The new economy is turning human labor into just another computer process — and will keep wrecking jobs
An executive at an up-and-coming start-up settles into a cross-country flight. After the unthinkable torture of the ban on electronic devices ends, she pulls out her tablet, connects to Wi-Fi, and reviews her to-do list: Cancel cable TV service. Make dinner reservations at that annoying restaurant that doesn’t use Open Table. Research the entrance requirements for elite Brooklyn preschools. The prospect is disheartening, especially 35,000 feet high in the sky. A lot of hassle, a lot of time-wasting minutes spent on hold, a lot of unnecessary roadblocks preventing her from focusing her concentration on more important things, like getting her world-changing start-up up and running.
But no worries! She’s signed up for the $45-a-month plan at Fancy Hands, the online clearinghouse for virtual assistants, and that entitles her to outsource 15 discrete tasks every month — anything and everything that can be taken care of by someone with access to a computer and a phone. So she logs in and posts her tasks. By the time she lands, it’s all been taken care of by Fancy Hands’ always-on-call army of contractors. Another state-of-the-art lesson in getting things done via the Internet economy.
Fancy Hands — “Do What You Love — We’ll Do The Rest” — is just one entrant in a growing cohort of companies that are outsourcing all kinds of humdrum work to the “cloud.” The biggest names — Task Rabbit and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk — have offered similar services for years. The market niche seems sure to boom further, propelled by a generation completely comfortable with turning to the smartphone as the first place to look for work.
The best cloud labor start-ups have received plenty of laudatory press coverage and rave reviews from users. In the specific case of Fancy Hands, one can instinctively understand the appeal. Who wouldn’t want their own executive assistant on hand 24/7 to deal with the drudgery that clogs up daily life. You know you would love to “automate all the boring parts of your life.” Fancy Hands democratizes access to what previously was only available to the very well off.
That’s progress — for the consumer of the service. But one thing you discover when reading reviews of these services is that the vast majority of commentary focuses primarily on the users. Far less discussion is devoted to the producers, to the phenomenon of a new and growing class of drudges — the peons now making your phone calls and conducting your Google searches and washing your cars and toilets. These are not your father’s jobs. The typical Task Rabbit or Fancy Hands employee is invariably an independent contractor eligible for no benefits, quite often working for rates well below minimum wage, and able to exert zero leverage to resist employer abuse.
Continue reading at: http://www.salon.com/2013/07/12/the_new_proletariat_workers_of_the_cloud/