The Rise of the Digital Laborer

In today’s society, college graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to find steady employment. Even with a Bachelor’s Degree under their belt, more than half of graduates are unable to find jobs within 6 months of finishing school. It is no longer the norm to have a single career-long blue-collar job that pays well enough to support a family. Millennials are much more familiar with multiple low-paying jobs that are frequently changing and often materialize as something completely different from what they had studied at college.

The sharing economy, a term that had emerged in the mid-2000s, has opened up quick opportunities for young adults to make their living off of (at least for the time being.) Sharing economy is defined as “peer-to-peer-based activity of obtaining, giving, or sharing the access to goods and services, coordinated through community-based online services.” These services, led by well-known companies such as Uber and Airbnb, enable young adults to make quick cash by taxi-ing around their city or renting out a spare room in their apartment.

Tweet by Airbnb co-owner Brian Chesky

Tweet by Airbnb co-owner Brian Chesky

On the surface, this collaborative consumption seems to be beneficial and make logical sense. The sharing economy relies on existing infrastructure and products to continue running rather than have to start from scratch. Air bnb, for example, did not have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars and 10-plus years to build the empire of ‘hotel rooms’ they circulate today. The rooms and hosts were already built. There just needed to be a platform set up to merge the need for temporary housing and the vacant apartments and rooms throughout the world.

Trebor Scholz’s lecture titled “Think Outside the Boss”, however, unearths another side of the sharing economy and what is leading to the rise of the ‘digital laborer’. Companies, Scholz believes, are becoming more desensitizing towards their employees and treating them more as task junkies and less as humans.

The mega-giant company Amazon was Scholz’s first target. He begins by mentioning Amazon’s “inactivity reports” which documents the productivity of Amazon workers down to the minute. Detailed notes are taken on each employee and every minute that they are not working is written down.

Amazon inactivity report in German

Amazon inactivity report in German

The idea behind the Panopticon immediately comes to mind. The Panopticon is a prison building designed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century that was designed in such a way that only one guard needed to be on duty at a time. The guard is able to observe each cell from a station centered in the middle of the prison while the inmates are unable see the guard or when they are being watched. Because of this unknowing of when they are being watched, the behavior of the inmates is therefore affected.

A visual depiction of Panopticon

A visual depiction of Panopticon

Panopticism is being displayed through the treatment workers at Amazon’s warehouses. The aspect of the unknown motivates the workers to perform uninterrupted and efficiently. The fear of the possibility of being watched while they check their phone or stop to talk to a co-worker for a minute or two influences their actions and makes these occurrences happen less. Although it may be effective in production, it should be a company’s prerogative to foster a positive and healthy environment for their employees. They instead create an environment of fear and oppression to get what they want from their workers. As Scholz mentions in his lecture a worker was fired a mere five minutes after his second offense of inactivity.


Scholz exposes in his lecture that companies are showing less respect to their employees. Another example he brings up is Amazon Mechanical Turk where tasks are posted and performed by workers around the world for low wages. The workers are treated unfairly and, at times, get their work rejected and therefore are unpaid for accurate and successful jobs.


Uber drivers are having similar experiences. One driver claimed that he was promised to receive 80% of the fares he collected. In reality, after charges of “taxes, gas, mileage and for car maintenance and repairs” he made around three dollars an hour. On top of that, Uber drivers aren’t even considered employees but rather independent contractors. Because of this, they are not entitled any benefits from the company. A lawsuit is currently taking place regarding this topic.

This disrespect by larger companies to their employees, according to Scholz, is due to the digitization of the economy. He states, “Digitization allows for new business models, novel chains of value extraction and forms of division of labor —  most of which are obstructing its emancipatory and humanizing potential while undermining social security.” At the end of the day CEO’s only care about the money in their pocket and as long as they have employees, no matter how unhappy or miss treated they may be, it will continue to be that way. No one is choosing to be oppressed and targeted to low wages. If there were a better alternative for the workers of Mechanical Turk and Uber and companies of the like, they would not continue the cycle. Scholz mentions that 18% of Turkers rely on AMT to stay a like. They would not voluntarily subject themselves to this exploitation of labor.

There is an opportunity to complete with these companies who take advantage of the digital laborer and also provide better treatment for their employees. There is no magic to what companies like Airbnb, Uber,and Lyft are doing. In the final leg of the lecture Scholz stresses the importance of cooperatives as a way to knock on the door of the start-up mentality of Silicon Valley. There can be a marriage between capitalism and platform cooperatavism he believes. He gives examples of companies, such as Fairmondo and La’zooz that are budding into the market while maintaining a strong sense of empowerment to the employees. Scholz ends his lecture by declaring, “Platform cooperatives are not a panacea for all the wrongs of capitalism but they could help to weave some ethical threads into the fabric of 21st century work.”

Fairmondo: a co-op-based version of eBay

Fairmondo: a co-op-based version of eBay

Scholz effectively and efficiently defines the pitfalls of a system that has become quickly ingrained into our economy. What has been done in terms of convenience and innovation with companies such as Zipcar, eBay and Airbnb can not be reversed. Now that these luxuries are so accessible to millions of people around the world, there is no going back. There is only going forward. With new territory by companies being discovered in terms of the sharing economy, there is no surprise that there is a lag in regulatory action.

Although there have been companies like eBay running since the early 2000’s, the shift the sharing economy is making is creating complex problems that can no be solved over night. However, Scholz is right in thinking that there needs to be a complete shift of focus. Rather than stressing the individual, there needs to be a focus on the company as a community while fostering creativity. This may sound simplistic and unrealistic but in order to change the increasing disrespect of employees by company owners, there needs to be a monumental shift in the value of the laborer.

Hamari, J., Sjöklint, M., & Ukkonen, A. (2015). The sharing economy: Why people participate in collaborative consumption.

Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.

Huet, Ellen. “Juries to Decide Landmark Cases Against Uber and Lyft.” Forbes, Mar. 2015

Korn, Melissa. “Job Market Perks Up for Recent College Graduates.” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 2015

TED. “Glenn Greenwald: Why Privacy Matters.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 10 Oct. 2014.


2 thoughts on “The Rise of the Digital Laborer

  1. I think your point about firms fundamentally not respecting their employees is on point. These companies are treating workers as machines rather than as human beings. It is ironic (or maybe not ironic at all) that Mechanical Turk should forget the human being behind the clock work automaton. Scholz mentioned the rise of a kind of hyper-talorism.

    I think that the discussion we are having today regarding labor is eerily reminiscent of those during 19th and early 20th century labor reform movements. Scholz repeatedly mentions that people are surprised that such unethical and even Orwellian labor practices exist. “Such practices are illegal! There are regulations in place to enforce them!” people exclaim. While both of these statements are true, these practices continue. I think that part of the reason for this is that many of these regulations were created in response to 19th and 20th century reform movements. Capitalism is not a static monolith that remains unchanged through the ages. It evolves just as technology and culture as a whole do. The capitalism confronted then is not the one that we have now. I think you are right that regulations will lag and you are getting at the notion that fixing the problem will require more than just legislation but a whole paradigm shift, one that addresses our specific needs today. Hopefully, we will be able to build off of past reforms to accomplish this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the basic dilemmas that you point to are very significant indeed. The rise of the electronic panoptican is an interesting analogy and I like the way you link Foucault to Amazon. David Lyons postulated the potential for such a development back in 1994 in The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (see It’s also been a stable of Deleuzian inspired critical theory for some time and overlaps with many of the recent themes of Evgeny Morozov…(see the following references…Institute for Precarious Consciousness We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It Gille Deleuze PostScript “On the Society of Control” October, 1992. Evgeny Morozov The Rise of Data dn the Death of Politics
    On the working plight of artists and designers, you undoubtedly noticed from our symposium that Caroline Woolard’s work is instructive and useful to follow up. She and her collaborators at BFAMFAPhD has collated some very interesting statistics about art workers and their incomes which are worth looking at.

    It would have been nice to have seen a little more linking between Trebor’s work and the social economy work.

    Perhaps, there could have been some more substantive “design thinking” to speculate on how we might begin to resolve these issues? Platform co-operativism has some potential but I would like to have seen a fuller account of how it might work. Designers have been fairly influential in shaping the first stage of the new economy. How might designers help to build the next generation of plaforms and institutions that could circumvent some of the problems you raise in relation to AirBnB, Uber and the like? As I asked in Nicolai’s post, is the issue that we need to design a whole series of new post industrial institutions and platforms to help shape and embed the new sharing economy? What would they be?


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