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Capitalism’s Brave New World

We have seen the future, and it microtasks

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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From a practical standpoint, there are a couple of open questions about microtasking. The first is how meaningful the jobs it deleverages can be. When you look around the world of microtasking on exchanges like Mechanical Turk, the tasks fall into categories that are fairly Internet-specific: Look up the email address of a business; answer a question about a Twitter user; choose a category for a website; write a headline for a video clip or a review of a product. The jobs these tasks combine to accomplish aren’t about any real work so much as they’re about the Internet itself. Nearly all the companies that employ microtaskers are Internet companies. It’s mostly data entry, search-engine optimization, and the like. Which means that it’s only value-added by the debased standards of the web. If microtasking really is going to be the future—if the Mechanical Turk is someday going to displace the temp agency and the HR recruiter—then someone will have to break more meaningful jobs down in a way that lends itself to microtasking.

Which leads us to the second question: How big could it get? It’s difficult to say, of course. Amazon says that there are 500,000 workers using its system., a smaller microtasking site that focuses on mini-writing assignments, says that 20,592 writers have completed 478,046 jobs for employers. (Earning a total of $718,933; or $1.50 a throw.) is a more upscale Mechanical Turk. It matches businesses with remote temporary workers who have the skills to handle more demanding tasks such as computer coding or database cleaning. Workers set the price in a kind of reverse auction by posting their hourly rate with their profiles. Elance recently surveyed the businesses it works with and found that 57 percent of them expected that, within five years, more than half of their workforces would be made up of remote, temporary workers from around the world.

It’s that last clause that should give us pause.

The Internet is a disruptive technology, but thus far it has disrupted the labor market less than might have been expected. Most companies still employ people who live near them for the simple reason that most jobs require people to be in a particular place, at a particular time, so that they can work together. A company in San Francisco whose business is attracting visitors to a website with funny images of cats might be able to hire a microtasker in Jakarta to assign metatags to cat pictures so that users searching Google for cat images will be more likely to find their way to that company’s website. A maker of medical devices in the suburbs of Philadelphia needs people to show up in the office to perform research, design a manufacturing process, orchestrate a supply chain, and plan a marketing and sales campaign. Twenty-five years into the Internet age, this geographical tie between work and workers has proved surprisingly stubborn. And it is precisely this tie which the Mechanical Turk and its brethren seek to destroy. 

There are good reasons to welcome the uncoupling of work and geography. For instance, it would produce immediate and sizable gains in economic efficiency. But there are also some reasons to be suspicious because two developments have changed the relationship of business to the American people. The first is the invention of the corporation.

Because they are perpetual and, in a certain sense, unaccountable, modern corporations have a different set of interests than flesh-and-blood people, and a very different relationship with the people’s voice—government—than old-fashioned sole proprietorships or partnerships. A business owner is a citizen, with the same mix of interests and obligations as other citizens. He might serve in the military or run for office. He has political concerns that run the gamut from worrying about local schools and trash pickup to national fights over gay marriage. He is interested in these issues, and how his government responds to them, because he is a citizen, with fellow citizens who look out for him and vice versa. By contrast, the corporation by design has only an interest in its own survival and profitability: It will concern itself with government insofar as it can enlist the government in helping it make money. On every other question, the corporation is, by definition, indifferent.

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