Zittrain argues that assembly line-style “division of labor” is becoming more common in mental tasks, ranging from very simple repetitive recognition exercises (“where is the car in this picture?”) to design competitions (“win $1,000 by drawing a new trademark!”). He states that “We are in the initial stages of distributed human computing that can be directed at mental tasks the way that surplus remote server rackspace or Web hosting can be purchased to accommodate sudden spikes in Internet traffic.”
The resulting distributed labor force offers unparalleled flexibility for CEOs. While they pursue the vaunted “Four Hour Workweek” of Silicon tycoons, they can avoid making any guarantees of wages to employees–or ask for 80 hour weeks suddenly when business picks up. In a globally connected world, the cheapest hands are at the ready to perform what “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk enumerate[s as] ‘HITs’ – human intelligence tasks – for sale one unit at a time, from as low as $0.01.” Once micropayment systems are perfected, pennies from cloud-heaven can rain upon the downtrodden.
Zittrain describes some advantages of this turbocharged division of labor for workers, too. Operators at one company (LiveOps) “can work whenever they like, wherever they like, for as much or as little time as they like.” Whereas the traditional employment relationship was like a marriage, with both parties committed to some longer-term mutual project, the digitized workforce seeks a series of hookups. There are plenty of opportunities for the flexibilized worker.
For those saddled a mortgage ball-and-chain, ubiquitous human computing offers less of a blessing. Aside from a blip of hope in 1990s wage figures, America’s working class has experienced declining compensation since the 1970s. Establishment journalists were among the first of the “knowledge workers” to experience the same fate, as search engines set up a national and global market for news once delivered locally. Since similar trends could soon engulf computerized work generally, Zittrain is right to argue that“[m]inimum wage, maximum workinghours, unionization (or at least the ability to know and contact one’s co-workers)” may need to be revisited. Having discussed “Privacy 2.0” in his book TFOTI, Zittrain also realizes that atomized digital workers need the right to establish a reputation by “building portfolios” if they are to compete effectively for gigs.
Zittrain also worries that “disembodied HITs can deprive people of the chance to make judgments about the moral valence of their work.” We can imagine a worker figuring out CAPTCHAs in the service of an Iranian intelligence agency or Chinese “fifty cent army” which wants to place hundreds or thousands of messages as comments on blogs. The atomized HIT is a way of diffusing responsibility in a world where it is already far too hard to pierce the corporate veil, contest trade secrecy claims, or penetrate shadowy government actions. In response, Zittrain proposes that “harvesters of human mindpower can be encouraged – or perhaps required – to disclose their activities to those who benefit them.” He also proposes that workers have the opportunity to opt out. To do that effectively, some entity will need to audit exactly how a company like LiveOps ranks and rates its workforce; otherwise, opting out could be a false choice that simply speeds one’s way to a blacklist.