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Soylent Green is people!

Jan 01, 2012

Soylent Green is people!

The value of labour seems to be at something of a crossroads.

The earth's population grows by a quarter of a million people a day, ensuring that there are ever more people ready and able to work. By contrast the fragile state of the global economy means that fewer jobs are available, while higher standards of living are proving more expensive to maintain around the world.

As factories across Southeast Asia struggle with production, and workers demand better conditions and rates of pay it feels as if the era of cheap labour is coming to end. Simultaneously Chinese businesses are building factories in Africa, looking to utilise the next great untapped workforce.

The internet has opened up the international labour market and facilitated outsourcing in ways no-one could have imagined. Amazon's Mechanical Turk connects buyers and sellers of work and enables transactions from as little as $0.01 for the most minor of tasks. There's questionable value in this sort of exchange from both parties point of view: the buyer must question the quality of the work being supplied at such a low rate, regardless of global variations in the worth of currency; likewise the seller must recognise that in order to make any sort of living from the service that the volume of work will preclude any kind of attention to detail or worth.

It seems best suited to tasks where neither the buyer nor seller cares about the quality of the outcome: generating comment spam for spurious SEO purposes is a good example. Here the irrational comments - peppered with spam links to other websites - need to be written by humans to beat the CAPTCHA systems, but the quality of the writing is irrelevant.

Arguably it is possible to utilise this combination of crowdsourced labour and micropayments into a system that works, and there may be more valid uses where both the demands and rewards are greater. Soylent is a plug-in for Microsoft Word that farms out fact-checking, editing, rewriting and proofreading to real people via the Mechanical Turk service. Although the sums involved are still relatively small, it's an interesting approach to outsourcing a service that needs a human eye, rather than an electronic one.

As the internet has recontextualised the worth of goods and services (both legitimately, and not so much) perhaps it will do the same for labour, and force the world to consider the value of that commodity in a new light. Possibly we’ll see transition away from the classic capitalist model and a shift towards economies that rely on exchange, rather than purchasing. Benjamin Rosenbaum explores ideas of financial capital versus social capital in his short story The Guy Who Worked for Money and ponders the eventual destiny of the Facebook generation.

Meanwhile Clay Shirky argues that our cognitive surplus will redefine the means and motives behind forms of cultural production, and that crowdsourcing will revolutionise collaboration - although possibly not when it comes to rebranding.

However, for now the old adage still holds true: you get what you pay for.