Inequality and limits
First Monday

Inequality and limits by Bonnie Nardi

Many indicators demonstrate growing economic inequality. Figure 1 depicts increasing economic disparity between social classes. Despite increased productivity, waged workers are losing ground because owners of capital are accumulating the wealth generated by increased productivity (Figure 2). Since wealth accumulation is the goal of capitalism, this is not surprising. Many forms of digitally mediated labor are not even waged any more, though they generate economic value. Digitally mediated labor includes casual labor managed in short-term contracts in systems such as Mechanical Turk, the uncompensated labor of self-service, and uncompensated “affective” labor. Because technology supports a global labor force, traditional mechanisms of ensuring fairness, such as labor unions, are not always operative. This paper considers the problem of the distribution of wealth, and suggests sociotechnical mechanisms for a world with fewer traditional jobs.


1. Introduction
2. Digitally mediated labor
3. André Gorz’s Paths to paradise
4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

The Economic Policy Institute graph pictured below shows that increasingly, it is not worth it to work [1]. I discuss how in a future of limits, digitally mediated labor that is now done for free or at very low cost could be combined with a guaranteed basic income to support simple lifestyles. Abandoning the lavishness and waste in our current consumerist system is imperative. But what will the future be like? Chen (2015, this issue) notes that “the users in certain computing within limits scenarios do not exist yet.” I thus looked back to my grandparents’ lives and forward to my daughter’s, to gain traction for thinking about what limits might entail. My grandparents never quite gave up their early twentieth century lifestyle, and I was thus able to observe it, and the viability of simpler ways of living. My daughter has scaled her expectations far below what mine were at her age.


The minimum wage
Figure 1: The minimum wage.


My grandfather and grandmother owned a small farm on which they grew about half their own food. They lived in a tiny but nice house, with a radio, a treadle sewing machine, and a coal burning stove. Various small outbuildings housed a washing machine, an old Chevy, and chickens. My grandparents drove to town twice a month for groceries, walked to church, and hosted an annual family reunion. Phone service was at the nearest neighbor’s, another small farm about a five-minute walk away. I remember my grandparents in their retirement years, but my grandfather had been a small farmer and my grandmother an elementary school teacher until she was married and had a lot of children. She read her Bible, and corresponded widely, even with people she hadn’t seen in decades. My grandparents’ lives were low-impact and humble, but immersed in friends, neighbors, family, and spirituality. What I consider luxuries such as raspberries picked the same day, and eggs so fresh they are still with the bloom, was just how they lived. The air was clean and clear out in the Ohio countryside, and day lilies grew in the ditch beside the road.

Fast forwarding to the near future, I can imagine a similar life for my daughter, with some twists. She wants to stay in a large urban area (she’s in Oakland currently), which means she will have a small living space like my grandparents did. She has an old used car that she loves, she writes fantasy fiction (her passion as opposed to my grandparents’ spiritual interests), and is not into expensive fashion, finding fun in cheap costume jewelry and whatever’s on sale. She has one of those “typical worker” jobs you see in the graph, as an EMT. She works full-time, and is still on my health insurance, which would be more than she could afford, despite her budget-minded lifestyle.

My daughter likes the bustle and culture of Oakland, a city that is not wealthy, but houses artists and political activists, and has good, cheap restaurants. In many ways, the simplicity of her lifestyle is like that of my grandparents. The main difference is that she has better health care. My grandparents lost a two-year-old daughter to scarlet fever, a sorrow that weighed on my grandmother throughout her life.

My daughter is in school, hoping to become a physician assistant. She works as hard as my grandparents did, including the physical labor of being an EMT, and the rigors of taking classes, in addition to full-time employment. She needs the guarantee of a basic income in case there are periods in her life when she chooses not to work (such as if she has children), and she needs a better place to live. She has scaled her expectations modestly. But it is not worth it for my daughter to keep her current job as an EMT and work for US$11 an hour. Because she is lucky enough to have opportunities for education, she has the possibility to increase her income. But only a minority of Americans are college educated. What about those who end up in the “typical worker” track forever?

The answer I would give is twofold: low-consumption lifestyles must become the norm, and society must guarantee the essentials. This approach is consistent with various hard limits on physical resources (peak oil, peak phosphorus, and so on) which necessitate reduced consumption. Silberman (2015, this issue) notes the risk in “perpetuating the notion that economic growth is fundamentally desirable, and indeed the main social mechanism by which the human condition is improved.”

We should instead seek cultural shifts toward cooperation over competition, which Fry and Lieberman (2015, this issue) write about, and relegate to the dustbin of history the status games that drive capitalism. We cannot continue to follow those who win through aggressive, socially destructive maneuvers that keep capitalism in cycles of near-failure (the last one in 2008). Status seeking stimulates consumption and the desire to accumulate wealth. Competition works when you want to drive everyone else out, and, increasingly, contemporary capitalism produces oligopolies (Suarez-Villa, 2015). Systems that lack diversity are brittle, as discussed by Raghavan and Donovan (2015, this issue).



2. Digitally mediated labor

Where will the money for essentials come from? Quite simply, there is already a lot of wealth in our system, and it needs to be distributed more equitably. Figure 2 indicates that wealth is accumulating in fewer and fewer hands (see Ekbia and Nardi, 2014). In a world of limits, we won’t need as much wealth as we do now (because we must reduce negative externalities), and we should be able to generate enough through efficiencies of technology and organization.


Profits and wages
Figure 2: Profits and wages.


Of concern in Figure 2 is the growing white space between the lines representing profits/Dow and the line representing wages. The wealth accumulating as profits can be redistributed, at least in part, to workers through B-corporations, employee-owned corporations, taxes, and other vehicles. Even the generation of this wealth must slow down in order to bring society into conformity with the hard physical limits of resources, pollution, species extinction, and the like. Decades ago, Herman Daly (1991; first published 1977) suggested the steady state economy and it is an idea we should seriously engage.

With my colleage Hamid Ekbia, I have been studying the source of at least some of the wealth in Figure 2. Increasingly, digitally-mediated free and low-cost labor contributes to profit. There are several forms of such labor, which we can gloss as “heteromation” (see Ekbia and Nardi, 2012; 2014, Ekbia, et al., 2015), a labor relation in which humans and machines collaborate (hence “heteromation” vs automation), but where the human occupies a marginal role computationally or organizationally. Heteromation is digitally mediated labor that involves the extraction of economic benefit for someone other than the laborer. The labor is uncompensated or very low cost.

Heteromated labor includes paid labor, but also, uncompensated affective labor. Low-cost casual labor is managed in digitally mediated short-term contracts in services such as Mechanical Turk and Uber where workers receive no benefits or protections, and earn little. Mechanical Turk workers earn, on average, well below minimum wage. Uber workers earn more, but they take on potentially expensive risk as they use their own vehicles which they must finance and/or insure. Forms of uncompensated affective labor include cognitive, creative, communicative, and emotional labor. Such labor is stimulated by affective rewards, such as social connection and attention. Participants are usually unaware of the extracted economic value their participation provides. The products of the labor may be directly appropriated as in software modifications for video games, or a graphic design produced for a contest (Schmidt, 2013). Or they may derive from personal data amassed through participation in computing, as in social media. Personal data are packaged and sold to advertisers, used to direct ads on a site, or deployed to guide the design of new products (van Dijck, 2009). User engagement is itself a commodity; for example, user content such as comments on news stories increase clicks and time-on-site, valuable commodities that allow site owners to charge more for ad placement.

Cognitive laborers include gamers who produce software modifications that gaming companies incorporate into their products, people who write essays for political sites such as DailyKos, and anyone who contributes to commercial blogs and forums. The Google Image Labeler Game challenges participants to label a corpus of billions of images, providing free cognitive labor to Google. Creative labor comes in forms such as writing fan fiction and participating in online design contests. Communicative labor in social media produces commodified personal data. Emotional labor is required for social robots which do not function without human mediation (Ekbia, et al., 2015), and at sites such as PatientsLikeMe where patients provide testimonials and empathetic connection to others (Tempini, 2015). Self-service labor includes use of devices and software that replace former paid workers, such as ATMs, fast-food kiosks, and phone menus.

These rough categories of digitally-mediated labor suggest the many and varied points in networks at which economic value is extracted. We do not have ways to calculate the value of the uncompensated labor, but we know, for example, that commodifying personal data is a lucrative business, and the basis of the massive wealth and power that companies like Facebook and Google are accumulating.



3. André Gorz’s Paths to paradise

As philosopher André Gorz (1985) said, “Technology can only create new material conditions. Those created by [computing] will encourage or jeopardize our development according to the social and political project underpinning their implementation.” There is nothing inherently wrong with digitally mediated labor — in fact, it often engages our interests, attention, skills, and social capacities. Indeed, much heteromated labor is performed voluntarily, with enthusiasm, such as participation in social media and games (see Ekbia and Nardi, 2014). Even those who labor at the repetitive tasks of Mechanical Turk report motivations beyond money (Jiang, et al., 2015). A better labor relation requires the right “social and political project” rather than changes in the activity of the work itself.

Digitally-mediated labor has some nice advantages. Work is typically done at home, allowing people to organize their schedules, and perform tasks in the comfort of their own space. Heteromated labor could, in the future, be paired with a basic guaranteed income to support a low-consumption lifestyle in which employment at home, with its convenience for stay-at-home parents, caregivers, the disabled, the chronically ill, and the very old, not to mention anyone who likes to work in their pajamas, could lessen dependence on the vagaries and inefficiencies of the current welfare system, as well as reducing the carbon footprint by minimizing commuting and consuming. The distribution of wealth from this labor would have to be moderated such that laborers were not working for two dollars an hour, the way Mechanical Turk workers do now.

In his book Paths to paradise, Gorz argues that robots and automation can take care of a lot of the work people do, and we should let the robots do it. At the same time, we must abandon the race for status and accumulation, and recognize that, from a societal perspective, if labor is not valuable to society, we do not need to waste resources and human effort to do it just so someone can get a paycheck. Joseph Tainter’s (1988) theory of civilizational collapse posits that civilizations fail when inessential activities overwhelm the system. We can all think of unproductive activities that seem to contribute little or no value but are encased in our institutions. These activities are initially instigated to solve some problem, as Tainter explained, but they are often poorly designed, too expensive for their value, and sometimes buttress corrupt practices that destabilize systems. Hilty (2015, this issue) notes that we should “do away with all the proprietary noise that adds unnecessary complexity to an already complex world.” Proprietary systems are one example of wasted effort that serve mainly to make a small number of people rich (including lawyers). We have alternatives such as FOSS and, more broadly, related principles such as commons-based organizing (Ostrom, 2010). We should continue to research how to moderate the creation of wealth and distribute it equitably. Many of our most fundamental technologies, such as the Internet, were not developed with profit in mind, so the argument that such creativity must be rewarded with gargantuan profits does not seem correct (see Wright, 2009). I see creativity everyday in the work my students do, in the work of people who make quilts and build furniture, who cook delicious meals and tend beautiful gardens, and write great software programs for their own work, or to create a fun video game for their friends. The people I have known who research how to cure cancer are not motivated by profit; they genuinely want to benefit humanity and to take on scientific challenges. Systems like Facebook were not designed with profit in mind although once the economic value became apparent, the enterprise has used it to gather money and power. We can all be mindful of alternative systems that exist, such as DuckDuckGo (which does not track information) to replace Google, FOSS conference management systems such as EasyChair, and so on. Bitcoin is an interesting experiment in separating money from conventional institutions (Lustig and Nardi, 2015).

Fry and Lieberman (2015, this issue) suggest we will all be “making” things soon and won’t need jobs. I might not go that far, but it is true that a return to a sort of enlightened feudalism in which the worker spends some days working for her own subsistence and some days working for others, is not a bad plan. Although it might sound odd to invoke feudalism, feudalism is, in its purest form, just a system in which workers produce their own subsistence and give some labor to others, as against capitalism in which workers no longer directly produce their subsistence but purchase it with wages (see Caffentzis, 2013). With better social and technical systems for permaculture, food production in rural, urban, and suburban locales could be enhanced. Between permaculture and making, we might return to producing more of our own subsistence. The part we do not want return to is the exploitative appropriation of the labor of impoverished workers. Instead, labor beyond immediate needs would go toward operating societal infrastructures and services such as transportation, water systems, and the like. Gorz estimated that we would probably each need to work about five months a year for a viable civilization. I’m not sure about the numbers, but I agree with the logic, and Gorz’s idea suggests an interesting problem for computational modeling.

Applying modern technology to subsistence means that we need not live in hovels or perform back breaking labor as serfs did, but might enjoy independence from constantly working for someone else in the inflexible 40-hour-a-week format that causes so many problems. We might enjoy the pleasures of producing for family and friends. It would be worth it to work if we worked less, had more flexibility, and did not have to worry about taking a job to obtain basic healthcare.

Heteromated labor at scale could evolve into an incarnation of the “electronic cottage” proposed by Alvin Toffler in 1980. The labor would change; for example, emphasis on harvesting personal data to sell to advertisers would shift to activities such as citizen science that enrich our culture, or services modeled on the mechanics of Lyft or Uber that could deliver food, medicine, and other essentials to homebound elderly or disabled people. Self-driving vehicles might play a similar role; as Gorz advised, let robots do the work when they can. Probably “autonomous” vehicles will be heteromated much of the time, even if the human worker is guiding the vehicle remotely, so there will likely be some jobs in this sector. They need to be decent jobs, not jobs that do not comprise a livelihood.

Such reconfigurations of labor must involve a shift in the meaning of employment and the desirability of a guaranteed basic income. The notion that corporations are primarily accountable to their shareholders dates only to the early twentieth century, and is not set in stone. Public benefit corporations and employee-owned corporations are viable alternatives to today’s avaricious free market capitalism. The continuing drift toward inequality (documented by many, including, recently, Piketty, 2014) should be squelched. It immiserates too many, and contributes to environmentally unsustainable practices. Inequality is unsuitable for a future of limits.



4. Conclusion

An interesting computational problem lies in figuring out how to reconfigure the economy so that inequality, and along with it, the despoliation of the planet, are reduced. Decision models, simulations, and so on, can suggest what an economy based on limits would look like. Gorz (1985) points to the problem revealed in Figure 1: “The increasing output achieved with falling labor costs can only be distributed if it gives rise to the creation and distribution of means of payment corresponding to its own volume and not to the value of labor expended.” How would a new means of payment work? Without widespread labor unions, other organizations, such as worker cooperatives like Turkopticon (Irani and Silberman, 2013), must address this question. Capitalism has excelled at production; now it’s time to turn to the problems of distribution. What would be really disruptive is not another new gadget, but a way to eliminate homelessness, food deserts, children who don’t receive healthcare, and the anomie that leads to abuse of legal and illegal drugs, high rates of suicide, and so on.

Digital technology has an important role to play in transitioning to a future of limits. In addition to the digitally mediated labor discussed in this paper, computational systems supporting timebanking, barter, petty capitalism, and freecycling can be made more robust, useful, and ubiquitous. A move toward increasing services (vs. manufactured goods), as Remy and Huang (2015, this issue) discuss might be managed through computing in various ways. My daughter won’t be working in an electronic cottage because her employment still happens in “meatspace,” but she can certainly take advantage of the services and (recycled, reused, repurposed) goods made available in networks (see Maestri and Wakkary, 2011, on repair).

One of my Danish colleagues remarked that, in his opinion, his country needs “less society and more community.” I think there is an interesting space between traditional socialism and the free market to play around with in a future of limits. As in my grandparents’ day, and within the limits of their personal circumstances, family, neighbors, and friends filled at least some gaps government attempts to fill now, or gaps that go unfilled. If a critical mass is working at home in their electronic cottages, the need for mobility will be greatly diminished. Stabilizing populations is a critical step toward community because you can’t sustain community if you are always on the move. Tomlinson’s (2015, this issue) immigration assistant might help people who do need to move locate a place they can stay to establish roots. Digital technology has the capacity to support localized communities and economies by allowing people to find what they seek through neighbors and local citizens. Gui and Nardi (2015, this issue) talk about the social movement called Transition Town that builds community bonds with the explicit agenda of bypassing reliance on government. Digital networks allow us to interact with geographically distributed others without having to go to where they are — for information, support, commentary, and so on, as at sites like PatientsLikeMe. Reducing reliance on certain forms of expensive (Taintarian) mechanisms of big government, and reducing the power of oligopolies as people perform some of their own subsistence, seems an opportunity in a future of limits. There might indeed be a path to paradise somewhere in all of this. End of article


About the author

Bonnie Nardi is Professor in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.
E-mail: nardi [at] uci [dot] edu






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Editorial history

Received 15 July 2015; accepted 23 July 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Bonnie Nardi.

Inequality and limits
by Bonnie Nardi.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 8 - 3 August 2015

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.