Forget the cloud, use humans instead

The rise of sites offering piecemeal freelance work shows the growth of a new class who do not fit into the traditional categories of employment

  • By Tom Bailey | Saturday, January 16th, 2016

In recent years, we have seen the growth of what has been termed the ‘human cloud’: employers divvying up piecemeal bits of work for freelance workers to pick up from online freelance platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The tasks on offer tend to be those unsuitable to being carried out by computers, relying instead on human attention to detail – leading to the jobs becoming known as ‘Human Intelligence Tasks’ (HIT).

“First came outsourcing of IT and business processes. Next came offshore outsourcing. Now comes the human cloud”, said MIT Sloan Management Review. Now we have outsourcing through platforms that offer a “virtual, on-demand workforce”. The rise of the human cloud is is allowing more and more people to work from home, employed by no one, doing small clerical-style tasks, which typically would have been carried out in an office environment by white-collar workers.

Amazon Mechanical Turk has half a million users carrying out contract work

Amazon Mechanical Turk has half a million users carrying out contract work, with half located in the US and just under half in India. These workers are known as Turkers. When they pick up a piece of work – posted, along with remuneration details and a description, on the platform – they must complete it in an allotted timeframe, and are then paid by the employer after completing the task. The pay received can vary from a few cents for certain tasks, up to a few dollars. According to Jeremy Wilson, writing in Kernel: “Studies suggest that Turkers can earn between $1.20 and $5.00 an hour for this independent contract work.”

Before a Turker can start carrying out tasks, they must complete a brief training course, for which they receive a small payment, relating to the sort of HIT they wish to do. Wilson described his experience attempting to carry out copying text from a business card. “But before I was unleashed on any real business cards”, he said, “I had to start in training mode. Generously I was to be paid $0.02 for copying down the details of a fake card. The training mode proved to be useful: I got the name wrong, the address wrong and mixed up the fax and phone numbers. It took over 10 minutes to get it right.” He then embarked upon a number of other HIT jobs, such as mimicking facial expressions into his webcam. This task, taking 20 minutes, earned him $1.50.

Price of freedom
Whether or not this rise of HIT work is a positive development or not is disputed. Denis Pennel, Managing Director of Ciett, the international lobbying organisation for private employment agencies, told the Financial Times: “What we see today [with platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk] is people taking ownership again of the means of production, because you just need a computer, your brain and a Wi-Fi connection to work. So actually, Marx should be very happy!” Others argue it is not so clear-cut.

Christian Fuchs, a professor at the University of Westminster and a Vice-Chair of the EU COST network, noted that, while this new way of organising work does provide some benefits (such as flexibility), wages tend to be very low due to the unregulated nature of digital labour. “The internet and online companies tend to be inherently global”, he said, “whereas political regulation is normally made by national and regional parliaments, so there is a contradiction between the global economy and national/regional politics.”

Guy Standing, author of the influential book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and Professor of Economics at SOAS, University of London, argued we are seeing the rise of a new class of workers who can be termed ‘the precariat’: workers who are “subject to pressures to accept a life of unstable and insecure labour, with the added difficulty that those in it have to do a lot of work that is not counted as work and that is not remunerated”. This description could very easily be applied to Turkers.

Relying on platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk and TaskRabbit, “may give some people more freedom on when and how much to do”, Standing told The New Economy, but at the same time “we must realise that, for the majority of those doing tasks, the payment per task is very low. And there is no security, no benefits and no assurance of any particular level of income. The freedom that the platform corporations stress is a mixed blessing. In many forms of tasking, the person has to work a lot of time in order to make a very modest income. Too often one hears stories of what I would call excessive self-exploitation”.

Neither employed nor self-employed
The growth of the cloud-based economy, however, shows no signs of abating. According to Standing: “Cloud labour is spreading to almost every level of labour, and in the process is increasing the division of labour as more services are broken into constituent elements. I think that, within the next five to 10 years, one in every three labour transactions will be done online.”

In the global economy of the 21st century, we are seeing the emergence of a category of people who are not part of the traditional labour force of worker and employer. As Fuchs told The New Economy: “21st century economies’ structures are very complex. There are regular employees and employers, but then there is a range of new activities, such as a large amount of freelancers, part-time workers, temporary workers, [and] zero-hour-contract workers.” How we accommodate the freedom of work offered by HIT platforms while ensuring that those working for them are not in a race to the bottom will be a defining political question of our century.