What is an algorithmic boss?

Not For Profit promoting North Melbourne service providers in the gig economy

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4 April 2021 - Written by Hamideh Iraj

Alex Rosenblat is a researcher at the Data and Society Institute and the author of “Uberland: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Rules of Work”. In her 2019 talk, she discussed Uber practices and how Uber use of technology showcases the bigger trends in the gig economy. Uber is a symbol for the gig economy, so investigating Uber practices will give us an idea of the disruptive change that happened in the last decades. Uber used technology to manage trips and drivers, so instead of having a human supervisor that looks on your shoulders, a proprietary algorithm manages Uber operations and makes the system practical and efficient. At the first glance, it looks great; Uber promoted the idea that Uber drivers are entrepreneurs, and they can have a flexible job and earn money by driving for Uber and the use of technology as a neutral intermediary makes the practice fair and free from bias.

However, her research revealed that this proprietary algorithm is not as neutral, objective, and benevolent as it seems. The algorithm manages, disciplines, and even harasses drivers based on the intentions of the company without the consent or even awareness of the drivers, so instead of having a human boss, drivers have an algorithmic boss. This concept contradicts the idea of entrepreneurship promoted by Uber because entrepreneurs have control over their job and set their own working conditions and prices, to name a few. This faceless boss does not interact with drivers, so it makes drivers voiceless and puts them in a vulnerable position. She mentioned numerous examples of practices where seemingly reasonable features were used to put pressure on drivers and steal their wages. For example, the surge pricing system used to determine the price of a trip based on supply and demand, encourages drivers to move to high-demand areas to earn a higher pay premium. However, there is no guarantee that the driver receives the promised pay premium because the dispatcher might send the driver outside the high-demand area. Of course, the driver can cancel the trip, but the rating system might threaten the driver to be “suspended”, a technological term for “fired”. In case drivers want to raise their concerns, they have to go through a long and inhuman process that judges them based on some unknown quantitative measures and ignores the context and circumstances that they were in. Uber tried to remedy some of these problems after being criticised for those bad practices. However, there is no guarantee that those features will not come back later and continue to affect drivers experience and earnings negatively. This example is the tip of an iceberg. There are numerous unfair practices at Uber and other players in the gig economy. In these cases, instead of technology working for people, it has been used as an oppression tool to retain power and extract benefit out of working-class and middle-class people. The questions that come to mind at this point are: Is this the world that we want to live in? and is the world that we wish to leave for our children and grandchildren? In Loconomics, we do not believe in algorithmic bosses. We think the business processes should be transparent and designed by all stakeholders including service providers and service users. In the coop business model, all the stakeholders have a say in how the platform works and if their rights have been considered.

The talk is available here: