that crowdsources discrete, piece-rate, on-demand tasks that are “hard for computers to do”. Turkopticon is a mutual-aid website and browser tool that enables Mechanical Turk workers to write up reports, review jobs, and discuss employers. However, Irani’s efforts soon shifted towards turning Turkopticon into a dedicated organizing platform operated and sustained by Turk workers. Dr. Lisa Nakamura outlines an approach to theorizing the digital labour of repair by way of “anti-racist platform studies”. Nakamura’s approach attempts to remediate certain gaps in platform studies by considering the intersection of race and labour more pointedly. Specifically, anti-racist platform studies are concerned with the role of women and racialized populations in digital production, rooted in the historically undefined work of these populations in traditional labour contexts (manufacturing) and in domestic contexts (care work and reproductive labour). Dr. Greig de Peuter elaborates on new modes of worker organization in media and cultural industries. While work on media labour organizing has focused on unions or alternative worker associations, de Peuter suggests that we turn our attention to cooperatives. Cooperative businesses are collectively owned and controlled by its members, predicated on the equitable distribution of power and surplus, and advances principles of democratic economic participation and accountability.

Key themes that emerged include:

  • The need for worker organization alliances across hierarchical or rigid corporate structures
  • The cultivation of work solidarity across industry sectors and international borders
  • The impact on workers’ ability to organize arising from the shift towards platformized/ remote/ online work
  • The need for research to account for the ways in which workers see themselves and others
  • The drastic change in worker militancy and strike tactics in the era of digital work

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Lilly Irani is an associate professor at the University of California San Diego and member of the AI Now Academic Council. Her award-winning work looks at the ways digital platforms deploy the discourses and practices of entrepreneurialism to justify further exploiting and disempowering workers around the globe.

Lisa Nakamura is Director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan and member of the Precarity Lab. She is a leading scholar in the examination of race and digital media. Her recent work looks at the ways in which precarity unfolds across disparate geographic regions and practices, consolidating the wealth and influence of a few and further marginalizing women, migrants and people of colour.

Greig de Peuter is an associate professor at Wilfred Laurier University and co-founder of Cultural Workers Organize. His work explores the recomposition of labour politics today as artists, contract workers, interns, self-employed, freelancers, part-timers and other flexible labour forces seek to collectively confront precarity and financial and social insecurity.

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Turkopticon – Crowdsourcing Accountability on Mechanical Turk

Veena Dubal for Dissent Magazine: “Digital Piecework” (Fall 2020)

Old Boundaries, New Horizons: How Anti-Discrimination Law Can Better Protect Black Gig Workers in the Time of COVID-19″, Christy England, The Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law and Policy (August 11th, 2021)

The New York Times – Andy Newman: “I Found Work on an Amazon Website. I Made 97 Cents an Hour” (November 15, 2019)

The Atlantic – Alana Semuels: “The Internet Is Enabling a New Kind of Poorly Paid Hell” (January 23, 2018)

“Sharing Like We Mean It: Working Co-operatively in the Cultural and Tech Sectors, via Cultural Workers Organize (2020)

Uttam Bajwa, Lilian Knorr, Erica Di Ruggiero, Denise Gastaldo, Adam Zendel, “Towards an understanding of workers’ experiences in the global gig economy”, Global Migration & Health Initiative, 2018

Platform Cooperativism Consortium //

Juliet B. Schor for The Conversation: “Gig worker employment fights like those in California pit flexibility against a livable wage – but ‘platform cooperatives’ could ensure workers get both” (October 29, 2020)

“Organizing on-demand: Representation, voice, and collective bargaining in the gig economy,” Hannah Johnston & Chris Land-Kazlauskas, International Labour Office, Condition of Work and Employment Series No. 94 (2019)

“From Bottom to Top: How Amazon Mechanical Turk disrupts employment as a whole,” Commentary by Kristy Milland, Brookfield Institute (March 19, 2019)

Ethics in Context (via UofT Centre for Ethics) presents: V.B. Dubal, The Time Politics of Home-Based Digital Piecework, C4E Essays, 2020

Phil Jones for the Guardian (UK): “Big tech’s push for automation hides the grim reality of ‘microwork’ (27 Oct 2021)

“Horror Stories From Inside Amazon’s Mechanical Turk”, Dhruv Mehrotra, January 28th, 2020, Gizmodo

“Organizing Crowd Workers: From Folly to Urgency”: Kristy Milland, organizer, for Technik und Emanzipation, 2017

Scott Jin, Duke Kominers, Lila Shroff, “A Labor Movement for the Platform Economy”, September 24th, 2021, Harvard Business Review

Worker-Owned Apps Are Trying to Fix the Gig Economy’s Exploitation”, Ryan Hayes, 19 November, 2019, Vice via Motherboard

“When Workers Control the Code”, Clive Thompson, 22 April 2019, Wired

Jim Stanford for The Toronto Star: “Gig workers aren’t second class workers – but that’s how Ontario’s recent recommendations treat them”, 18 December 2021

Jane Wakefield for BBC News: “AI: Ghost workers demand to be seen and heard”, 28 March 2021

“The AI gig economy is coming for you”; Karen Hao, May 31 2019, MIT Technology Review

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