Millions of crowdworkers are helping the digital world run smoothly by solving the problems that computers can’t solve just yet.
Among many other tasks they categorize images, transcribe texts and filter out explicit content. Ironically, by doing so they also train the algorithms which will replace them eventually.
How would everyday life be affected if this digital piecework was woven into it?
The Bachelor thesis project Human Element Inc. explores this question through three speculative crowdwork services.
The project is set in a near future scenario. It is based on research of present problems and future projections that experts in the field are discussing today1.
By means of direct creation of value crowdwork becomes a payment method for small payments. There are numerous applications for this. For example, online content providers owners today struggle with adblockers and advertising revenues. The concept ‘Workwall’ proposes an alternative:
Crowdworkers used to work from desktop computers, but Human Element Inc. is taking digital labour into public spaces. The company puts up workstations that let anyone monetize unused cognitive abilities — for example during their daily commute, in the doctor’s waiting room or in the time after work.
Workstations can be equipped with sensors or controls tailored to specific types of tasks. As crowdwork taps into more and more aspects of being human, well-paid tasks might require the measurement of body chemistry or detection of eye movement, for example.
While anyone can become a worker, it used to be much harder to become a requester and enjoy the benefits of putting people to work for you. Employing Scanner is an example for a radical simplification of a requester interface, so that anyone can make use of the crowd. With the tap of a button you can hire people to make your life easier2. Don’t forget to use the ‘Good Job’ button to say thanks.
Putting people to work also means having to deal with ethical questions like labour conditions or fair wages. In this sense, the device also touches on how smart services and devices actually employ people under the hood, treating humans solely like ever available computing power3.
Discourse in the crowdwork field mainly revolves around ethical themes like exploitation of workers vs. efficiency of the method; or whether anonymity of workers is democratizing vs. provoking fraud. Amazon Mechanical Turk: The Digital Sweatshop gives a good (but lengthy) overview. Jonathan Zittrain, Ubiquitous Human Computing (2008) is another good read. ↩