Dans Jacobin Magazine (16 déc. 2017)

Dans le magazine socialiste américain Jacobin, Miranda Hall décrit l’impact des plateformes de micro-travail au Moyen Orient. En discutant les implications en termes de pérennisation de dynamiques coloniales, elle référence ma propre recherche sur le “decolonial turn” des études sur digital labor (parue dans l’International Journal of Communication).

The Ghost of the Mechanical Turk

Digital microwork in the Middle East exploits occupation, war, and neoliberalism to extract the cheapest labor possible.

“Be yOuR OwN BosS.” Two twenty-something Palestinians are pictured leaning over an iPad and laughing: a ColourSplash™ filter makes their eyes and frayed festival wristbands glow a radioactive green. Their suits are whatever they put on that morning and their offices are wherever they turned their screens on. On a Facebook group for online freelancing work in Gaza and the West Bank, these mantras come up again and again.The idea is that regardless of your circumstances, anyone can live the millennial dream and “work where they want when they want” thanks to the internet. In a place like Palestine, where unemployment reaches 30 percent (the highest in the world by some measures) and movement is violently restricted by a series of checkpoints, borders, and military zones, work in the “placeless” digital realm can be sold as a way of overcoming these obstacles.The World Bank’s “m2work” project in cooperation with Nokia took precisely this approach. It was just one of a series of initiatives in the past few years led by governments or private-sector actors that have identified the Arab world as a region in which digital microwork has “vast potential” as a means of alleviating poverty. But this rhetoric of flexibility and entrepreneurship conceals some ugly realities.There are impressive grassroots projects such as Gaza Sky Geeks working on digital labor initiatives with more emancipatory potential. But when Western bodies like the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, or multinational NGOs tout gig-economy platforms as a silver bullet to the problems of refugees and victims of occupation, their motivations must be examined. “Liberation” from a techno-developmentalist’s view looks more like exploitation from the worker’s point of view.

Crowdsourcing Exploitation

Microwork, key to the neoliberal development schemes targeted at the Middle East, is best exemplified by Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” labor platform. As David Golumbia wrote in Jacobin in 2015,

[Mechanical Turk’s] name is . . . a revealing reference to the chess-playing automatons of eighteenth-century Europe, a parlor trick concealing small human beings who actually did the work purportedly done by machines. As historian Ahyan Aytes notes, these automatons were dressed in “Oriental” garb in part because everyone to the East of Europe was understood to be “docile” and “soulless.” MTurk allows employers to design tasks that require large amounts of data entry and analysis that, for whatever reason, currently remain more efficiently or more accurately done by human beings than by computers.

Microwork portals harness virtual crowds to organize playlists of music tag videos and images, write, and translate or transcribe short texts; and, in doing so, to train artificial intelligence software.

Microwork is just one part of a broader spectrum of digital labor that ranges from on-demand services like Uber to the extraction of profitable data from our casual Facebook, Twitter, and instagram updates. What sociologist Antonio Casilli represents as “a continuum of unpaid, micropaid, and poorly paid ‘taskified’ human activities” means that work can no longer be easily distinguished from leisure time. Because of this, it’s hard to talk about exploitation, a word usually associated with industrial labor’s sweatshop conditions, in relation to digital labor. Its also hard to reconcile people not always feeling like these activities are work with their objective creation of a great deal of economic value.

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