One of the many interesting threads that I picked out of the hot economics tome of 2014, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, was that, given that the success of the 20th century was a short-lived economic fluke because of an unprecedented confluence of world events, we in the 2000s in the West are seeing a gradual return to the kind of economic inequality that we saw in the 19th century and before. Already, the value of inherited wealth in relation to the economy as a whole is at par with where it was in 1910, and steadily rising.
I thought of this when grappling with this week’s topic, the redevelopment of the “Human Intelligence Task:” a 21st century, Western spin on piece work. We are returning to the 1800s economically in more ways than one, it seems — but there are thinkers out there searching for ways to make this reality work for the workers
In his article “Say Goodbye To Your Highly Skilled Job. It’s Now a Human Intelligence Task” journalist Mark Harris delves deep into the world of “Meatware:” digital crowdworkers who do multiple tiny online tasks from anywhere for a few cents to a buck or two. Most of these tasks are one step above automation — tagging suspected cancer cells in scans of patient tissue, for example, or filling out surveys, or transcribing information from format to format. Companies like CrowdFlower, zCrowd, and others sprouted up in the wake of the industry behemoth, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
Scary headline aside, Harris investigates the current state of the market, where tasks can run the gamut from interesting and well-paid, to too complicated and not worth it. Until recently, crowdworking companies have been mostly content to connect tasker and task, without thinking of the quality of life this working style affords. But, industry development is now looking further into the future:
“‘The very ephemeral, very shallow kind of work on Mechanical Turk is going to generate some economic activity, but is generally not sustainable in the very long term,” [Praveen Paritosh, Google research scientist in human and machine intelligence] says. ‘What is sustainable is moving crowdworking further along the computational spectrum, where there is room for more skill, more education, more training.’”
Crowdworking companies are starting to realize that this “room,” and the engagement it brings, should result in more contented, higher paid workers — and therefore, productivity above and beyond that which results from the current, simple, dangling-carrot arrangement.
“[Isaac Nichols, founder of zCrowd] believes that workers will ultimately prefer an environment where they feel part of the larger business. […] ‘Look at any company structure and there’s a ladder to climb where people get paid more as they move up. There’s a similar structure to be built on top of the crowd,’ he says. ‘I’d love to see the day where someone can have a career in crowdworking: to work whenever they want, wherever they want, and get paid more for their experience.”
It will be really interesting to see where this trend towards higher quality of working life takes us. Even as we careen back towards 19th century economic conditions, what we know about the possibilities of technology will ensure our future will always be unique!