Marketization and Agency: Freedom and Self-Control in Low-Status Online Contract Work

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 6:30 PM
Room: 414
Distributed Paper
Vili LEHDONVIRTA , Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
How does the marketization of knowledge work and the associated creation of entrepreneurial subjectivities influence workers' agency, or their control over their own lives? Proponents of marketization suggest that it provides workers freedom in choosing where, when and how to work. Critics fear that it leaves workers isolated, adrift and vulnerable to exploitation. In this paper, we approach the question through an extreme case: self-employed knowledge workers who contract with clients around the world through online labor markets.

The data is based on interviews of 25 online workers in United States, Nepal and Philippines, and on participant observation in online labor markets and in worker online communities. In contrast to earlier studies of independent online work, which focus mostly on relatively elite workers, we focus on workers who specialize in low-status digital tasks, such as photo labeling, sentiment analysis, and data entry.

The findings show that online workers celebrated their freedoms and cast the uncertainty inherent in contract work in positive terms, as variety and excitement. At the same time, the lack of structure provided by an organizational context left many of the workers struggling with self-control, resulting in underwork, overwork and ineffective time use. To cope with self-control issues, many workers participated in online peer groups and used sophisticated software tools to track progress and create goals and alerts. Since well-paying tasks were available on the markets only occasionally, some workers felt compelled to attend whenever these tasks alerted, even at night, and structured their daily activities so as to be constantly available. This suggests that at least for some workers, the freedom of marketized knowledge work may be somewhat illusory: the iron cage of corporate bureaucracy is replaced with a self-imposed digital cage.