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Re-assembling the Assembly Line: Digital Labor Economies and Demands for an Ambient Workforce

Re-assembling the Assembly Line: Digital Labor Economies and Demands for an Ambient Workforce

with Berkman Fellow, Mary L. Gray

Tuesday, November 3, 2015, at 12:00 pm
Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

Harvard Law School Campus, Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C


The presentation draws on findings from a two-year collaborative study of crowdwork--“the process of taking tasks that would normally be delegated to an employee and distributing them to a large pool of online workers, the ‘crowd,’ in the form of an open call" (Felstiner, 2010). We combine ethnographic and qualitative methods with computational analysis of backend metadata, comparing the cases of India and the United States, to understand the cultural meaning, political implications, and ethical demands of crowdwork. This talk examines how might we use the present day examples of people doing crowdwork as part-time, contingent employment to theorize the “last mile” of technological innovation-via-automation. What are the workforce demands such a restructuring of production suggests? People’s labor often goes unnoticed or unseen because it is embedded in computation and obscured by an API. This produces an ambient workforce: a distributed, always-on, at-the-ready, expansive labor market, dependent on a mix of intense bursts of activity AND a “long tail” of idling. Examined more closely, this bursty/idling pattern belays the different experiences of crowdsourcing: From the employer’s perspective, it is all burst and idle. Workers, on the other hand, turn crowdsourcing into a routine. We argue that before we can establish the legal, economic, and social regulatory regimes to manage crowdwork, we must have a clearer sense of the people doing this work, what it means to them, and how it fits into their daily lives.

About Mary

Mary is a Senior Researcher at MSR. She studied anthropology before receiving her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California at San Diego in 2004. She draws on this interdisciplinary background to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press), which won awards from scholarly societies in Anthropology, Media Studies, and Sociology, examined how lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender young people negotiate and express their identities in rural parts of the United States and the role that digital media play in their lives and political work. Mary served on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association from 2008 until 2010 and, now, holds a seat on that Association's Committee on Public Policy. She maintains an appointment as an Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, with adjunct appointments in American Studies, Anthropology, and Gender Studies.

Past Event
Nov 3, 2015
12:00 PM - 1:15 PM