If you believe the doomsayers, Big Tech seems destined to render our jobs obsolete by roboticizing capitalism with legions of worker drones. But grappling with new frontiers of tech-driven work platforms like Uber shouldn’t mean walling ourselves off from innovation. Some labor-oriented technologists are trying to build alternative platforms, by retooling tech labor as a socialist enterprise.
One place where progressive digital labor models are taking hold is at the frontiers of “crowdwork”: This sector enables people looking for a quick job to ply their trades though an online hiring hall, where people seeking services can “bid” for workers to perform tasks ranging from pet-sitting to decluttering e-mail inboxes. But crowd-based service markets are today dominated by corporate micro-work platforms, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, and short-term digital job boards like Task Rabbit. These systems tend to exploit their gig workers under an online “piecework” model, so that people who use the platforms to pay the bills often end up earning below minimum wage on sporadic on-call contract work, filtered through a faceless online portal.
Fed up with this heartless model, some tech activists are developing online workplaces that operate as worker-driven communities. Daemo, a pilot program incubated at Stanford University’s Crowd Research Collective, is one such worker-driven crowd-labor platform. Since 2015, Daemo’s developers have been building on MTurk’s interface with a communications system aimed at allowing for more equitable “matching” between work requesters and digital taskers. As a non-hierarchical, nonprofit framework where workers control the operations, Daemo is designed for fairer working conditions, with a minimum wage of $10 an hour, which is a major improvement on MTurk’s precarious labor-outsourcing system. MTurk has been embroiled in legal challenges over the paltry wages paid to its half-million-strong global workforce, as well as other controversies over data transparency, labor violations, and quality control.
Daemo seems like a springboard to digital-workplace democracy, but even if it incorporates cooperative principles, ensuring workers’ real ownership remains a challenge.
Some former participants in Daemo’s project recently aired sharp criticism of the platform in response to a largely favorable article in Wired. In a collectively authored article on Medium, they argued that, in their practical experience with the platform, decision-making power rests with a “platform team” of researchers and leading developers. Though Daemo has established a Constitution that theoretically is open to amendments and revision based on workers’ input, critics say the day-to-day management remains tightly controlled by researchers. Former Daemo team member Mohammed Hashim Suliman has grown apart from the organization since helping to launch its architecture back in 2015. He had hoped Daemo would demonstrate what the originators called “system democracy,” which “allows both workers and requesters to directly influence the rules engine of the system through a democratic process. One person, one vote.” But today he sees Daemo drifting toward a more conventional corporate-style hierarchy.
In discussions on democratizing crowdwork, there’s tension between the drive to engineer improvements and empowering workers to decide on policies, with a deliberative process to determine compensation, for example, or long-term plans for expanding the enterprise. “Whenever they talk about the decentralization, they talk about technical decentralization, like block-chain or decentralized platforms, but most of the time they overlook the governance level, which is more important,” Hashim says. “So it’s about who takes the positions, it’s about who has the right to access information. If you don’t have a well-informed society, you don’t have democracy.”
Kristy Milland, an activist with the MTurk advocacy network We Are Dynamo, says she’s given up collaborating with Daemo because “There hasn’t been any deep, involved worker input…. It’s built by academics with the bias they bring to such a platform that they expect will provide them with free data to publish down the road. Just like Amazon built MTurk with their needs in mind, even if many of the roadblocks this caused may have been unintentional.”
In a statement to The Nation, Daemo’s team argued that the critiques aired in Medium mischaracterize the organization’s Constitution, stressing that the system and Constitution remain a work in progress. The group’s Constitution emphasizes ensuring transparency across the platform and collaborative management.
Overall, however, the crowdwork sector still faces an ongoing challenge in fusing the digital economy with principles of economic democracy and equity.
The “platform cooperativism” concept, as articulated by technologist Trebor Scholz and other academics, is that worker control can be integrated by working with the democratic aspects of the online sphere: entrepreneurial horizontalism and a pluralistic culture of innovation. But with online workspaces proliferating at breakneck speed, it’s a race to see whether these more principled worker-led models will ever be able to compete for market share with the app-based workforce of MTurk. Similarly, small-scale cab-service cooperatives are emerging in the United States, but Uber and Lyft’s mega brands are displacing cabbies by the minute.
The problem with crowd labor isn’t that it’s big, or complex; it’s that workers can’t control their means of technological production. According to Joshua Danielson of the Bay Area start-up cooperative Loconomics, Daemo’s model “has the potential to provide an alternative to Amazon Turk,” if the platform combines a good product and good jobs for the producers. The key, he says via e-mail, is “creating a cooperative business model that can be self-sufficient and be able to attract clients. The latter is the more challenging one given the deep pockets of the current players. That said, it’s important to remember that workers are the product, not the platform, and they hold an immense amount of power if they can organize.” Loconomics, which matches local personal services like dog walking or tutoring with local clients,is a basic, small-scale business, but the model could be applied universally: Each worker is also a shareholder, Danielson explains. By paying a $20-to-$40 monthly sustaining fee, they earn money from clients gained through the online hub, while Loconomics remains “a 100 percent worker-owned cooperative to ensure that our product, the services from the workers, isn’t sacrificed for profits of external shareholders.”
The digital frontier offers endless room both for exploitation and for social transformation. But if workers can get ahead of corporations in harnessing the potential of open-source technology, they can disrupt the incumbent Silicon Valley oligarchs from below. So far, technology hasn’t emancipated labor nearly as rapidly as it has liberalized markets. Cooperative thinking can make technological power part of the solution, but only if it’s matched with people power.