Frank Pasquale writes: In a recent podcast series called Instaserfs, a former Uber driver named Mansour gave a chilling description of the new, computer-mediated workplace. First, the company tried to persuade him to take a predatory loan to buy a new car. Apparently a number cruncher deemed him at high risk of defaulting. Second, Uber would never respond in person to him – it just sent text messages and emails. This style of supervision was a series of take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums – a digital boss coded in advance.
Then the company suddenly took a larger cut of revenues from him and other drivers. And finally, what seemed most outrageous to Mansour: his job could be terminated without notice if a few passengers gave him one-star reviews, since that could drag his average below 4.7. According to him, Uber has no real appeal recourse or other due process in play for a rating system that can instantly put a driver out of work – it simply crunches the numbers.
Mansour’s story compresses long-standing trends in credit and employment – and it’s by no means unique. Online retailers live in fear of a ‘Google Death Penalty’ – a sudden, mysterious drop in search-engine rankings if they do something judged fraudulent by Google’s spam detection algorithms. Job applicants at Walmart in the US and other large companies take mysterious ‘personality tests’, which process their responses in undisclosed ways. And white-collar workers face CV-sorting software that may understate, or entirely ignore, their qualifications. One algorithmic CV analyser found all 29,000 people who applied for a ‘reasonably standard engineering position’ unqualified.
The infancy of the internet is over. As online spaces mature, Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and other powerful corporations are setting the rules that govern competition among journalists, writers, coders, and e-commerce firms. Uber and Postmates and other platforms are adding a code layer to occupations like driving and service work. Cyberspace is no longer an escape from the ‘real world’. It is now a force governing it via algorithms: recipe-like sets of instructions to solve problems. From Google search to OkCupid matchmaking, software orders and weights hundreds of variables into clean, simple interfaces, taking us from query to solution. Complex mathematics govern such answers, but it is hidden from plain view, thanks either to secrecy imposed by law, or to complexity outsiders cannot unravel. [Continue reading…]