We often assume that a technologically advanced economy is all about a highly skilled labour force engaging in creative forms of self-expression. However, the dream of getting rid of dull and boring jobs through automation seems to be a utopia.
The creative knowledge worker
One of the ideas that underlies the promotion of new technologies is that automation liberates people from manual, repetitive, and boring jobs. With the mindless jobs taken care of by machines, the new knowledge worker will have a chance to focus on more meaningful work in the more exalted spheres of ideas and thoughts. In the knowledge economy people will work creatively, engaging with their passions. This aspiration and belief was expressed as strongly in the works of futurists from the previous century as it now is in advertisements for new sophisticated gadgets that will supposedly make your life easier and allow you to focus on the things that really matter. Is this really the case? Let’s take a look at a group of not so visible workers for whom the knowledge economy has come to mean a very different thing.
The app-ranking manipulation farms
Earlier in February an image depicting a lady sitting in front of rows and rows of smartphones was circulated across Chinese social media with a caption “Hard-working App Store ranking manipulation employee”. According to TechinAsia who reported on this phenomenon, developers can pay roughly $76,000 a week to make sure their app gets into the ‘Top App’ list and stays there. Such manipulation is supposed to ensure that the app in question is visible to many more potential users. While this image may itself be a manipulation, I nevertheless find it striking. Imagine downloading an app on all these phones, deleting it, and downloading it again – all day long, from the start of your shift until the end. This hardly seems to fit the image of the creative, empowered worker in the new economy.
From fake likes to gold-farming
In fact it seems that the technologically enhanced economy provides a lot of opportunities to earn money precisely by doing repetitive jobs such as clicking on links, giving likes, sending spam messages, or ‘farming gold’ in online games. Not all, but many of these jobs rely on exploiting gaps in technological systems, and their legality is questionable. Such gaps can be abused by technological means, such as by creating little pieces of code that would do the same function over and over again. Yet, such internet bots are rather easy to identify and counteract. Most companies who are targets of such practices, such as Facebook, Google, and Apple invest in protecting their services from such practices.
As a result, many of these exploits are carried out by humans. App-ranking manipulators are just an addition to the list of gold farmers, email scammers, click farmers, and many others. Paradoxically, in this case it is automation that prompts this repetitive and boring human work in the supposedly new and exciting economy.
Working from home
On the one hand working from home seems to be the knowledge worker’s privilege – we imagine a cool graphic designer working happily from a fancy café, or a programmer coding from his cabin in the woods. On the other hand, ‘work from home’ has also come to stand for the kind of low paid, repetitive jobs that are now available. A quick search for ‘work from home’ will reveal myriads of advertisements inviting you to make money by watching advertisements, clicking on online adds, answering survey questions, etc.
Yet, these jobs won’t come with decent pay, social insurance or chance of self-expression. For example, recently some Amazon Turk workers started an online protest asking to be “recognized as humans, not algorithms”. It is not only people in developing economies who find such jobs attractive enough - the new economy’s manual labourers are also right ‘here’ - here in the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Canada.
How high tech is the high tech economy?
There is no doubt that technological change has brought about opportunities for creative thinkers, designers, developers, researchers, architects and other professionals commonly associated with knowledge work. What is often overlooked, however, is that at the same time new niches have also been created that thrive on the manual, boring, repetitive, and mindless work that these technologies claimed to eradicate in the first place.