Books  |    |  May 7, 2019

Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass

Book by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
288 pages.

In the spirit of Nickel and Dimed, a necessary and revelatory expose of the invisible human workforce that powers the web—and that foreshadows the true future of work.

Hidden beneath the surface of the web, lost in our wrong-headed debates about AI, a new menace is looming. Anthropologist Mary L. Gray and computer scientist Siddharth Suri team up to unveil how services delivered by companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Uber can only function smoothly thanks to the judgment and experience of a vast, invisible human labor force. These people doing “ghost work” make the internet seem smart. They perform high-tech piecework: flagging X-rated content, proofreading, designing engine parts, and much more. An estimated 8 percent of Americans have worked at least once in this “ghost economy,” and that number is growing. They usually earn less than legal minimums for traditional work, they have no health benefits, and they can be fired at any time for any reason, or none.

There are no labor laws to govern this kind of work, and these latter-day assembly lines draw in—and all too often overwork and underpay—a surprisingly diverse range of workers: harried young mothers, professionals forced into early retirement, recent grads who can’t get a toehold on the traditional employment ladder, and minorities shut out of the jobs they want. Gray and Suri also show how ghost workers, employers, and society at large can ensure that this new kind of work creates opportunity—rather than misery—for those who do it.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Ghosts In the Machine ix
  • The Paradox of Automation’s Last Mile
    • Humans in the Loop
    • From Piecework to Outsourcing: A Brief History of Automation’s Last Mile
  • Demanding Work
    • Algorithmic Cruelty and the Hidden Costs of Ghost Work
    • Working Hard for (More Than) the Money
  • Talking Back to Robots
    • The Kindness of Strangers and the Power of Collaboration
    • The Double Bottom Line
  • Conclusion: The Task at Hand

Educators Guide available from the publisher. 18 page pdf.

About the Authors

  • Mary L. Gray is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. She is also Associate Professor of  the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering with affiliations in the Media School, Anthropology, and Gender Studies at Indiana University. Mary draws on anthropology, gender studies, and media theory to understand how technology access, material conditions, and everyday uses of media transform people’s lives.  
  • Siddharth Suri s a computational social scientist whose research interests lie at the intersection of computer science, behavioral economics and crowdsourcing. His early work analyzed the relationship between network topology and human behavior. Since then he has become one of the leaders in designing, building, and conducting “virtual lab” experiments using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Most recently, he has been studying the behavior and dynamics of the crowd workers themselves.