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.