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Five Minutes with Hamid Ekbia and Bonnie Nardi

The computerization of the economy—and everyday life—has transformed the division of labor between humans and machines, shifting many people into work that is hidden, poorly compensated, or accepted as part of being a “user” of digital technology. In Heteromation, And Other Stories Of Computing And Capitalism, Hamid Ekbia and Bonnie Nardi explore this phenomenon and its implications.

Can you define heteromation? Is this a term that will be more widely used in the future?

“Heteromation” is automation turned on its head. It pulls human beings into ongoing interaction with technical systems, where automation pushes them out. Heteromation, therefore, is an umbrella term for a kind of phenomenon that is on the rise in terms of both scope and scale. This phenomenon has to do with the invisible extraction of economic value from human labor without acknowledging or rewarding it. While invisible exploitation is at the core of the capitalist economy—its sine qua non, and not new for that matter—the computerization of daily life has introduced and enabled the extraction of value from forms of human labor that have been thus far largely immune on a large scale. As we demonstrate in the book, these include cognitive, creative, affective, communicative, and organizing labor, produced and delivered through various types of computer-mediated interactions, from social media to search platforms, from gaming to design competitions, and from customer reviews to self-service arrangements in airports, banks, grocery stores, and many places.

Three key attributes differentiate heteromation from earlier forms of capitalist exploitation: inclusivity, engagement, and invisibility. First, the participation of millions of people from all walks of life in computer-mediated activities and interactions adds a new source of wealth accumulation to the previous mechanisms of exploitation of labor. The current era brings people into the computational fold by connecting them to various types of computerized networks, giving them a strong sense of belonging. This inclusionary logic tells people that the more they put into these networks the more they get out of them. In reality, however, people end up giving much more than they receive. 

The voluntary and often entertaining character of this broad participation, in contrast to the coercive or disciplinary nature of earlier forms of work, gives it a more innocuous appearance, engaging people in a 24/7 rhythm. This engaging quality is the second attribute of heteromation, explaining the strong appeal of computing platforms to the masses. This same attribute also provides the main drive and impetus behind major innovations in computing and technology, which are mostly focused on information content and entertainment instead of material production.

Lastly, the inclusive and engaging character of heteromation makes for a much more invisible mechanism than earlier forms of value extraction, giving rise to a new capitalist class—the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and the small but growing number of overnight millionaires and billionaires of the startup economy. This new capitalist class that has managed to harness and leverage the power of computing to its own advantage presents a different ethos and an even more different appearance from its forebears (the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the old world). With its emphasis on “innovation,” its (often vacuous) rhetoric about the environment, and its penchant for informality and casualness, the new class represents a nut that is harder to crack. The astronomical figures of this class’s mounting wealth speak for themselves. We don’t need to ask whether they are more or less benign than the old capitalist class because what is common about them is much more important than what differentiates them from each other: the subtle and invisible extraction of value from human labor at massive scale.

It is in light of these observations that we noticed the emergence of the new phenomenon that we call “heteromation.” There are strong indications that this phenomenon is expanding, contributing to the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor around the globe. It is only by uncovering the underlying mechanisms that support heteromation that we can start to understand recent trends in the global economy.

How do you classify labor in collaborative, voluntary projects like Wikipedia? Is this capitalism at work?

Wikipedia is an outlier. A beloved, wonderful outlier, but atypical. It was funded by Jimmy Wales’s stock trade millions and now runs on donations.  It’s a nice counterexample to heteromation because of the billions that are not being made. However, as we discuss in the book, there are second order effects, such as for-profit enterprises using Wikipedia information in their businesses. The Wikipedia volunteers are not paid when, say, a business analyst packages up Wikipedia information and sells it to clients. So yes, it’s capitalism at work. Wikipedia can be leveraged to make money even though it runs off volunteers and donations, and even though Wales has steadfastly refused to run ads. But its main purpose is to provide free encyclopedia-style information, which it does beautifully and at scale.

What are some of the darker consequences of heteromation?

Like most modern phenomena, heteromation has a dark and a light side, and at many different levels. For individuals, there are at least three implications on the dark side. The most important aspect of heteromation is that the value of individuals’ contribution is not acknowledged and rewarded. This is not exploitation in the sense of value extraction from waged labor, but it deprives people of the material fruits of their labor, giving them a narrow slice of their real contribution, and hiding from them the intricate ways by which their labor and their information is turned into commodity and sold to interested parties.

The second implication for individuals is to engage them in activities that are not necessarily always to their best advantage, putting them in social and information bubbles that are becoming increasingly malicious (such as revenge porn). This take on the phenomenon is very different from the rhetoric of “distraction” that tends to put the blame on individuals rather than on the delicate mechanisms of attraction and entertainment built into current systems.

Lastly,  is the manner in which individuals’ heteromated labor may be used as a means to monitor, control, and manipulate their activities, and to shape their choices, in ways that are hidden from them.

Heteromation has a dark side for communities and societies. Economically, it is part of a broader trend toward disparity and polarization in capitalist economies, which started many decades earlier but has exploded out of proportion in recent years. The related phenomenon of the on-demand economy, which we discuss in the book, is driving a growing number of people into job insecurity, long hours of work, and lack of benefits. The long-term effects in terms of the depletion of the resources of the welfare state (social security, Medicare, unemployment benefits) are significant. Not only do on-demand jobs lack benefits, they are ill-paid and do not generate as much taxable income to add to the pool we use to redistribute wealth in order to mutually protect each other. No one knows when they will fall ill or become disabled, so unless there is a program of strong social insurance in place, some individuals will find themselves caught out, with no back up.

What are some possible utopian visions of heteromation?

Heteromation itself has no utopian vision; by definition heteromation is labor that is uncompensated and unrewarded. But in the book we talk about how a good deal of heteromated labor—the game mods, the citizen science, the YouTube videos, the writing of product reviews—is actually extremely enjoyable. The next step is to allow people to continue this pleasurable work that creates wealth and offer them a share in that wealth.

There are various mechanisms for doing so: micropayments, a guaranteed basic income, a living wage compatible with the value produced for services such as Mechanical Turk. This is the conversation we should be having, i.e., what are the right forms of compensation for this new type of computer-mediated labor?

We would very much like to see such compensation, because in addition to the labor often being interesting and freely chosen, the tasks of heteromation (which would need a new name once they are compensated) are often modular and can be done at home. One of the great oppressions of our time is the 40-hour work week for people caring for elderly parents or sick relatives, or people with young children. If we could provide reasonable income during these times in ways that mesh with social duties, that would be a big win. It is important to remember how much money is being made from heteromated labor—Google, Amazon, Facebook are some of the richest corporations in human history. No reason not to share the wealth.  

The second critical piece of a utopian vision is shared governance. Corporations need to share power, not just wealth; it’s always dangerous when a system becomes lopsided. This kind of sharing is trickier than sharing wealth as we have not yet really even started this conversation and don't know how to move toward shared governance. We offer some ideas in the book that urge people to appropriate production and not just consumption.

As capitalism evolves, it should be experimenting with itself. Just looking ahead to next quarter’s results is not necessarily a sustainable model. Market mechanisms work well for distributing goods and services, but increasingly create devastating externalities. One thing we learned from studying heteromation is how much creativity, passion, intelligence, and energy go into many heteromated tasks. Let’s harness some of that to work out ways to humanize capitalism by sharing ideas about what is just and fair, and will contribute over the long term to human well-being.

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