Digital Labor: New Opportunities, Old Inequalities

Politics & Society
re:publica 2013


While it doesn't smell or look like labor at all; digital labor is part of the working lives of millions in the U.S., China, Russia, and India. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a thriving marketplace where “folks who have work meet up with folks who seek work,” as CEO Jeff Bezos innocently framed it. Work, as it turns out, is in fact radically atomized and inane zombie labor. Mechanical Turk does not reveal the identity of the employer to the worker and even if workers click away for 60 hours a week, they may have no idea what they're working on. The vast majority of this mind-numbing click work is exploitative simply because it isn't humanely possible to make minimum wage. And if being underpaid is not good enough for you, then think of the alienation and separation from other workers. In the legal gray-zone of the web with its extreme asymmetry of enforceable rights- heavily tilted towards the owners, paid crowdsourced workers are independent contractors, no matter what. The “wretched of the screen” are more fungible than ever; they are legally unshielded, de-skilled, underpaid or not paid at all. AMT is not an isolated, extreme example. Just take competitive outsourcing platforms like 99designs , which are based on the time–wasting logic of architecture competitions, leaving many of the designers who fully executed a job without pay.

It comes at no surprise that in the midst of the worst financial crisis in living memory, workers knowingly enter exploitative relationships. As one AMT worker put it: "I realize I have a choice to work or not work on Amazon Mechanical Turk, but that means I would also not need to make the choice to eat or not eat, pay bills or not pay bills." (Felstiner 166)

Platforms like AMT and 99designs have become templates for Post-Fordist labor; they are an affront to the decades-long labor struggle, think Haymarket Riots, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, or On the Waterfront. It is really quite astonishing that digital labor managed to sneak up on the achievements of organized labor such as the 8-hour workday, paid sick leave and paid holiday, and minimum wage. Suddenly, all of these struggles seem like a dusty old shoe at a time when they are more relevant than ever.

But to reduce all of digital labor to its Frankenstein moments would ignore its complexity. Let’s just take the mined informality of Stasi labor on Facebook which has hefty social costs but hey, there's also social utility and the jolly performance of self.

But really, not all is bad in the land of digital labor and while a clear line in the sand must be drawn to make it unmistakably clear where exploitation is taking place and to distinguish it from moments when users are knowingly used, it is also our duty to play up new forms of transnational solidarity like Turkopticon and the shining examples of public-spirited work: from Open Street Map, and Foldit, to Ushahidi, and eBird. These projects can teach us how to walk away from the parasitical world of digital labor or how to transform it.


Felstiner, Alek. “Working the Crowd: Employment and Labor Law in the Crowdsourcing Industry.” Vol. 32. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law,, 2011. 1.

stage 2
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 12:30 to 13:30


Associate Professor of Culture and Media