Friday, January 14, 2011

Flexible labor utopia (14 August 2007)

In its most recent issue, BusinessWeek has a package of articles on the future of work, and not surprisingly, these mostly adopt the viewpoint of management, regarding labor as a data stream of productivity and costs. This is a common euphemistic practice, to conceal the pain of workers behind dehumanizing terminology -- empowered workers become "a tight labor market" that's responsible not for a improved standard of living for workers (for that all credit must go to management's brilliant efforts to extract more productivity from said labor market without increasing costs) but only inflationary pressure and macroeconomic danger. This damned tight labor market is keeping the Fed from cutting interest rates and giving the stock market a boost; if only more workers would be laid off and the reserve army of the unemployed were beefed up a little bit, then we'd have ripe conditions for the good kind of growth -- get more of the fruits of economic growth in the hands of passive investors rather than the workers producing it.

It's enough to make one want to dream of a world without a parasitic management stratum, and interestingly enough, the BusinessWeek package offers a hint of one form such a world might take. One article described Amazon's Mechanical Turk program, which seeks to match people with free time with simple jobs that can be done on computers but only with human guidance. The name Mechanical Turk is a reference to the famed hoax where a little chess genius hid inside a cabinet and pretended to be a machine. In other words, one got from the Mechanical Turk human expertise in the guise of a machine. So Amazon calls it artificial artificial intelligence -- it allows corporations to use computer networks to harness uniquely human skill sets. But the crux of Amazon's program is to liberate work from the managerial structures in which it is customarily contained -- rather than show up at an appointed time and labor for a set number of hours for a by and large inflexible wage on the same tasks over and over again, the Mechanical Turk system portends relations of production in which workers would elect to work only as much as they chose to on tasks and for wages they basically select from a menu that takes into account their particular skills. This is how Amazon describes it (and I apologize in advance for the surfeit of business-ese in this excerpt):
Humans are much more effective than computers at solving some types of problems, like finding specific objects in pictures, evaluating beauty, or translating text. The Amazon Mechanical Turk web service gives developers a programmable interface to a network of humans to solve these kinds of problems and incorporate this human intelligence into their applications.
For businesses and entrepreneurs who want tasks completed, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of getting work done in a cost-effective manner by people who have the skill to do the work. The service provides access to a vast network of human intelligence with the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness of computers. Oftentimes, the cost of establishing a network of skilled people to do the work outweighs the value of completing it. By turning the fixed costs into variable costs that scale with business needs, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service eliminates this barrier and allows work to be completed that before was not economical.
For people who want to earn money in their spare time, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site solves the problem of finding work that they can do wherever and whenever they want.
I bolded what seems to me the key notion here, that capital can thrive by getting rid of the overhead costs of committing to maintaining a workforce. That sounds like a bad thing unless you are enamored of the utopian possibility that this will mean much more flexibility for labor as well as producers. If you are sufficiently optimistic, you can see in work distributed over the internet an end to the sites of exploitation, the factories and offices where surplus value is extorted. And with surplus value remaining with the worker, we effortlessly move out of the era of capitalist relations into something new.

Needless to say, there is reason to be skeptical of this revolution-free path to greater egalitarianism and better quality of life for workers. Turning the internet into a giant worldwide labor market is likely to cause massive amounts of "dislocation" Currently, a class divide exists between those who have access to a feel comfortable in the internet environment, and those who are afraid of breaking the entire computer by pressing the wrong button and erasing everything. The divide is in part generational but is also a matter of income and autonomy -- the income to have access to the latest technological innovation, and the autonomy to teach oneself how to use it successfully. That autonomy may come from higher education, or it may be part of the apparatus that comes with a bourgeois upbringing. At any rate, the technological dispersal of work will only benefit those equipped to navigate the system, and the amount of work to be dispersed in this way will likely remain a scarce commodity, as a larger and larger bulk of jobs in the future will consist of face-to-face services -- care for the elderly, processing food, nursing, etc.

Still, it's pleasant to dream about being able to log on for a few hours to replenish your account doing whatever task that's available that looks intriguing and then spending the rest of your time furthering your own projects, perhaps generating tasks you'd be willing to pay someone else for help with. We could all be middle managers, grunt workers and entrepreneurs all at once, depending on the time of day and the energy we're inclined to invest.

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