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Human-centered computing and the future of work: lessons from Mechanical Turk and Turkopticon, 2008-2015

  • Author(s): Silberman, M. Six
  • Advisor(s): Tomlinson, Bill
  • Nardi, Bonnie A
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-SA' version 4.0 license
Abstract

Online labor markets such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), Uber, and TaskRabbit are contributing to rapid changes in the nature of work for hundreds of thousands of workers. These markets create significant new economic opportunities, but most currently treat workers as second-class citizens. Take-home pay is often low compared to similar work in traditional employment arrangements, and workers have limited means of influencing market design or management practice. This makes it hard for workers to create reliable livelihoods from the opportunities these markets present. This dissertation uses AMT, an online labor market for small information tasks, as a case through which to examine the consequences of treating workers as second-class citizens, to argue that future platform designs and management practices should treat workers as central stakeholders, and to develop theory and method for doing so.

The central argument of the dissertation is that workers' concerns should be more substantively and systematically addressed in the design and operation of online labor markets. Five messages elaborate this argument. First, in online labor markets, some workers are casual or transient, while others are professionals, providing significant and reliable value to customers and relying on income earned in the market to meet basic needs. Second, workers who rely on income earned through online labor markets should be considered first-class stakeholders, alongside customers and shareholders. Third, workers in online labor markets are rarely the narrowly self-interested profit maximizers of classical economic theory. Workers can be better understood as "situatedly rational" actors: human beings with incomplete information and finite cognitive capabilities whose actions and preferences are shaped by many factors, including rules, norms, and expectations. Fourth, online labor markets are not monolithic, perfectly competitive markets but parts of polycentric economic systems composed of complexly interlinked action situations characterized by imperfect competition and incomplete information. Fifth, institutions supporting crowd work research should develop an interdisciplinary practice-oriented agenda to understand the consequences of current online labor market designs and practices, and to develop new designs and practices that incorporate workers who rely on market income as central stakeholders.

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