Ian Mulvany

October 29, 2021

as employers what are our obligations to to millions of micro workers?

The following article on the guardian: (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/27/big-techs-push-for-automation-hides-the-grim-reality-of-microwork) shines a light on the wage precarity of those who take on digital tasks on platforms such as Mechanical Turk. 

I do think that the article brings together two different kinds of work displacement. On being the increasing robotisation of things like delivery, burger flipping, and shop checkouts, the second being the more pernicious use of human minds to complete micro tasks. 

For the first of these I think that we will see some changes in the balance of the economy, but it is not going to be radically different from other times that industrialisation or automation has entered sectors, and people will find other places to find labor. 

The second of these though, is a very new kind of industrialisation, the pure industrialisation of paid attention, sliced into units that give no power to those who seek work on these platforms. A study from 2009 indicated that the mean hourly wage for Turkers was under $2. At that time that study indicated that 1/3 or tasks completed on the platform were done by people who were using it to meet basic needs, rather than as a hobby. 

I think an ethical approach to using these systems has to start with pricing tasks in the least exploitative way that one can, and then to use these tasks for exploration, rather than as a core part of a workflow. 

There are many tasks that could be of use to scholarly publishing workflows, such as labelling, disambiguation, data extraction, but I think we cannot conclude that to use these platforms is an ethical way to achieve these goals. 

About Ian Mulvany

Hi, I'm Ian - I work on academic publishing systems. You can find out more about me at mulvany.net. I'm always interested in engaging with folk on these topics, if you have made your way here don't hesitate to reach out if there is anything you want to share, discuss, or ask for help with!