Is Crowdsourcing Bad?
Sometimes economic illiteracy gets weird.
It is a fascinating truism that even the most brilliant thinkers can display a lack of understanding about economics. The law of supply and demand is commonly misunderstood or outright ignored. TANSTAAFL always gets short shrift. Let’s not get started on the miracle-beyond-all-human-comprehension that is the pricing mechanism. And perhaps the most common misconception of all is that the economy is simply a giant fixed pie that can only be divvied up and subtracted from.
Sure, economists fail to agree on a whole lot — it’s known as the dismal science for a reason. But even basic economic principles recognized as universal axioms can throw eminently erudite people off their game.
A good example of this is a recent essay in The Baffler that almost achieves self-parody. This is despite its being very well written and edited (the author is a talented and accomplished writer, and The Baffler is great), and entirely aside from the fact that it starts from an intriguing premise about the hidden costs of crowdsourcing, a perspective that I was not at all antipathetic toward.
The essay is called “The Crowdsourcing Scam” and subtitled “Why do you deceive yourself?” The provocative title grabs the attention and the introduction doesn’t disappoint, describing what sounds like an amazing short story called “Codemus” by the Norwegian writer Tor Åge Bringsværd.
Here’s an excerpt from the author’s eloquent summation of the plot:
Everyone has been equipped with a “little brother”—a digital assistant that we might recognize as a smartphone, right down to its sinister double-duty as a tracking device. Little brothers wake their owners up, tell them when to go to work, guide them on their commutes, and bring them home. They are at once companions, fonts of information, communication tools (everyone talks on them while walking in public), and draconian taskmasters hiding behind the scrim of technological sophistication and awesome computing power. To disobey one’s little brother is to violate a central directive of this efficient society.
Codemus always follows his little brother’s commands, but one day, the gadget decides to rebel...
Well, that sounds cool. Add it to the queue!
The subsequent segue into his main topic isn’t hard to see coming: We’ve become too reliant on our technology, the power of which is as equally likely to be used for ill as it is for good (and perhaps more likely to be squandered altogether). The essay specifically examines the crowdsourcing phenomenon, which is having a moment — and which the author decidedly thinks is pernicious (hence the “Scam” of the title).
That’s all well and good. But the essay gets pretty weird pretty quick. With the very first mention of his focus — the rise of the crowdsourced worker — comes our first glimpse into some erroneous economic thinking.
Live Free or Crowdsource
Here’s the pithy summation of the crowdsourced labor market: “Less complicated work can be either farmed out to low-wage freelance and temporary workers or subdivided into smaller and smaller units of work, which are then widely distributed through a cloud-based labor market.”
That seems fair. Likewise his description of “online labor markets like Elance, oDesk, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which offer micro-jobs that can be done remotely, with little to no training.”
But it’s the subsequent value judgments that risibly miss the mark:
1) Opportunities for supplemental income are conflated with full-time — even lifetime career — work.
2) There is a willful insistence on ignoring that every one of these opportunities is completely voluntary, and therefore undertaken freely and mutually — or passed over.
3) It is asserted that freelancers, contractors, and assorted TaskRabbits “acquire no skills.” What a confident pronouncement to make about millions of workers in a complex economy; surely some of these roles enable and encourage the cultivation of certain skills?
4) The author claims that crowdsourcers “learn nothing about the product.” Another bold generalization not backed by any data or even commonsense. Really? None of these workers ever learn about any product that they are working with and for?
5) He laments that “they have no contact with other workers.” Now I wonder if we’re just verging on some strange psychological projection or something — I know freelance writing can be a solitary experience, but this is still wildley overstating the case.)
6) And then we get the big guns: “They have no chance to advance or unionize.”
With that final complaint we get to the marrow of the issue, or at least to the writer’s issues — it’s all about the right to strike! That’s why all those Elance gigs are bad.
Apparently the author wishes to halt the evil tide of crowdsourcing and eradicate once and for all the chance for teenagers, college students, freelancers, underemployed people, and anyone else with some spare time and a desire to earn a few extra bucks here and there to do so willingly, all while doing someone else a solid at the same time. Because they surely are being exploited.
Why would anyone automatically assume that though? According to the author, our poor crowdsourcers are relenting to “sub-market wages” for these opportunities. A moment’s consideration reveals this to be self-evidently false. If a job is posted at a certain rate and there is someone out there to fulfill it, then that is the market. There is nothing “sub” about it.
It’s not exactly far-fetched to imagine that many posted tasks offer compensation that is too low for many opportunity-seekers, but if so, that just means those individuals will pass over them completely for opportunities offering better pay. And if a task is posted for so little that nobody will take it — only then do we arrive “below the market.” And the market has the remedy: that job won’t get done until the would-be employer raises the stakes.
The fallacies continue. He writes, “[H]umans are required only so long as they complete the minimum amount of work that cannot be done by software.” This way of thinking is exceedingly common, perhaps because it’s very intuitive. Here’s an example of how it’s just not true. The rise of ATMs is often blamed for stealing bank tellers’ jobs, yet the number of bank tellers rose even as ATMs spread across the country — likely because the rise in automation allowed banks to conduct more business and open more branches. It’s rarely as simple as “robot does job; humans lose job.” (This particular fallacy is really an extension of one mentioned earlier, where people conceive of the economy as a fixed pie.)
Don’t Be Evil, Bro
The author goes on to attack seemingly benign projects, like Google’s mission to digitize the world’s books. Are you having trouble imagining why creating digital records of all published material might be evil? Well, more precisely, the author’s complaint is with reCAPTCHA, a tool he accurately describes as “a version of the now-ubiquitous online tests used to verify that a person is not a spambot.”
OK, so what’s the problem? This:
“This program, bought up by Google in 2009, shows two words, barely legible and contorted into loopy shapes, to a user, who types them in a box. When she types them correctly, she verifies that she’s a human being, but in the process, she also transcribes a word or two from Google’s massive book-scanning project—and she provides a service that the company’s optical character recognition software can’t.”
That does sound pretty terrible. Oh wait. Actually, I think you’d have to have a pretty skewed view of reality to believe this is in any way problematic, let alone seriously so. Wouldn’t a more reasonable reaction be something like, “Hey, you mean I’m adding to the future store of knowledge enjoyed by human civilization just by recording these two words? Which I would have to do anyway? Sweet!” Well, it’s thinking like that that betrays your idiotic self-delusion! As the author explains, that’s just Google stealing people’s labor. Google owes them. It owes all of us.
And why is Google doing this? Easy. Pure greed: “[T]he digitization of human knowledge they celebrate is merely a scaffolding on which Google can hang more ads.”
Read that once more. It sounds like he thinks “Google Ads” are like billboards or magazine pages that Google buys out just to advertise Google itself, rather than a way to allow people to pay for the opportunity to market their own products or services to the billions of eyes the company’s free search service captures every day (a service I suppose the author feels that we are all entitled to Google, that was always just there and takes zero resources to improve, etc.).
Next he takes time to denounce Duolingo, which dares to help users learn new languages while translating material provided by paying corporate clients of Duolingo’s that need translation help. Remember, companies are voluntarily paying Duolingo to feature their material for translation, which allows Duolingo to offer its educational services to students free of charge. The writer calls this voluntary arrangement “disturbing.”
Maybe he’s right. How dare they. Just thinking of all those people learning languages, and all that material getting translated for the eventual understanding and benefit of other readers — man, it’s enough to make the blood boil.
Some of the errors of logic in this piece can’t even be identified, as the author has a tendency to steal rhetorical bases on the assumption that his readers share his bizarre outlook and conspiracy theories and never bothers to connect the dots. Like in this instance, where he brings up (c’mon, you saw this coming) Uber, quoting an uberX driver who said, “We have become the functional end of the app” — which sounds to me simply like a neutral statement of objective fact, but which the author ominously follows with, “And that’s the ugly, dystopian truth at the heart of the networked digital economy: crowdsourced workers are expected to work seamlessly with software, following its commands.”
“Ugly, dystopian truth”? What exactly is the problem there? What is so inherently awful about working “seamlessy with software”? We’re never told. It’s all just so . . . reactionary, wouldn’t you say?
Just a few sentences later the author is complaining that people submitting content to America’s Funniest Home Videos are being exploited! That might be the funniest economic argument I’ve ever seen. It’s what led me to think — though only for a moment — that this whole essay was an elaborate troll. Kind of like when that professor submitted computer-generated nonsense to academic journals, which then actually went ahead and published them in earnest.
That’s Not Funny
So, was this writer punking The Baffler? It would be awesome, but sadly I don’t think so. And that spiel about America’s Funniest Home Videos might not be the oddest part of the whole essay. One of the writer’s complaints is with the term “crowdsourcing” itself. His objection to the term is that for there to be a true crowd, people must be physically assembled — you know, like at a baseball game, or at a protest, or at a strike among factory workers that crushes the heart of the porcine owners of capital! (Sorry, got carried away.) So yeah, he objects to the metaphor, because crowdsourced workers never actually congregate in crowds. Or unionize. Or strike.
Moreover, he oddly claims that any time a crowd does assemble, individual members dissolve their identities and “unify for a common cause.” As if every single crowd, by its very nature, achieves a single unified voice. To really believe this would require someone to never, ever have ventured outside and mingled among two or more other people.
Immediately following the odd semantic complaint about what a crowd is, we get some more projection: “The contemporary practice of crowdsourcing employs this illusion—that everyone is equal, united in a shared goal.” Riiiight, that’s how “the regime of crowdsourcing” is sold to the world. Our corporate overlords pretend that crowdsourcing is really our best chance at finally erasing our illusory individual identities to join together for a common cause — just like on a commune! It’s not at all about leveraging individuals’ interests in mutually beneficial arrangements freely undertaken. Nope. Because (and you’re not gonna believe this) in our crowdsourced world, “everyone is actually competing with one another.” Huge, if true. Talk about burying the lead.
Which brings us to this blatantly self-contradictory argument: “Those contributing to a crowdsourced project control nothing about the terms of their participation. Sure, it may be up to them whether they want to participate at all, but…”
“But” what? People “control nothing about the terms of their participation,” except that “it may be up to them whether they want to participate at all”? Rare has cognitive dissonance been so neatly laid out.
Does it feel like we’re beating a dead horse yet? Just one more item. More than once, the author faults others for failing to recognize that the Pyramids were built with slave labor — apparently ignorant of the fact that this has been shown to be false. Historians now believe that slave labor was not used, that in reality the laborers worked willingly and were compensated (perhaps with beer).
So the guy’s not up on his Egyptology. No biggie. If only that was the biggest problem with smug pieces such these. But the collapse of the “slave labor” analogy mirrors in miniature the unsoundness of the entire argument.
The Authoritarian Mind
It seems that as the economy and our behavior endlessly react to evolving technology, some experience great frustration, all stemming from the crushing certainty that the millions of people gladly taking up crowdsourced jobs must be doing so against their own economic interests and outside the enlightened purview of elite overseers. These workers are being mercilessly exploited and they can’t even see it! Now as ever, the masses are assumed to be delusional about how best to spend their own time and where to offer their labor. In this instance, a solution is raised: He wants them to unionize. Never mind how, or how infeasible it would be. They just need to make it happen, or else be resigned to a life of technocratic serfdom.
There will always be those who are sure they know best and who wish to save us all from ourselves. Certain casts of mind lead people to believe they have the power to comprehend and plan an entire global economy, weigh billions of daily interactions and transactions, and ascertain the personal situations and appropriate priorities of every last human on Earth. Their values are the correct ones. Only they can determine the correct terms and compensation for any given contract. The world they so fully grasp is the One True World; the world that is nothing but exploitation and misery all the way down; the world they would organize on our behalf to protect us from our greed and idiocies.
It’s an age-old story. As long as there are humans milling about this planet, it will forever be stocked with scolds and authoritarians who are sure they know better than everyone else, who know precisely how to run everybody else’s lives better than they do, and who just can’t wait to tell us all how.
If only we’d listen. If only we’d all shut up and let them fix us, and fix this broken world, once and for all. What could go wrong?
Come to think of it, the subhead of that essay asks the right question after all: “Why do you deceive yourself?”
Posted on March 25, 2015