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Ghost work is work performed by a human which a customer believes is being performed by an automated process. The term was coined by anthropologist Mary L. Gray and computer scientist Siddharth Suri in their 2019 book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass.
Ghost work focuses on task-based and content-driven work that can be funneled through the internet and Application programming interfaces (APIs). This kind of work can include labeling, editing, moderating, and sorting information or content.
Ghost work can also be done remotely and on a contractual basis. It is an invisible workforce, scaled for those who desire full-time work and for those who pick it up whenever they have the time. Though it can function position-independent through the internet, there are data factories in China that mine "the Saudi Arabia of data" by parsing and cataloging to make data useful and then assemble the foundation of the nation's AI ambition. The core characteristics of ghost work are that it is low-wage, disposable, and menial. Ghost workers play a low-tech role of the high-tech production, equivalent to the construction workers of the digital world. Consequently, this aspect creates the fear that AI will make ghost work obsolete.
A benefit of ghost work is flexible hours due to the worker choosing when they complete a task, making it an appealing option for those in between jobs or in need of side work. However, with the promise of flexible hours and endless tasks, companies can potentially undervalue, under-appreciate, or under-compensate workers. The modern workforce is beginning to adapt to this labor style, similar to Uber and Lyft drivers, as opposed to the standard nine-to-five workday.
In contrast to peer production that emphasizes the community spirit and co-work on open-source products, ghost work tends to be benefit-driven.
Ghost work is differentiated from gig work or temporary work because it is task-based and uncredited. While gig work involves a general platform, ghost work emphasizes the software or algorithm aspect of assisting machines to automate further. Through labelling content, ghost workers teach the machine to learn. Ghost workers at Amazon have found ways to help each other and self-organize, often through WhatsApp groups where they mobilize to push for changes to the platform.
Amazon is the most notable instance of a company offering ghost work; as the retailer grew, its management realized that they would need to constantly post products, verify product photos, and create product captions. In addition to these tasks, Amazon also needed an army of people to update book reviews dating back to 2005. As a result, the Amazon Mechanical Turk website was created for "crowd workers" to claim and complete posted tasks. Once these tasks were completed, the person who completed it would be paid. Amazon also charged a small surcharge to match posters with those who had certain qualifications to complete the projects and tasks. This allowed almost anyone to use the site and find work. This platform allows for easy and inexpensive participation among workers, particularly young individuals.
The concept of hiring on-demand workers is not new. By the late 1800s, Lowell mills paid farm families to hand-fashion cloth pieces into shirt flourishes that were still too delicate to churn out on the factory floor. Equivalently, today's companies hire on-demand workers to test the latest ranking, relevance, and crawling algorithms of their search engines so they can be perfected.
Contingent work was further devalued by culturally loaded notions surrounding what constitutes learned profession or "skillful" work, as well as which workers deserved or needed full-time jobs. Those involved in this type of labor could be written off, in part, because of their gender, skin color, nationality, professional training, physical location, or all of the above. Those doing on-demand jobs today are the latest iteration of the expendable ghost work. On the one hand, they are needed in the moment, yet undervalued as mundane and unsuccessful.
The computer science world, including a variety of tech companies, are invested in producing the image of technological magic. MTurk hides the people involved in the production, whose visibility could otherwise obstruct favorable perception. The following isn't only aimed at public image of the company but also at investors, who are significantly more likely to back businesses built on scalable technology, not unwieldy workforces demanding office space and minimum wages. In addition, there exists a pervasive belief among engineers that these workers are a stopgap until AI can replace or do without them, which inevitably leads to their vital contribution being devalued. Despite the belief, the market for ghost work doesn't show apparent signs of declining. There are some disadvantages, but the ghost work industry will potentially grow even more in the upcoming years.
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- Gray, Mary L., author. Ghost work : how to stop Silicon Valley from building a new global underclass. ISBN 9781328566287. OCLC 1052904039.
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