Labor and Technology Reporting: Two Concentric Circles


In May, I was at Bombfell, a fashion start-up in New York, getting styled by Will Noguchi, who selects clothing for customers. Mr. Noguchi and his algorithms immediately pegged me for what I am — a schlub with deeply conservative fashion sensibilities — and gently eased me toward the 21st-century part of my comfort zone. (“So this is definitely one that I would go with the algorithm here,” he said, pointing to a johnnie-O T-shirt that the software had recommended.)

Still, in my more than three years on the beat, I’ve found that a lot of what we think of as shiny and new has familiar roots.

There’s perhaps no better example than the so-called gig economy, in which workers perform tasks on demand — not just ferrying around people and food, but also assembling furniture, tagging photos, rewriting blog content — and generally get paid by the task, or for a few hours at a time, rather than earn a steady wage. Admirers hail it as a job market in which workers are, finally, in control of their own destinies. But the gig economy can also be thought of as an elaborate way around an age-old problem: how to control workers without the expense of making them employees — and without breaking the law.

Take the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, which argue that their drivers are independent business owners, not employees, in large part because the drivers control when, where, and how long they work. What they don’t tell you is that the apps that govern their drivers’ work lives rely on a variety of incentives, games, design features and outright manipulations to influence the when, the where, and the how long. For example, both apps dispatch new rides to a driver before he or she has finished the current ride. In the same way that automatic queuing on Netflix appears to encourage binge-watching, this feature appears to encourage a kind of binge-driving. (Uber and Lyft say the feature helps drivers by reducing idle time.)

And while technology may be creating new ways of organizing work, that doesn’t mean we need to rethink the rights and protections workers deserve. It’s become fashionable in the tech world to argue that we need a third way to classify workers who aren’t obviously employees and aren’t obviously independent contractors, and that this third way should afford them some but not all the protections of employment. But if you talk to enough gig economy entrepreneurs about their businesses, you begin to have doubts.

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