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When Your Boss Is An Algorithm (ft.com) 178

Slashdot reader Presto Vivace shares an article on FT.com about "workers without a workplace, striking against a company that does not employ them...managed not by people but by an algorithm that communicates with them via their smartphones." And what they are rebelling against is an app update... They might be free to choose when to work but not how to work or, crucially, how much they are paid... Some gig-economy workers and unions are bringing this question to court. They argue that these companies' algorithms exert so much control over workers that they are really employees in the eyes of the law and thus owed hourly minimum wages, sick pay, holiday pay and the like.
The article offers a detailed look at historical precedents for today's strict "service level assessments," noting that for the companies, "algorithmic management solves a problem: how to instruct, track and evaluate a crowd of casual workers you do not employ, so they deliver a responsive, seamless, standardized service." But for workers in the gig economy -- 800,000 in the U.S. alone -- the question becomes whether reporting to an algorithm in an app is liberating -- or exploitative?
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When Your Boss Is An Algorithm

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  • by lorinc ( 2470890 ) on Sunday September 11, 2016 @11:42AM (#52866023) Homepage Journal

    Whether it's liberating or exploitative doesn't really matter. Above all, it's temporary until the app replaces the workers entirely.

    Get over it, you are a mediocre useless pile of flesh that is inefficient at best, and certainly unneeded to generate wealth.

    • So if you only get exploited for the next 10 years, it doesn't matter? If all the drivers quit today, Uber and Lyft would go out of business tomorrow. They can't exist without those "useless" piles of flesh. Just because the humans may get replaced by automation in the future, that doesn't give anyone the right to exploit them today.

    • by TheBAFH ( 68624 )

      and certainly unneeded to generate wealth.

      ...but certainly needed to consume wealth.

  • by alexhs ( 877055 ) on Sunday September 11, 2016 @12:16PM (#52866185) Homepage Journal

    I'm impressed: you managed to not mention Ü... a single time in this summary. A....b isn't mentioned either, but this is expected. At least, all "related links" are about Ü... .
    I think that company deserves its own icon, just as "the real-life Tony Stark". After all, Bitcoin has its own.

    (Salt at your convenience)

  • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Sunday September 11, 2016 @12:24PM (#52866213) Homepage

    I had never thought of it, but these types of apps/employment opportunities treat everybody in the organization exactly the same way and looks only their results. Bonuses/promotions/inducements are laid out as an algorithm for everyone to see and understand. If changes are to be made, then they have to be spelled out to a coder who then updates all the "bosses" at the speed of light - as a bonus these changes do not need to be interpreted by management and HR.

    This is a hell of a lot better than some of the companies/managers/executives I've worked for.

    If the question is that when the rules/conditions are changed, how do you push back? You're only option is to vote with your feet which may not be as bad as it first seems. Say a company like Uber suddenly triples their take from their "employees" because their marketing efforts in somewhere, let's say China, aren't going well and they're sinking a mountain of cash into it. The employees stop taking assignments from the app in response, essentially quitting - now the company, in real time, is getting a response that they've gone too far and now cannot provide the same level of service, upping complaints in the region causing them to back off the problem change, probably have to offer inducements to get the (productive) employees back and update their algorithm for making changes to eliminate this problem in the future.

    Now, having said all this, I would wonder if this type of "employer" could be hacked? I could see a black hat offering a service where subscribing employees are given advantages like a lower take from the company (the numbers are fudged going into the company) or given prime assignments over other employees. This ends up treating some employees preferentially and leaving others out in the cold.

    Going right back to the situation where some employees are treated favourably and others are essentially abused.

    Plus ca change plus ca meme chose.

    • and you'll be caught in about 1 year when most businesses do their yearly reconciliation accounting process and compare Amount of work done to amount of money in. Big data will spot your patters (which will need to be simple and repetitive to make any money at whatever scheme you come up with). The full force of our "justice" system will come down on you like a ton of bricks. In exchange for a year of "sticking it to the man" you'll do 10 years in prison. Maybe 20 if you don't plead out (you'll plead, every
      • by BcNexus ( 826974 )
        I say: Hal it like Tinder, if not for anything else, as an exercise for academia or Defcon.
      • I wasn't thinking in terms of actual fraud (which, I agree, would be found pretty quickly) but preference in getting (better) opportunities - to the same level as somebody getting favourable treatment/opportunities from a human boss?

        Is that against the law? Maybe the person who created the exploit (but I doubt they would be found in a country with an extradition treaty with the U.S.) but I don't see how the employee subscribing to the service could be sued.

        • unauthorized access , or tampering with a computer equipment is a crime in the united states, against the law, of coarse depends on your jurisdiction. But basically unless you are talking about some kind of 'social hack' anything that accessed Uber's software without their prior written consent and did anything they didn't like to it could land you with huge fines or in jail.

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      If the question is that when the rules/conditions are changed, how do you push back? You're only option is to vote with your feet which may not be as bad as it first seems. Say a company like Uber suddenly triples their take from their "employees" because their marketing efforts in somewhere, let's say China, aren't going well and they're sinking a mountain of cash into it. The employees stop taking assignments from the app in response, essentially quitting - now the company, in real time, is getting a response that they've gone too far and now cannot provide the same level of service, upping complaints in the region causing them to back off the problem change, probably have to offer inducements to get the (productive) employees back and update their algorithm for making changes to eliminate this problem in the future.

      That works if you're working for extras, but fails miserably if you're working for food, clothing, and shelter. Sure, your clothes probably won't wear out before there's a correction, but your stomach and the bills won't wait that long.

      Meanwhile, what happens when the algorithm settles into the ideal for the company and likewise for the other employers in the area and in that state you cannot make ends meet? The problem is that whatever the algorithm, it is hard coded to favor the company and probably only

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      It sounds nice in theory but there has to be human judgement in the loop somewhere. How do you measure productivity for a developer? Code lines? Applications developed? Time spent mentoring or helping junior devs? How does an algorithm judge code quality?

      It's also really hard to eliminate bias in these systems, e.g. against part time workers or workers who recently took paternity/maternity leave.

  • contractor abuse is not an new thing or an app thing. Also there are w2 like employee rules that uber and others have that are not part of the Algorithm.

    FedEx and other shipping / delivery places list there workers as 1099's but control them like w2 works and they even say you must rent / buy our software / hardware / trucks / uniforms (in some states employees can not be changed for them at all). And the app part is just routeing.

  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Sunday September 11, 2016 @12:39PM (#52866285)

    If unions can successfully sell themselves as the only lever people have against things like the summary, then they could definitely make a comeback. Everything has a way of coming back in cycles, slightly improved. Look at the industry most of us work in (IT) -- virtual machines, containers, remote hosting -- all that stuff is decades old, and has been brought back with a better supporting environment. Until about the 1970s, even low-level factory workers could raise a family on one income and have a secure retirement on top of that. Wind the clock forward, and we have those same jobs paying just above minimum wage with no benefits, or they don't exist here and former factory workers have to take minimum wage jobs in retail, etc. This is directly attributable to a loss of union membership and leverage. Now, people in the gig economy don't even have stable employment; they have to stitch together tons of part time gigs to even come close to a solid wage. I feel that with automation and algorithmic management, this is going to get even worse.

    I think a lot of the union bashing is a misinformation campaign. I would love to work in a unionized workplace, just for the convenience of paying a collective bargaining unit to ensure I get a fair salary and have some leverage against employers. Almost all the arguments against unions involve one of these:
    - Corruption -- what political organization isn't corrupt? I'd deal with a low level of corruption if I were getting something that benefits me.
    - Mediocrity -- as in "I'm a super-genius and employers are lining up to hire me for a high six-figure salary...no way will I help my colleagues by stooping down to their level." All I can say is this -- even if you are a super-genius, there will come a time where management finds a way to not pay you that huge salary regardless of your talent.
    - Some anecdote -- the most common one is "I was at a trade show in a convention center, and the union electricians wouldn't let me plug my own things in." This one confuses me -- why wouldn't you want someone to do the job they are assigned to do while you do what you were there for?

    Either the entire employment economy will collapse completely, or people are going to rediscover unions the same way they rediscovered VMs and ASPs. As employers slowly gain back all the leverage they lost, people are going to feel the squeeze and want something to restore the balance.

    • by bussdriver ( 620565 ) on Sunday September 11, 2016 @01:19PM (#52866493)

      Corporate law has changed over time and not for the better. Corporations are defined by law; therefore they exist by regulation which owes all it's force to the power of governments (external governments included.)

      The corporate board used to not be easily stacked with friends of the CEO... and that was historically the case. Also, it was less likely that a small population of buddies were on boards of each other's corporation in the past, which is a huge conflict of interest. Changing that would be new; however, modern times created a problem which needs to be addressed. People forget the problems of government power/corruption are human organization problems which exist in every organization.

      Some nations such as Germany require by corporate law that boards have a significant portion of the board be WORKERS or their union. This makes so much sense it is hard to understand why it isn't mentioned in the USA.

      The intended purpose of a corporation is to provide gainful employment; however, legally we define it as solely looking out for the share holders. That can be altered; in the past, there was a moral aspect in society which to some degree infected management. Ethics essentially has been removed from the culture and what remains is removed in MBA school.

      The balance of powers within government systems has to be extended to everything within their grasp otherwise the loopholes will allow for the creation of monsters beyond the power of the system and will corrupt and hijack the government which defines/regulates them. It's like an unchecked disease becoming an epidemic and then killing off everybody at the CDC. That is where we are today...

      • by waspleg ( 316038 )

        The intended purpose of a corporation is and has always been to make money above all else. Some people might have ethics, (largely) companies do not. Many other countries (mostly in Europe) do capitalism in a way that is far more beneficial to the worker than America does.

        Other places like China/India are trying to out-evil us in the race to the bottom. India has a massive worker strike going on, probably the largest in history, I saw that on imgur, not covered in major media.

        It should be obvious that the o

        • The intended purpose of a corporation is and has always been to make money above all else.

          How do you explain the existence of the barious non profit corporation structures, and structures such as members clubs and so on?

      • The intended purpose of a corporation is to provide gainful employment

        That's a bizarre reinterpretation. The purpose of a corporation is to facilitate pooling of capital to enable the undertaking of large projects that no single person could fund, and to shield investors from potential losses -- which has pros and cons, but on balance is good. Capital would be much harder to raise if investors had to risk everything on each investment.

        Large projects, such as making a product and distributing it on very large scales, usually do require employing people, usually a lot of peop

        • No label covers it better than the modern "corporation". Which includes non-profit corporations and anything else government chooses to define in detail... and it is defined way beyond simply an investment shield.

          From a broader, society perspective:

          Hunter/Gatherer societies had no need for jobs. The food supply was your "employer" and supported your survival.
          There was a tendency to worship the provider, which was nature so they strongly trend to pagan.

          Money based societies all depend upon jobs. The employe

          • Society's perspective is always about survival, so the purpose of corporation is to be "job creators" and what the business produces is secondary.

            Those of us who like to eat, wear clothing, communicate electronically and a million and one other things beg to disagree. The stuff that businesses produce is rather important at every level of Maslow's hierarchy.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      even if you are a super-genius, there will come a time where management finds a way to not pay you that huge salary regardless of your talent.

      "management", "salary"

      If you have these kinds of talents, you are doing it wrong. Go to work as a sole proprietor/consultant. You contract to provide a service and are paid a price based on its value to your customer. Or they can go elsewhere.

      If unions can successfully sell themselves as the only lever people have against things like the summary

      That's the plan. You (the employee) will be loyal to your union rather than your employer or profession. And they will extract value from that relationship in the form of political power.

    • by Cederic ( 9623 )

      - Corruption -- what political organization isn't corrupt? I'd deal with a low level of corruption if I were getting something that benefits me.

      I now understand why you like unions. Some of us are honest, so fuck you and fuck your union.

      Mediocrity

      I don't need to be a super-genius to see the damage that union pay bargaining causes. Mediocre people getting the same wage as high productivity staff. Mediocre people getting paid more than someone far better than them purely because they've been in the role for longer. Sub-mediocre people not being sacked because of the union.

      Fuck that. My employer has to attract staff to work for the company. Pay is one of those

  • My old boss (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    - Didn't come out to our site to meet me in person for the first 2 years I worked in the position.
    - Rarely responded to emails or calls when I asked for his input on a certain situation.
    - Didn't check my KPIs.
    - Didn't do my performance reviews (local HR had to do them and they didn't even know what my duties were).
    - Got angry when I talked with the local HR manager about getting a raise after my first year for doing awesome on my KPIs and having sterling feedback from coworkers on-site. (I didn't get that r

    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      PTO = paid time off?

      Sorry, I judge you just as much as your boss for tolerating it. "First 2 years" I take to mean that you were there for longer than that? Far too long.

      Your boss, however, got tons of excellent work out of you for almost no extra compensation without ever taking any responsibility. He's laughing all the way to the bank.

      I swear half the problem with bad workplaces and bosses is people never saying "Fuck off" (or equivalent) to their stupid demands.

  • There comes a time in every exploitative industry where the industry operators are making so much money from workers under questionable circumstances that everyone clearly sees that this is a job, not a volunteering opportunity with benefits. Uber, Deliveroo and the like finally got there it would seem. Time to pay their fair share.
  • by cpm99352 ( 939350 ) on Sunday September 11, 2016 @07:13PM (#52868055)
    As geeks, you should aready know this story [marshallbrain.com].
  • While the article is a good description of what's going on in the new gig economy, I don't think it fully fleshes out the fact that the labor terms like wages, fees, etc. are still being set by human beings. If Uber or UberEats changes the wages, it wasn't an algorithm that decided this, but it was a manager somewhere who set these numbers. This is really no different than if you had a traditional employer who hires you at a promise of one wage but then hides a little clause in your contract that allows h

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