Futures Salon: “Trust and Reputation in the Platform Gig Economy”

We begin with a brief introduction of Andrew Marley, who will be covering some of the concepts which appeared in his Masters work. We look forward to hearing about this applied anthropology!

As a brief definition… Platform = things like TaskRabbit or UpWork, and while not the exact definition, is how it is commonly used.

The work presented here today was conducted as a Masters Thesis at San Jose State University and was supported by the Institute for the Future.

Semi-structures interviews were conducted with 18 total stakeholders, ranging through employees at a Platform, clients, workers, and a college career counselor. Additionally, Andrew worked at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, conducting “approved human intelligence tasks”, which are designed to be done in a couple minutes and which are often designed to generate data for machine learning approaches. In total, over about 20-30 hours of work, he earned $25.14.

Selected findings: tethered reputation, disparate impact of system flaws, and restricted expression.

In the gig economy, your reputation is tied to a particular Platform, unlike the ability to hand a resume with skills and experiences over. When someone searches for a particular skill, you essentially are measured on jobs completed and success on that Platform. A particular worker was quoted on how shifting Platforms or changing demands produces the need for experienced individuals to undercut others. As another example, Andrew did not have access to more complex jobs on Mechanical Turk as he did not complete a certain number of jobs.

If issues do arise, they often fall on the worker. Clients, however, do not have to do much. Workers need to go through background checks, where clients often do not. This creates a system of fear where the workers and clients are not held to equal safety standards. If there is a glitch or someone does not leave a rating, it may appear as you never even worked a particular job. Compounding on this is restricted expression, where your potential selection on a Platform may be tied to your metrics, not your resume, cover letter, or competency test.

Forecasts: Continued exploration and some standardization of profession reputation, training the next generation, a convergence of old and new professional reputations, and workers and agency.

Multi level marketing has an interesting parallel to this, where clients have a lot of power to assign workers below them. A common theme is the lack of worker protection, but efforts continue to be made for worker organization and support, but this can be hit and miss on Platforms and between or towards specific clients. People appear to be focused and talking on those defenses for workers.

The gig economy certainly spans the range from Dickensian to full protection. To what extent, then, does the gig economy span the entire economy? Will we all fall into this model eventually? The plurality of work makes this a difficult question to answer. It becomes very important for locations of institutional memory, as the example of a NASA employee highlighted, to maintain that structure. Gig jobs won’t work with a rotating worker pool. How could a gig economy build that memory?

Peter provides an excellent description of the way his architectural firm as adapted to the new digital environment and in some part, approaches a gig-like system. His employees build worth and experience by structuring based on projects, flexible to the client needs which Peter manages. Joe brings forth the Amazon union debate and how worker protections are involved in the growing gig economy development and highlights the exemptions from California’s new AB 5 employment law.

Are we humans then left to decipher paper receipts or crop images or determine whether a photo contains nudity? The thing here is context. Humans are exceptional in context determination and are able to translate over language in accent and cross-cultural differences. Is the future of jobs then going to move us to freelancers who simply interpret what computers cannot? Is it to be so Dickensian? The question really is where laws defend workers. Is there to be a top-down push back that becomes a national focus or is the current status quo to be maintained?

Globalization is not directly leading to homogenization. It is leading towards micro-cultures. Individuals can find their sense of community outside of their immediate vicinity. While this brings us together, it also fractures us. As is with globalization, it also is with the workplace.

Has COVID accelerated this atomization of the workplace and cultures? Andrew argues yes, but in a lot of cases, there would be a come back to an in-person, connected, close workplace environment.

Are we actually learning how to adapt to climate change and the COVID pandemic and how does this relate to the gig economy? Is the gig economy even a choice for workers? What about the casualization of labor? Do these protections need to come from the government?

To read more about these thoughts, attached is Andrew’s Masters Thesis.

Contact information: Andrew Marley, AndrewBMarley@gmail.com

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