On Kimi, microwork, unions, and tech jobs

This was originally shared as Issue 099 of the UX Writing Events newsletter on September 5, 2022.

It’s Labor Day in the United States today, where I live. I never thought much about what Labor Day meant, growing up. You’d get the occasional news item about the origin of the weekend, or recounting the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. But in my Midwest American public schoolin’, we sure didn’t talk much about the Labor part of Labor day, Labor as an actual political movement, as a source of power; Labor as opposed to capital, management, ownership.

I watched the pandemic-era Steven Soderbergh film Kimi recently — which is much better than you’d expect based on the marketing, and only tangentially about voice interfaces; the plot centers more on the Kimi device being a microphone, that microphone recording lots of things people may or may not want recorded, and the fact that human beings are very much involved in processing the recordings from these devices.

Where Kimi errs — forgivably, for the story they wanted to tell — is portraying that kind of work as glamorous, highly-paid, high-tech work. It’s not, for the most part. My viewing happened to overlap with my reading of Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism, which paints a stark and important picture of what, or rather whom, is actually behind the so-called magic of so many apps and sites we all work on: people.

“Though data is the lifeblood of platforms, its production is not something we tend to think of… We are never forced to encounter the fact that data must also be produced; that such an ethereal, elusive substance is the result – like hardware – of human labour. Misapprehension becomes transfiguration, as the work of hands and minds appears solely as the result of smart machines.”

The film is good to show that the Kimi assistant relies on humans behind the scenes, but those humans are not living in stunningly-beautiful Seattle condos working from antique desks on expensive workstations like the film’s protagonist. They are, more than likely, microworkers experiencing abject poverty, possibly entirely subsistent on microwork wages in economies being exploited by American-style tech capitalism.

I don’t feel smart or well-read enough about this stuff to draw a conclusion or offer a grand call-to-action, but I do find myself thinking about these things on Labor Day, especially with all the talk of unions in the air, with the great numbers of folks who’ve experienced tech layoffs recently, and my own recent path of helping people find their own path in UX content, which includes such quagmires as trying to define an “ethical” company.

Many people taking their first tech job find themselves making more money than they ever have before, with better benefits and working conditions and work/life balance (aided by money) than they ever imagined possible. This could make them wonder why they’d ever want or need a union. One reason, among many, is that a union helps you stand up to management and company leadership against operating models that exacerbate exploitation of gig economy microworkers. The union card isn’t just about you, it’s about all of us.

There are many more of you now than two years ago when I last wrote on Labor Day, so I’ll share these links again in case you, too, find yourself inspired to think about unions and human labor today. Some evergreen reads and resources:

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