If you are well-off and live in a city, modern technology has brought you everything you could ever want. Using your phone, you can order a car to take you to work; your lunchtime ramen, delivered to your office; your groceries, delivered to your house. Isn’t it wonderful? I love innovation.
But while tech is new, what isn’t new is that all of this convenience relies on the exploitation of workers. Amazon employs thousands of independent contractors to deliver its packages, who piss in Gatorade bottles to make their deliveries on time. That business model is so successful for Amazon that they’re cutting their two-day Prime shipping promise to one day, which no one asked for or needs.
This is true across most of these wonderful Convenience Apps. Seamless, Uber, Instacart: The workers that make this app magic possible are independent contractors, who don’t receive healthcare and do receive paltry wages. (Not to mention that many of the workers who make the phones we use to do all this stuff are in constant danger for almost no money, but we never talk about that, because it’s in China and what can you do?)
A new story in the Guardian today highlights another modern convenience propped up by the misery of workers: Google Assistant, which “relies on massive data sets built by subcontracted human workers earning low wages.” Yes, the thing like Siri that answers your dumbass questions.
The project to create and maintain these linguistic data sets, Pygmalion, reportedly employs around 200 contractors, all of whom have “at least a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, though many have master’s degrees and some have doctorates.” According to the Guardian, these contractors are expected to perform unpaid overtime. The company simply gives them too much work to complete in 8 hours, but doesn’t pay them for more. “It was made clear to us that we were never to log more than 40 hours, but we were never told not to work more than 40 hours,” one Pygmalion worker told the Guardian.
Other contractors told the paper that while there was health insurance offered, it sucks: One was “paying $180 each month in premiums for an individual plan with a $6,000 deductible,” which is hardly better than what you would get buying your own insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplace.
A supposedly magical technological innovation obscuring the exploitation of workers behind it is industry standard in Silicon Valley. Facebook, too, relies on an army of contract workers to train its AI, not to mention to moderate its content, much of which is horrifying.
Seamless, Uber, and Instacart are all pretty clutch conveniences; it sure is nice to have someone bring you your dinner or carry your heavy cat litter to your house for you. But they are still just that—conveniences, for the fortunate who can afford them, not necessities.
Google Assistant takes this to an absurd extreme. It is the most minor, unnecessary convenience imaginable. Who the fuck needs to be able to ask Google what the weather is? How much harder is it to pick up your phone and tap it a few times? And who needs Facebook updates from their racist high school friends in their life so desperately that having offices full of traumatized workers sifting through execution videos is worth its existence?
Our system is so disordered and broken that something as minutely beneficial as “you can ask your phone out loud what the name of that old doctor from Scrubs was now” is supported through the exploitation of hundreds of workers, and there is nothing to stop it. No laws prevent this, and Donald Trump’s Department of Labor sure as hell doesn’t care. And it has nothing to do with the importance of the innovation or the inherent value of what’s created; it is just a matter of profit.
If you can’t create these things without exploiting workers to do so, you shouldn’t create them. Go buy your own damn ramen.