For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The platform as factory: Crowdwork and the hidden labour behind artificial intelligence {p.146]"

by Altenried, Moritz (2020)


This article analyses crowdwork platforms where various forms of digital labour are outsourced to digital workers across the globe. The labour of these workers is, among other things, a crucial component in the production, development and support of artificial intelligence. Crowdwork platforms are an extreme example of new forms of automated measurement, management and control of labour allowing, in turn, for the creation of hyperflexible and highly scalable workforces. Particularly on so-called microtask platforms, work is characterised by decomposition, standardisation, automated management and surveillance, as well as algorithmically organised cooperation between a great number of workers. Analysing these platforms as a paradigmatic example of an emerging digital Taylorism, the article goes on to argue that this allows the platforms to assemble a deeply heterogeneous set of workers while bypassing the need to spatially and subjectively homogenise them. These platforms create a global on-demand workforce, working in their private homes or Internet cafes. As a result, crowdwork taps into labour pools hitherto almost inaccessible to wage labour. The second part of the article investigates this tendency by looking at two sets of workers: women shouldering care responsibilities, who now can work on crowdwork platforms while performing domestic labour, as well as digital workers in the Global South. While there are clear specifics of digital crowdwork, it is also an expression of broader transformations within the world of work, concerning, for example, new forms of algorithmic management just as the return of very old forms of exploitation such as the piece wage.

Key Passage

Crowdworkers form a growing component of the digital working class as well as the political economy of the Internet more generally, filling in where software fails to find solutions. Working from their personal computers, they constitute a hyperflexible, on-demand workforce which can be accessed and let go in seconds. Many of them sweat over minor tasks which are not (yet) computable by machines but can be solved by a distributed mass of human cognition organised by algorithmic infrastructures. In this function, crowdwork is a crucial, if seldom discussed component in the development, training and support of artificial intelligence. ()


Crowdwork, Gig Economics, Digital Labor, Outsourcing, Artificial Intelligence, Taylorism, Technology


Capitalism, Automation

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