De-Provincializing Development

By Ilana Gershon and Melissa Cefkin

This is the fourth entry in our new series “De-Provincializing Development,” which seeks to cast a critical eye on US progress towards the new UN goals. It examines SDG #8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. In this installment, Ilana Gershon and Melissa Cefkin explore SDG #8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, by asking what, exactly, counts as “decent work” these days, and how work-distribution platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit reflect, shape, and portend the future of employment in the United States.

If you read any journalism on work and technology these days, you will often find predictions about a jobless future. Many people suggest that the nature of employment is going to change radically in the next twenty to thirty years, so it can seem a bit quaint to come across Sustainable Development Goal #8, in which job creation and employment are frequently mentioned. It is no accident that when people mention new technologies in workplaces, they are soon predicting a jobless future. After all, when you talk about job creation or about a jobless future, you are talking about jobs as a commonplace form of social organization for distributing work and resources among a group of people. When new technologies change the ways work is distributed, they open the door to uncoupling jobs from earning money. This might make the promise of employment a promise devoid of aspirational value. But what exactly is a job (beyond a regular paycheck)? And what makes it a goal?

Source: PixaBay.

To answer these questions, we turn to our research on online work-distribution platforms, technological infrastructure that opens the possibility for employers to request that tasks get accomplished without using job roles to organize the tasks. We ask what kind of light these current sociotechnical experiments can shed on what it means to commit to full employment for everyone. Many are familiar with some of these platforms, such as Uber, Amazon MTurk, TaskRabbit, and Upwork, which all fit this broader rubric of work-distribution platforms because they allow work requesters and work seekers to opt in. Work requesters choose whether to solicit work on these platforms and work seekers select the tasks that they want to do. In most jobs, the employer chooses the employee and assigns tasks for the employee to do. On these work-distribution platforms, work requesters ask whether anyone is interested in doing a certain task, often for a previously established price or by asking for a bid, and workers choose the tasks they are willing to do. For example, on TaskRabbit (recently acquired by IKEA), you can request that someone come to your house and assemble a bookshelf you just bought or wait in line for tickets to a concert. These tasks are arranged online but not necessarily performed online. And not all the tasks are performed by a single individual. In some of these work-distribution platforms, a crowd is assembled to perform the work, using the technology to coordinate individual tasks. On other platforms, while the possibility of completing a task for pay is opened up to a crowd, the actual task will be done by a single individual who, depending on the platform, may or may not have been explicitly selected by the work requester upfront.

So what do these platforms reveal about what it means to have a job these days? They make visible some of the social labor that goes into jobs, social labor that tends to be unrecognized. When people request work, they have to consider how tasks are made into distinct units. They also have to figure out how to segment work, anticipating how the resulting products will travel and be recombined. In short, the platforms are giving rise to new ways of designing work, either by breaking work into bits and parts or, alternatively, leaving tasks more holistically assembled as unified wholes, shifting the labor of figuring out how to accomplish it to another to perform. Done badly, and the work requested can be unusable. For example, Melissa Cefkin interviewed one work requester who used one of these platforms to find someone to do the seemingly straightforward task of extracting addresses from a set of data to integrate into a mass email. However, she had not specified its purpose or preferred form of delivery in the work specs, so the results she got back were not properly formatted for her email system. Members of her local team would have already known why she wanted this information and anticipated the best way of providing results had they, rather than crowd-sourced labor, performed the task. Jobs, in short, provide a social context through which people become aware of how to organize tasks in implicit ways that are not easily or quickly explained outside of the context.

In the United States, these systems have appealed to workers, in part, because they hold out the promise of a meritocracy. . . . Reputation systems, however, can still allow people to practice discrimination.

From the perspective of those disseminating the work, work-intermediation platforms promise that people can have work performed that they themselves would not be able to do. This leads to more kinds of work being performed by “strangers”—work performed for us but by people with whom we have little or no knowledge or contact. At some level, this is nothing new—few of us will know who drove the trucks that delivered food we buy at a grocery store. But these mechanisms radically decrease the distance between someone and that “stranger.” Anyone can commission a complete stranger through a crowd-work system to build a website or arrange a travel itinerary. They may be known only by an online alias, if specified at all. This puts into sharp relief questions of qualification and the adequacy of training. Can you trust your Uber driver? To deal with this uncertainty, platforms often provide reputation systems in which people choose workers that have been previously rated by other work requesters. But this means that it is hard to be a newcomer to this system, and it is, as Mary Gray has pointed out, much harder to switch from one platform to another, since you can’t bring your reputational rating with you in the same way that you can bring a resume or letters of recommendation.

In the United States, these systems have appealed to workers, in part, because they hold out the promise of a meritocracy. Work requesters often have no way of ascertaining someone’s ethnicity, age, or gender when accepting the offer to work. As a result, organizations like Samasource have championed these platforms, claiming that platforms offer much-needed opportunities for low-income workers who face regular discrimination when being hired in person. Reputation systems, however, can still allow people to practice discrimination. One African American woman Gershon interviewed in the Bay Area preferred platforms in which all work remained online to those that coordinated offline work. She explained that if work requesters saw her in person, her chances of getting a good rating in the reputation system would plummet because the work requestors did not want to risk having her return. They were not able to turn away black workers at the outset, but they used the reputation system of the online platforms to discourage black workers from being chosen in the future.

Souce: MaxPixel.

These systems also hold appeal because of the promise of autonomy, an autonomy that is largely absent from the ways that jobs organize tasks. Put simply, these systems allow people to imagine working without a boss, often on tasks that traditionally involve a boss. Instead of a boss, they now simply have clients. Indeed, this may contribute to why we also see the experimentation with such platforms internal to organizations, reorganizing how work is distributed, even among full-time employees. That workers are continuously choosing the work they do, and may even in turn “outsource” tasks to others, is seen as evidence that they are working as equals among individuals who also can select tasks and structure their time on their own terms. This is a general perception, but anthropologists of work know to be a bit skeptical of this claim. Just because a person is continuously consenting to do work for others does not necessarily mean that the person has more autonomy or has more equitable work relationships than a person occupying a more traditional job. Neither the temporary contract (however short) nor the technological infrastructure supporting open calls, in and of themselves, are harbingers of autonomy or equity. Anthropologists know all too well that freedom or equity only arises from the social organization shaping the use of technologies and the decisions and actions of participants over time as they put contracts into practice. But it is still useful to understand that the appeal of jobless work is its presumed ability to provide autonomy and equality to workers.

Full and productive employment is a laudable goal and one that speaks heartily to diminishing inequalities and abuses of economic injustice. But what kind of problem is the goal trying to solve, and what promises are being made? Jobs, both traditionally conceived and in more recent reformulations, must be recognized as social configurations with social responsibilities.

In short, seeing how people interact with online work-distribution systems—the technologies that hold the promise of a jobless future—makes it even more clear what social organization is being promised when one promises jobs for all. Jobs are hierarchical: they frequently come with bosses and people one is socially obligated to across a range of accountabilities, for better or for worse. They are roles that segment and combine a set of tasks in ways that often require a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge. And jobs are always loci of evaluation in which people are judging both work and the worker. Full and productive employment is a laudable goal and one that speaks heartily to diminishing inequalities and abuses of economic injustice. But what kind of problem is the goal trying to solve, and what promises are being made? Jobs, both traditionally conceived and in more recent reformulations, must be recognized as social configurations with social responsibilities. Work, as a preferred fantasy of a utopic future, begins to break down when we see the limits of this vision. Indeed, when we look at why people might seek out a form of labor that is not organized through job roles, we begin to see some of the limitations in a futuristic vision that calls for more jobs instead of different equitable ways of distributing resources to everyone. More jobs may be a more rousing goal when you don’t look too closely at what jobs actually are.

Ilana Gershon is an associate professor at Indiana University.
Melissa Cefkin is at Nissan Research.

Gershon, Ilana, and Melissa Cefkin. 2017. “The Problem with Jobs.” American Anthropologist website, November 7.

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