Exploiting emotional labor

Casey Newton’s article on The Verge about the lives of Facebook moderators likely only adds to the growing rage against social networks. It’s worth a read. Even if stories like this often make the work seem worse than it usually is, it’s not a pretty picture.

Other journalists and bloggers have recently been talking about work and about how online communities work. On work, see Derek Thompson’s recent Atlantic essay. Thompson observes the way in which work is expected to function as one’s entire life, making it more like a religion than a job. Scott Alexander’s post on his attempts to moderate comments in his own little community is worth considering.

These articles offer a chance to synthesize some varied thoughts about how our high-tech, information-rich, ultra-connected world is affecting us. Here is just one idea that these essays have made me think about.

As computers can do more and more, jobs will be more and more about what only humans can do. Firms will look for ways to extract value from distinctively human abilities. This is what a lot of “information” jobs actually look like. They are not traditional “white collar” jobs; they’re not in management or administrative support. Instead, they are ways of leveraging part of the human mind that computers can’t duplicate yet.

For a few months I worked at a company where the task was to correct errors that computers made in reading documents. The computer did pretty well with the initial read, but any characters it was not confident in got passed to a human reader. The software we used was built to make us work as fast as possible. We didn’t need to read the entire document, only the few parts the computer couldn’t read. We were carefully tracked for speed and accuracy. Nowadays machine-learning technology has likely surpassed even human abilities in this domain, but the basic function of the human in the system is much like the Facebook moderators’ function. It makes up the gap between what the machine can do and what the product requires.

This gap-filling is what Newton’s article describes in the Facebook moderating company. Employees are asked to leverage their judgment in figuring out whether something is appropriate or not. Because judgments of this sort are hard to reduce to rules (note all the problems Facebook has in specifying the rules clearly), the task needs a tool that is good at interpreting and assessing an enormous amount of information. And human minds are just the thing.

Computers have gotten good a certain kinds of pattern recognition, but they are still not good at extracting meaning from contexts. Human beings do this all the time. In fact, we’re really, really good at it. So good, in fact, that people who aren’t better than the computer strike us as odd or different.

The problem is that this task of judging content requires the human machines to deploy what they have and computers don’t. In Facebook’s case, that thing is human emotions. Most of our evaluative assessments involve some kind of emotional component. The computer doesn’t have emotions, so Facebook needs to leverage the emotional assessments of actual people in order to keep their site clean.

These kinds of jobs are not particularly demanding on the human mind. Sometimes we call this kind of work “knowledge work,” but that’s a mistake. The amount of knowledge needed in these cases is little more than a competent member of society would have. It would be better to call these jobs human work, or more precisely emotional work, because what is distinctive about them is the way they use human emotional responses to assess information. Moderators need to be able to understand the actions of other humans. But we do this all the time, so it’s not cognitively difficult. In fact, this is why Facebook can hire lots of relatively young, inexperienced workers. The human skills involved are not unusual.

The problem is that as those parts of us that are distinctively human become more valuable, there is also a temptation to try to separate them off from the actual person who has them, then track them and maximize their efficiency. In ordinary manual labor, it’s not so hard to exchange some effort and expertise for a paycheck. Faster and more skilled workers are more productive, and so can earn more. Marx notwithstanding, my labor and expertise are not really part of who I am, and expending them on material goods does not necessarily diminish or dis-integrate me. In contrast, my emotions and capacity for evaluate judgments are much closer to who I am, and so constantly leveraging those parts of me does prompt me to split myself into my “job” part and my “not-job” part. We might call this “emotional alienation,” and it is a common feature of service economies. We’re paying someone to feel for us, so that we don’t have to do it.

All this doesn’t mean we should give up content moderation, or even that moderator jobs are necessary bad jobs. I have little doubt that there is tons of stuff put online every day that ought to be taken down. I am an Augustinian and a Calvinist, and harbor no illusions about the wisdom of the crowd. But we should be more aware of what it actually costs to find and remove the bad stuff. We enjoy social networks that are largely free from serious objectionable and disturbing content. But someone has to clean all that off for us, and we are essentially paying for that person to expend emotional labor on our behalf. Social media seems “free,” but as we’re being constantly reminded, it really isn’t—not to us, and not to those who curate it for us.

So suppose Facebook, or Twitter, or YouTube actually paid their moderators whatever was necessary for their emotional and spiritual health, and gave them the working conditions under which they could cultivate these online experiences for us without sacrificing their own souls. How much would that be worth? I doubt our tech overlords care enough to ask that question. Maybe the rest of us should. Though we cannot pay them directly, we can, perhaps, reduce their load, exercise patience with them, and apply whatever pressure we can to their employers. This is, after all, the future of work. It’s in all of our interests to set the norms for distinctively human labor right now, while we still can.

Universal Basic Income and the Liberal Arts

Recent social fractures, combined with our society’s enormous wealth, has caused a fringe discussion in the public policy world to get more attention. The idea is that the society (the government) should supply everyone (every citizen?) with some kind of basic material support. This goes beyond what we usually think of as “welfare,” for it applies equally to everyone, without conditions on working, having disabilities, etc.  Slate Star Codex has a useful post supplying the arguments in favor of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) instead of a basic jobs guarantee.

I find the arguments for a UBI over a BJG pretty convincing. The basic idea still seems to have a number of unknowns, and it isn’t obvious that a UBI would work as a policy. (See point iii on the SSC post for some worries about the economics.)

I’m interested here in one particular complaint: “iv) Without work, people will gradually lose meaning from their lives and become miserable.”

It seems to me that this objection makes a basic error that is nonetheless very common: it equates “work” with “what I’m paid for.”

At one level the assertion may be true. A life with literally nothing to do isn’t a lot of fun. It’s boring. (“Meaning of life” questions are fraught, so let’s focus on whether we would want such a life.) Even here there are caveats all around. It might not be easy to determine whether a life’s activity is “pointless” or whether someone ought to find it boring. Let’s just work with the intuition that mere aimlessness is not good.

The complaint against a UBI is that without work, life would have this kind of pointlessness. And there does seem to be some evidence for this. Consider the last few decades in the Rust Belt and Coal Belt. Many of the social issues there seem to track the loss of stable, decent-paying jobs. Or consider the people who “retire” several times from different jobs, only to find themselves stir-crazy with nothing to do.

SSC rightly observes that a lot of jobs are pretty boring themselves, so it isn’t clear that offering basic jobs is going to solve the problem. A UBI is better because it gives people freedom to do what interests them.

But that’s the other problem, because a lot of people don’t really know what interests them. And this is a failure of education.

The Liberal Arts(TM) were not the subjects that would make one free, but rather those that befitted free men–those domains of knowledge that were appropriate for citizens, freed from the demands of labor, whether slave or wage. One studied the liberal arts to know things that would make life interesting when there was no need to work.

This is the problem with linking “work” with “job”, and then saying that lack of “work” causes a lack of meaning. Some kinds of work are not easy to compensate, but are still valuable and interesting. There are many people I know who, as far as I can tell, would love to be freed from their day-to-day labors so that they could do what they really like. Some of them even work less than might be considered prudent so that they can do their side-gig. Their real work is not paid, but no less valuable for it.

Our society is probably rich enough that it could probably support at some basic level everyone who doesn’t want to work in a job. Those who do want a job can produce enough marginal value to support those who want to do other things. (Lest you think these other things are themselves pointless, remember that caring for family, volunteering for charity, etc. are all things that might fall into this category. Imagine being able to decide whether to be a stay-at-home parent without having to seriously worry about making ends meet.)

This economic freedom is impressive, probably unprecedented in the history of the world. It really does seem as if, at least in the West, we are quickly approaching a time when large portions of the society don’t need a job. If having nothing to do is so bad for one’s soul, then how should we prepare for this coming freedom?

The liberal arts have two answers. First, we can prepare to do more of these liberal arts. We shouldn’t think of the liberal arts as the so-called “humanities.” It’s not that everyone should write more poetry (though perhaps some should). It might be that some should do more science or math, or more arts and crafts, or more politics, or more cooking, or more gardening. (Chad Wellmon has been critiquing this distinction recently.)

Second, studying the liberal arts gives us something to be interested in. SSC’s examples on this point seem slightly off. Folks who already feel their interests squeezed out by their responsibilities would be fine. Most people benefiting from a UBI wouldn’t know what to do with their time. The UBI would give them time to pursue their interests, but for the most part their interests aren’t worth pursuing. And often they know it, at least a little. They’d be bored because their current time-wasting distractions aren’t interesting enough to sustain an entire life of leisure. But the liberal arts are interesting enough.

The problem is that our recent educational trends have favored purely technical education–job preparation–when it seems likely that there will be no job to prepare for. One might say that this technical preparation has enabled our society’s wealth, and perhaps that is partly true. But the cost in the long run might be very high.

The liberal arts have tried to justify their existence in purely utilitarian terms–writing gets you a better job; reading comprehension helps you understand your work; etc. I wonder if the better way defend them is that the liberal arts give you something to do when when you don’t need to do anything. This was David Foster Wallace’s point in his famous commencement address at Kenyon College.

Ironically, then, the biggest problem with a UBI might be that the a society with the material means for it will not have the moral means. But that is what the liberal arts are supposed to fix, and the best part of the UBI would be to supply the modest material means to participate in the life formerly restricted to a tiny fraction of society. SSC thinks that a UBI would be close to utopia. I’m less sure, because I’m not confident that most of us are ready to live there yet.