The proletarians of the click

Survey of Clicking Illegal Workers

Click, like, share: all our digital links produce data. This information, captured and monetized by the major digital platforms, is becoming the black gold - virtual - of the 21st century. Have we all become digital workers? On the occasion of the release of his book, While waiting for the robots, investigate the work of the click, Antonio Casilli, a researcher at Télécom ParisTech and a specialist in digital labor, looks back at the background to this 2.0 exploitation.
QWho we are, what we like, what we do, when, with whom: personal assistants and other virtual interlocutors know everything about us. Digital space is the new terrain of intimacy. This virtual social capital is the raw material of the internet giants. The profitability of digital platforms, from Facebook to Airbnb to Apple to Uber, is based on the massive analysis of user data for advertising purposes.

The digital proletarians

In his new book While waiting for the robots, investigation of the work of the click (Seuil, 2019), Antonio Casilli explores the emergence of a surveillance capitalism, opaque and invisible, marking the advent of a new form of digital proletariat: the digital labor - or digital work "du doigt" in French. From the conscious and paid micro-worker of the click to the user whose data production activity is implicit, the sociologist analyses the behind-the-scenes of work outside of work, and the very palpable reality of this economy of the immaterial.
Antonio Casilli questions in particular the capacity of Net platforms to put their users to work, convinced that they are more consumers than producers. "Free digital services are just an illusion. Each click feeds on the one hand a vast advertising market, on the other hand it produces data that feeds artificial intelligence. Every I like, every post, every photo, every rating or connection fulfils a condition: to produce value. This digital labor is very low or even unpaid, since no one gets a compensation commensurate with the value produced. But it is still work: it is a source of value, traced, measured, evaluated and contractually framed by the general conditions of use of the platforms". explains the sociologist.

Hide this human that I can't see...

Thus, for him, the digital labor is a new, invisible form of work that manifests itself through our digital traces. Far from marking the disappearance of human work replaced by robots, this work at the click questions the boundary between implicitly produced work and formally recognizable employment. And for good reason: micro-workers paid by the piece or users-producers of data, like us, are indispensable for platforms. This data feeds machine learning models: behind the automation of a task, such as visual or textual recognition, it is in fact humans who feed the applications, for example by indicating the sky or clouds on images or by transcribing a word.
" Some people think that these machines learn by themselves. But in order to train their algorithms to calibrate, to improve their services, platforms need a lot of people to train and test them. " reminds Antonio Casilli. Among the most emblematic examples is a service offered by the American giant Amazon, Mechanical Turk. Ironically, its name refers to a hoax dating back to the 18th century. An automaton chess player, called the "mechanical Turk", was able to win games against human players. The Turk was actually manipulated by real humans who would slip inside.

An "artificial intelligence"

Similarly, some so-called "intelligent" services rely heavily on the work of small hands. A kind of "artificial intelligence". A work at the service of the machine, where these digital workers perform microtasks that are poorly paid. « The digital labor thus marks the appearance of a new way of working: tasked, because the human gesture is reduced to a simple click; dated, because it is a question of producing data so that the digital platforms can derive value from it. " explains Antonio Casilli. And that's where the data hurts. Alienation and exploitation: in addition to web researchers in the North, there are often counterparts in India, the Philippines, or in developing countries, where the average salary is low, sometimes less than a penny per click.

Frame digital labor by law?

These new forms of work are still not covered by wage standards. Nevertheless, class actions against digital platforms to claim certain rights have multiplied in recent years. Like Uber drivers or Deliveroo delivery drivers who are trying, through the courts, to have their commercial contract reclassified as an employment contract. Faced with the increasing precariousness of digital work, Antonio Casilli envisages three possible developments for the social, economic and political recognition of the digital economy. digital labor.
" From Uber to the platform moderators, classic labour law - and thus the reclassification as salaried workers - could allow for recognition of their status. But dependent work is not necessarily a panacea. Also, we are increasingly seeing the development of forms of cooperative platforms where users become the owners of the means of production and algorithms.. "Antonio Casilli, however, sees limits to these two developments. For him, a third way is possible. « We are neither the small owners nor the small contractors of our data. We are the workers of our data. And this personal data, neither private nor public, belongs to everyone and to no one. Privacy must be a collective bargaining issue. We still have to invent and develop institutions to turn it into a true public good. The Internet is a new field of struggle "enthuses the researcher.

Digital Taxation for Basic Income

So, personal data becoming less and less personal? « Each of us produces data. But this data is, in fact, a collective resource, appropriated and privatized by platforms. These platforms should not remunerate each individual's data on a piecemeal basis, but rather restore, give back to the national or international community, through fair taxation, the value they have extracted. " says Antonio Casilli.
Last May, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in the European Union. Among other things, this text now protects data as an attribute of personality and no longer as property. Thus, theoretically, everyone can now freely consent - and at any time - to the use of their personal data and withdraw their consent just as easily.
If regulation today involves a set of protective measures, the introduction of taxation as promoted by Antonio Casilli would allow the establishment of an unconditional basic income. The very fact of having clicked on or shared information could entitle the user to this fee and would allow each user to be remunerated for any content posted online. This income would therefore not be linked to the tasks performed but would recognize the value derived from these contributions. By 2020, more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things. The data market could thus reach nearly 430 billion euros per year by then according to some estimates, i.e. ⅓ of France's GDP. Data is definitely not a commodity like any other.
While waiting for the robots, investigation of the work of the clickAntonio A. Casilli, Éditions du Seuil, 400 pages, 24 euros. - In bookshops since January 3, 2019.
Anne-Sophie Boutaudfor I'MTech.

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