Hidden behind every voice command you give Siri, every Google search you run and every YouTube video you watch is the work of thousands of invisible humans, sometimes continents away, who help build and maintain these technologies that we use every day. This kind of “ghost work” is crucial for the biggest tech companies to function. And yet the individuals hired to do it are undervalued at best and mistreated at worst.
Workers crowdsourced over the internet are paid below minimum wage to label data to train algorithms. Contractors at risk of immediate termination screen our social media feeds to keep them free of violence, hate speech and sexual exploitation. But a technology industry keen to portray itself as based on technical wizardry rather than human labour has kept its crucial contributions hidden, aided by automated workflows that treat humans as just another step in a computational pipeline.
Shawn Speagle, 26, who worked as a graphic content moderator for Facebook in Florida, says he felt like “just a cog in the machine”. These tech companies are some of the most powerful on Earth. Figuring out a way to marry the intense demands of rapidly evolving technologies with the support systems of traditional employment could be one of the most pressing human labour issues facing the modern workplace.