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The digital revolution: at humanity's expense?

“Behind AI, there is an army of underpaid microworkers”

On June 8th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
“Behind AI, there is an army of underpaid microworkers”
Antonio Casilli
Antonio Casilli
Sociologist, Professor at Télécom Paris (IP Paris), and Associate Researcher at LACI-IIAC of EHESS
Key takeaways
  • “Micro-work”, paid pennies for very simple and repetitive tasks done online, directly from home, is a new form of work that is flourishing on digital platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk.
  • Workers included 260,000 people in France in 2019, and 100 million worldwide. Yet their situation often goes unnoticed and is often precarious.
  • Even though microworkers are more qualified than the average (43.5% have at least a bachelor’s degree), they are paid a few pennies per hour.
  • For Antonio Casilli, the political recognition of this form of work is therefore necessary and will have to go through a greater redistribution of the profits of the digital giants.

Tech­nol­o­gy is not going to erad­i­cate work for humans! Quite the oppo­site, in fact – there is a strong risk that it will “pro­le­tar­i­anise” it, by mak­ing that work invis­i­ble and lim­it­ing it to small, repet­i­tive, under­qual­i­fied tasks. This is the argu­ment put for­ward by dig­i­tal soci­ol­o­gy researcher Anto­nio Casilli.

Who are France’s microworkers?

They are work­ers who log on from home to plat­forms like Amazon’s Mechan­i­cal Turk to com­plete so-called “human intel­li­gence” tasks paid on a per job basis. They nev­er know who they are work­ing for, or to what end, because most of the time com­pa­nies pub­lish their jobs anony­mous­ly. The tasks, which are often used to sup­ple­ment arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, are repet­i­tive and require few qual­i­fi­ca­tions – cir­cle toma­toes in a pho­to to assist nutri­tion appli­ca­tions, tran­scribe receipts, cal­i­brate vir­tu­al assis­tants by assess­ing the qual­i­ty of speech syn­the­sis, copy and paste, say words aloud, indi­cate the colour of a char­ac­ter, and so on – all for a few cents.

Accord­ing to the “Microwork in France” study that I con­duct­ed with my research group DiPLab (short for Dig­i­tal Plat­form Labour), there were approx­i­mate­ly 260,000 peo­ple microwork­ing at least occa­sion­al­ly in France in 20191. The major­i­ty are women (56%) who are 25–44 years old (63%), and near­ly half of peo­ple sur­veyed said they resort to this kind of work out of finan­cial need. Hence, microwork is often a source of extra income, even though the aver­age month­ly pay was only €21. Even more sur­pris­ing­ly, these “click­work­ers” have more qual­i­fi­ca­tions than the aver­age French per­son – 43.5% have done min­i­mum two years of post-sec­ondary stud­ies. Yet, despite their sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, these work­ers remain com­plete­ly invisible.

Why are they more invis­i­ble than oth­er work­ers in the dig­i­tal space, like food deliv­ery or rideshare drivers?

First­ly, it’s because of the very nature of their job. In real­i­ty, microwork is just remote work­ing pushed to the extreme. It’s a remote activ­i­ty, but for boss­es and with col­leagues who are often com­plete­ly anony­mous. On the oth­er hand, Uber and Deliv­eroo dri­vers have been seek­ing out col­lec­tive solu­tions and form­ing unions to make their voic­es heard. This is even more the case since they are vast­ly more vis­i­ble than before when they roam the desert­ed streets of cities under Covid lock­down. But, unlike these work­ers, microwork­ers have zero pres­ence in the pub­lic sphere. And the super-strict con­fi­den­tial­i­ty agree­ments that they may have to sign make it hard­er for them to seek recog­ni­tion for their work.

More and more coun­tries, such as Spain, the UK and France, are requir­ing plat­forms (par­tic­u­lar­ly Uber) to recog­nise the employ­ment sta­tus of their work­ers. Yet the many hands that train our AI in the form of microwork are still ignored. I think efforts to reg­u­late the indus­try come in large part from work­ers’ vis­i­bil­i­ty, and from the phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty between deliv­er­ers and clients. It’s quite a para­dox, as there are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more microwork­ers, both in France and inter­na­tion­al­ly, at least accord­ing to our esti­mates and those of our col­leagues at Oxford Inter­net Insti­tute2

What we do know is that phys­i­cal effort is not the only way that deliv­er­ers pro­duce val­ue. They, too, per­form invis­i­ble tasks, pro­duc­ing data for the plat­form and there­by feed­ing the algo­rithms and AI that serve in part to improve algo­rith­mic solu­tions. This data must then be processed and, con­trary to what you might think, it can­not be processed with­out the sup­port of a large human work­force – which does not need to be locat­ed in the coun­try of pro­duc­tion. While France has 260,000 microwork­ers, these plat­forms have more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple signed up inter­na­tion­al­ly. The vast major­i­ty of these “crowd­work­ers” are found in devel­op­ing coun­tries, in Indi­an, South­east Asian, African and Latin Amer­i­can “click farms”. 

This huge lev­el of out­sourc­ing is redefin­ing the geog­ra­phy of the future, but it also influ­ences the recog­ni­tion of this work. There are pure­ly polit­i­cal stakes with regards to the issue of the invis­i­bil­i­ty – not only are these work­ers not vis­i­ble in the pub­lic sphere, but the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty also can­not vote in their (devel­oped) coun­try of res­i­dence, unlike deliv­ery and rideshare dri­vers. Con­se­quent­ly, their recog­ni­tion is not a polit­i­cal priority.

Are you in favour of a “dig­i­tal social income”?

The automa­tion and “plat­formi­sa­tion” of the econ­o­my is caus­ing human work to explode, not die out! We are all microwork­ers in our own way – when you com­plete a CAPTCHA or add a hash­tag on Insta­gram, you’re help­ing to train a com­put­er vision sys­tem or pro­vid­ing a cat­e­go­ry for your post, instead of the plat­form doing it.

This is why there has been dis­cus­sion in France since 2012 about the fis­cal recog­ni­tion of this “free work” done by app users3. Of course, it’s not the users who should pay these tax­es, but the com­pa­nies that own the plat­forms. Some 93% of French peo­ple use Google, and the com­pa­ny should pay tax­es in pro­por­tion to the amount of data pro­duced by French cit­i­zens. This fis­cal rev­enue could then be used to fund redis­tri­b­u­tion poli­cies, includ­ing a “dig­i­tal social income”.

The aim of this income would be to divide up the val­ue gen­er­at­ed by click­work­ers, microwork­ers and ordi­nary users, in an uncon­di­tion­al way with all social ser­vices con­sid­ered equal. The aim is not to com­pen­sate peo­ple indi­vid­u­al­ly accord­ing to the amount of time spent on plat­forms. The con­se­quences of that would be dis­as­trous, with super­pow­er plat­forms pay­ing peanuts for our clicks while we slave away over micro­jobs! The aim is sim­ply to redis­trib­ute the val­ue pro­duced, which until now has been hoard­ed by plat­forms, to pre­vent the “pro­le­tari­sa­tion” of human work.

Interview by Juliette Parmentier
1Rap­port final du pro­jet DiPLab, par Casil­li, A. A., Tubaro, P., Le Ludec, C., Cov­ille, M., Besen­val, M., Mouhtare, T., Wahal, E., « Le Micro-tra­vail en France. Der­rière l’automatisation de nou­velles pré­car­ités au tra­vail ? », 2019, http://​diplab​.eu
2Otto Käs­si, Vili Lehdon­vir­ta, Fabi­an Stephany, « How Many Online Work­ers are there in the World? A Data-Dri­ven Assess­ment », ArX­iV, 2021, <arXiv:2103.12648>
3Nico­las Col­in et Pierre Collin, Rap­port relatif à la fis­cal­ité du secteur numérique, Paris, La Doc­u­men­ta­tion française, 2013