The gig economy. The ghost economy. The platform economy. Task-based work.
Call it what you will, but there’s no denying that labour has been dramatically transformed by digital platforms divvying up tasks among armies of so-called independent contractors.
You’ve likely participated in this, maybe unwittingly. Even if you avoid Uber Eats and Amazon, the artificial intelligence behind your standard Google search is supplemented by humans, invisibly filling in data gaps for literal pennies.
In her new doc The Gig Is Up, which will open the upcoming DOXA Documentary Film Festival, Vancouver filmmaker Shannon Walsh talks to experts as well as workers who have no real protections and are severely exploited.
It’s mostly an exposé of what’s wrong with gig work, and why the promise of more freedom for workers has largely been broken, replaced by a dehumanizing reality in which workers are given ratings, like consumer products, and subject to the whims of unaccountable corporations — or worse, algorithms.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this dehumanizing process. I remember my first contactless meal delivery in early 2020. Instead of the customary handoff, I received a notification on my phone that my meal had been delivered and was waiting at the door.
My Uber Eats courier had even provided a photo of the brown paper bag sitting sadly on the tacky carpeting in the hall outside my apartment door. As I collected my dinner, I shouted a thank you towards the elevators, unsure if anyone was even there. “Thank you. Have a good night,” a disembodied voice shouted back.
I spoke with Shannon Walsh about The Gig Is Up ahead of its virtual premiere at DOXA. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
The Tyee: The gig economy is such a huge phenomenon, and I think it can be hard to grasp the link between something like an Uber driver in Vancouver and somebody analyzing images for Amazon’s AI in Nigeria. How do you go about making connections between these?
Shannon Walsh: I think that’s what is really different right now, and that sometimes gets skipped over. Like, “musicians are in the gig economy, it’s just the same.” But this idea that your work is being mediated by an algorithm, and that your manager is a rating system you have no control over in all of these areas is really the huge transformation that we’ve seen, and that we don’t yet understand how to deal with. [American anthropologist and author] Mary Gray calls it task-based work, which I think is a nice way to put it, because it just lets us understand the fact that it’s on-demand. People making themselves available for tasks is as valuable as the task-doing itself.
I think the tech industry has done a really good job of either telling us that this is a liberating form of work, or that there aren’t humans there at all. And neither of those things are true.
How important was it to you that this be a global project?
The thing that struck me so much as someone who’s been working on issues of globalization over the years is how flattened the platform economy has made the space for workers. So, someone in Florida is doing literally the same job for the same pay as someone in Nigeria or someone in India, and that was really striking to me, that you can see the globalization of inequality, really distinctly. It’s definitely different than anything I’d seen before.
A lot of gig workers speak very openly in the film. Were there fears of repercussions because of that abusive work model?
I was thinking a lot about that. I didn’t want to make a film that ended up putting people’s work in jeopardy, or their livelihoods in jeopardy, so I networked with folks that were already organizing… people who had already decided to become visible to some degree. Al, in the film, from San Francisco, talks about the fact that he’s got a legion of workers from the Yemeni community who won’t even speak out loud. They send Facebook messages to him to even ask questions.
You leave room for a certain sense of hope and opportunity. Do you feel like there’s room for a functional gig economy in the world?
I hope so, honestly. I am an artist myself. I get why people want flexibility and to be able to do creative work and not make their lives revolve around a 9 to 5. I think people are getting used to living with that kind of convenience, but it does have a cost.
I do think that there’s space to make change. We’ve done it before as a society. We don’t have child workers anymore. We got a weekend. It’s not impossible, right? There is a degree to which the vampire of capitalism is just getting worse and worse. But people are getting so damn tired of the whole thing that there’s a rise of co-operatives and collective ideas and a localism.
The film ends on something of an activist note, encouraging viewers to get involved by going to your website. Can you tell me a bit about how you’re trying to engage people outside the film?
I’ve started working with organizers in different local contexts to connect people with what’s happening where they live. Often, we watch social impact or political docs like this and think, “Oh gosh, how awful. Tell me to delete the app or something, and I’ll feel better.” But I don’t think it’s as easy as that. I think that’s really the answer to this big, globalized situation is to remember these are people in our communities, in our neighbourhoods, and a lot of them are organizing already.
I think the gig economy has started to feel a lot more real to a lot of us during this pandemic. You shot a lot of this before the pandemic and got to check in again with a lot of these people mid-pandemic. How did that affect your relationship to this material?
I think it did what you’re saying, and completely brought it to a much larger part of the population’s everyday lives. So, I hope that the public is more open to talking about it and thinking about it. The idea of these workers as “essential” never would have struck me, but that’s the role that they’ve ended up playing. I hope that the takeaway is some respect and giving some dignity to the people who are doing this work, and at the very least, recognizing that an algorithm’s rating is not a way to treat a human’s livelihood. We’re not on a reality TV show.
'The Gig Is Up' is available to stream through DOXA from anywhere in Canada, May 6 to 17. A Q&A with Walsh will be livestreamed on May 7. Learn more on the DOXA website.
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