A dream becomes a nightmare

    LABOUR: On the front lines of the visible – and invisible – global platform economy.

    Their very ubiquity makes them invisible – the Uber drivers, the Deliveroo riders, the Lyft chauffeurs. They are everywhere, on the streets of every city and community in virtually every country in the world.

    But others truly deserve the term «ghost workers» in the global platform economy – now worth an astonishing $5 trillion. Those are the workers who do tasks mediated by the giants of social media that are performed in cyberspace, not physical space. They work for peanuts per job on such platforms at Amazon Mechanical Turk, which promises clients can «access a global, on-demand, 24X7 workforce» without going to the trouble of «hiring a large temporary workforce, which is time-consuming, expensive and difficult to scale, or have gone undone.»

    The Gig is Up, a film by Shannon Walsh
    The Gig is Up, a film by Shannon Walsh

    Micro-tasks for micropayments

    Leaving aside in quite what universe that tortuous phrase «have gone undone» (presumably it means, dispense with) emerged – the Meta Universe, perhaps – M.Turk (named after a late 18th-century fake mechanical chess-playing machine that concealed a human chess grandmaster beneath the board) – uses the human labour to do the tasks that computerised AI – Augmented Intelligence – is not very good at, such as proof-reading texts, evaluating dating site photos and text, or filling out surveys.

    M.Turk offers online developers the opportunity to outsource millions of «micro-tasks» – for micropayments: in Nigeria, one M.Turk contractor appraises online personals for 10 cents a job; if he earns $.250 or more in a day, he considers himself fortunate.

    But it is not only those struggling to make ends meet in developing countries that find themselves at the mercy of the algorithms that drive this uniquely 21st-century type of work, The Gig Is Up, Shannon Walsh’s engaging and disturbing films shows.

    it is not only those struggling to make ends meet in developing countries that find themselves at the mercy of the algorithms that drive this uniquely 21st-century type of work

    The gig economy

    From China to France and the USA, millions of people are engaged in the gig economy. By 2025 it is estimated that 540 million worldwide will be making their living via platform work, many drawn by the benefits – flexibility, working for yourself, no office hours, access regardless of most formal qualifications. But those very advantages are also disadvantaging when the true nature of the gig economy is exposed.

    Drawing on expert comment from writers and researchers into the online world of platforms, Shannon draws back a veil on how companies such as Uber (which despite consistently losing money still attracted $8 billion when it made its IPO in 2019, valuing the company at $75 billion) initially attracted workers by offering customers big discounts and drivers good rates.

    San Francisco Uber driver, Annette Rivero, quit her comfortably paid job, drawn by the opportunity to . . .

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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