Crowdsourcing and the new alienating nature of work

Now, this is scary: IBM could shed three quarters of its workforce, due to crowdsourcing!

And this meditation on payment by Andy Oram is not very re-assuring.

Clearly, crowdsourcing is creating new imbalances, some of them to the detriment of workers, as pointed out by Jonathan Zittrain:

“Zittrain, a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, is a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Zittrain speculated on how crowdsourcing might change the nature of work and leisure and the ethical ramifications of those changes.

For example, he introduced the audience to LiveOps, a company that offers “an integrated, full-service virtual call center that leverages a workforce in the cloud.” In other words, LiveOps marshals its independent agents to handle calls for any number of different companies. The model provides flexibility for LiveOps customers, who pay only when they use the service, and for employees, who can work when and wherever they want.

On the other hand, Zittrain said, LiveOps can monitor their agents “six ways from Sunday.” Calls are recorded, response time is measured, and agents, who are not really employees, can be summarily dropped. “And that’s it. It’s not like you get any right to a performance review or even an ability to take your portfolio or reputation with you should you want to move to another company,” he said.

Also, because agents are not traditional employees, their employment is not governed by current laws regarding child labor, minimum wage, or social security eligibility.

Zittrain was also concerned about alienation in such work environments. “You have no idea who’s commissioning [the work]; you can’t decide about the fruits of your labor and how they will be used.” He worried that a more sophisticated site like Innocentive might post scientific problems whose solution might be put to nefarious uses without the people submitting their ideas realizing that they are contributing to a harmful project.”

Are there any solutions?

Zittrain suggested several solutions to the problems he identified, including setting labor standards for contract agents, allowing unionization, and disclosing who is commissioning the various tasks that are being crowdsourced.

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