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What’s Really New About the Gig Economy?

Uber and Lyft have become normalized part of our daily lives. Freelancers sell their “tasks” to the highest bidder. This is a new era; we call it the gig economy. But what is really new about it?

While cultural critics speculate that these apps will change hiring practices for the worse and utopians imagine that the same developments will help talented workers get rich quick, I argue that we have seen the same social and economic patterns before. For that reason, I suggest that we can look to literature and history if we aspire to understand or to resist some of the seemingly new developments that concern us today.

If you have only experienced the gig economy when requesting a ride or buying and selling goods on a site like Etsy, you might not be familiar with the broader terminology that concerns me here. Back in 2014, Micha Kaufman of Fiverr fame claimed to have invented a new concept—or at least a new acronym: SaaP, or Service as a Product. As the name suggests, this “invention” is really a way of conceptualizing labor. Instead of understanding a worker as a person replete with skills and foibles and needs, several high-profile companies are now advertising that they imagine a worker as a sum of her tasks. Advertising is the key word in this situation. Employers have long described their employees in similarly utilitarian terms, but only recently have such employers rebranded that fact as a new and beneficial invention.

The basic idea of “service as product” echoes the dehumanizing logics of Taylorism and industrialization. In fact, the word that Kaufman and others use to describe the services they offer—“productization”—bends over backwards to avoid the much-older but equally appropriate Marxist moniker: commodification. Historically and presently, management has understood workers to be salable as the sum of their tasks. The only difference is that now several high-profile tech companies would like you to pay for that privilege.

The restyling of a concept like commodification raises important questions, such as: how can something so old come to seem so cutting edge? Or: how can these new technologies appear to change so many aspects of ourselves and our society? These are a few of the questions that I address in my book, Power Lines, where I analyze American literature and culture to explore how earlier electrical inventions came to seem both astoundingly new and perfectly natural. In this short piece, I take a quick look at how these issues manifest in our present-day lives.

Within the last decade, several companies have promised to help freelancers sell their services. In addition to Fiverr, Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” uses its own proprietary acronym: HITs, or “Human Intelligence Tasks.” Competing outfits also include TaskRabbit (which was featured prominently in Season 3 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Upwork (which once was Elance), Toptal, Gigster, Konsus, and many more. The list is long, and it keeps growing.

Much could be said about the explosion of platforms that offer this type of “service.” Indeed, much could be said about the naming of these platforms, alone. You might feel like a “SaaP” if you sell your time and energy to a company that makes more profit from your data and your labor than you do. If you are a freelancer who wants employers to find you, HITs might call to mind desirable web traffic. HITs might also conjure images of addiction: when you run out of money in our precarious economy, you might need a HIT. And, as others have also acknowledged in biographical essays and in news articles, Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” is especially fascinating.

Amazon’s platform draws its name from an unusual source: a historical hoax. Introduced in 1770, “The Turk” was a sham automaton. It appeared to be a chess-playing robot, but in actuality it held a man in the machine. As Sarah Kessler pointed out in a recent article for Quartz, Amazon’s platform is similarly “designed to keep the worker hidden”; she also noted that workers have contested their erasure with a “Dear Jeff Bezos” campaign that begins with the axiom: “Turkers are human beings, not algorithms, and they should be marketed accordingly.” It is evocative that they insist on their own humanity for marketing reasons, rather than for the human and humane reasons for which labor has historically organized. This plea marks the difference between commodification and productization: the former is something that happens to you, the latter is something you do to yourself.

If we want to raise questions about the ways of understanding labor that these new technologies promote, acknowledging the human within the machine is an important step, but it isn’t enough.

As other cultural critics have observed, the gig economy resembles a magician’s misdirection. It creates the illusion of workers’ autonomy and control, while profiting doubly by skimming money from the top and by monetizing users’ data. As these platforms proliferate, they affect lives across the globe. When Ola and Uber changed their financial incentives, some drivers in India were driven to suicide.

With headlines like these, we have to wonder: what options do we have to help shape these applications into their most humane and generally beneficial forms? How can we insist that these companies share profits and treat workers fairly?

First, we can challenge the claim that task-peddling platforms give users control. These companies appeal to employees and employers with equal and opposite fantasies. And, as Data & Society postdoctoral fellow Caroline Jack argues, we should think critically about the tales they spin. These platforms assure would-be workers that their application will procure the most profitable employment, while promising employers that the same service can find the best employees for the lowest wages; these platforms entice freelancers with the allure of setting their own hours, while attracting employers with the newfound ability to hire the best with no strings attached (because, in today’s market, even the crème de la crème is expendable). These stories accentuate cultural fantasies about personal control, and they downplay the benefits of collegiality and teamwork. Those among us who are financially able to choose where we work or what services we use can resist these business practices and the atomizing narratives they sell us. We can also tell different, more accurate, stories by recognizing that the gig economy is much more collaborative than these platforms claim.

Second, we can learn from historical examples. Although the “Mechanical Turk” was a fraud, we still have yet to remove the human from even our most advanced inventions. People make decisions when creating and using technologies, and that means that different choices are also available. Our responses to the rise of the gig economy, today, echo the hopes and fears of the writers I discuss in my book, including Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, Ralph Ellison, and many others. In Power Lines, I argue that these writers teach us to stop trying to separate the good technology from the bad. Instead, they urge us to recognize that humans make technologies—and make technologies meaningful.

When we imagine that technology will help or harm us—when we place technology into the subjects of our sentences—we lose sight of our shared ability to change our technological culture. In other words, headlines that read “New technology allows companies to do away with hiring and just buy our skills online” could more accurately read: “Corporate class invests in new software to do away with hiring and just buy our skills online.” When we recognize the centrality of human choices, we can make decisions that protect workers. For example, Jamie Berg and Valerio De Stefano at the International Labour Organisation have recognized that the “same technology” that currently exploits workers, with a paradigm shift, can “be used to ensure that workers earn at least the minimum wage.”

Thoughtful technological users might not be able to stop the introduction of new technologies into our marketplaces, but we can intervene where people make decisions about what the future could and should look like. (Think, for example, of the Teamsters who are currently working to improve Uber’s labor policies or of Six Silberman and Lilly Irani who are working to unionize Turkers.) I call this type of hopeful intervention “technological humanism.” As opposed to “technological determinism,” technological humanism urges us to acknowledge that we have the right to co-author our technological future. New technologies will not exploit our labor; people in power will use new technologies to exploit our labor. For that reason, even though figureheads like Kaufman and Bezos will claim that “productization” is a twenty-first century phenomenon, older methods of labor organization and collaboration can still be used to reign in the exploitative abuses of our high-tech, low-wage era.

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