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I would like for you to imagine the promise of technology. Facebook promises to be the gateway to your friends and family, ridesharing and delivery apps efficiency and connection against the grueling commute, your internet service provider cutting-edge reliability and speed. Sometimes, they even give you the promise of the world. When we strip away the allure of technology, what are we left with? A world of disconnect fueled by antagonism and shock that is filtered by content moderators, a non-solution to a systemic transportation crisis that leave us stories of drivers exploited, and aggravated calls on your internet plan. You haven’t quite been given the world — you can’t even connect to your meeting.
I would like for you to imagine who is behind technology. These promises, delivered or not, are given to us by tech CEOs and eagerly embraced across the world. We hunger for solutions to age-old problems from communication, transportation, news, education, energy, and love — and are eager to receive engineered solutions to these. In turn, those wielding technology offer endless streams to support new entrepreneurs, startups, and products to move us towards wealth and prosperity, each one supposedly more innovative than the last.
Our lives continuously cede to these platforms: our memories live in Facebook albums or the cloud, the rise and fall of political movements can be witnessed online — sometimes excusing us from on-the-grounds participation, developments in artificial intelligence offer us quicker answers, and we favor the simplicity offered a tap away. A hyper-efficient world aided by machines seems to solve society’s ills, until it becomes a sickness in itself.
The invisible laborers behind technology
In truth, our technological futures are built atop of obscured human labor. A phenomenon termed as “ghost work” by anthropologist Mary L. Gray refers to “work performed by a human which a customer believes is being performed by an automated process.”
Take ChatGPT, a general-purpose chatbot released in November 2022 that provides text responses near-instantaneously. It can help you with anything: writing emails, synthesizing data, or even programming itself.
No machine thinks for itself. Models like ChatGPT are only able to impress us because they build on the breadth of human work, and thus carry the constraints and failures that accompany it. This begins a questioning of this “breadth” in the first place: who designs these models (and their intent), the data these models are trained on, and how this data is classified — of which all steps involve humans.
Widely lauded, universities are rushing to find solutions to potential cheating aided by ChatGPT. College-educated workers, even programmers themselves, begin to worry about employment as their labor seems increasingly replaceable by machines, even if it’s just new labor under the hood that we’re bending towards.
ChatGPT’s success can largely be attributed to its palatability. While chatbots are not new, the lack of obscenity and profanity in one is. Human input is present at every step of design. The best and worst of humanity is fed into language models (hence the previous issues with obscenity and extremism). Human-aided supervision and reinforcement learning guide these model’s outputs. To ensure ChatGPT was unlike its predecessors, OpenAI recruited an outsourcing firm in Kenya to help design a safer model. The process? To have these outsourced workers manually label examples of profanity, violence, and hate speech to be filtered out, in exchange for pay about $2 (P108) an hour.
This is not a far cry. The Global South has long endured these roles, becoming the invisible army that powers every impressive technology.
Take Facebook for instance, ubiquitous enough that there are countries that understand it as the internet itself. A study conducted by Helani Galpaya showed that more respondents across several countries (including the Philippines) self-reported being “Facebook users” than “internet users.” Meanwhile, Filipino content moderators under intensely-surveilled working conditions screen reports, exposing themselves to graphic sexual content, violence, and extremism on a daily basis. It is incredibly dehumanizing, mentally taxing work that many of us cannot fathom because we’ve never seen it. It is of our best interest to only see the light. It appears that those who gate the internet are often the most gated from the internet themselves.
Who gets to be called a technologist?
Millions of Filipinos enter Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), data-labeling, or content moderation jobs to support the technological infrastructure and rapid pace of “innovation.” Enticed with decent pay, often posted with little to no qualifications necessary, and done in recruitment hub hiring sprees, it’s hard to deny the opportunity to join the workforce and indulge in the industry’s economic promise. Silicon Valley startups (or even the Filipino “Sinigang Valley”) use the excuse of economic opportunity to justify remote outsourcing.
Even those not literally invisible are devalued with this mindset. Underexploited laborers act as the on-demand service providers beneath the shiny interfaces on our phones: our food delivery drivers, content moderators that clean our TikTok feeds, and support staff. Technology is something that can be summoned and controlled, people cannot be — or shouldn’t be.
After all, for technology to be consumable, it has to be palatable. Palatability involves shrouding the violent, intensive human labor needed to maintain technologies. This is why we are moved when we see the Facebook post of a delivery driver left to bear the brunt of canceled orders, wading through weather. Or with “older” technologies: how we turn a blind eye to ruthless production factories that power the fast fashion industry. It reminds us, for a brief moment, of the humanity in everything around us. Instead, companies continue to express technology as the stuff of magic. Perfectly cheap, efficient, and convenient. Then we are moved to hit checkout.
Even Silicon Valley’s model of classically educated laborers are no longer safe themselves. Microsoft has begun talks to invest $10 billion into OpenAI, while at the same time announcing layoffs for 10,000 workers. They are joined by Google and Amazon among others, all companies previously touted to push the boundaries of innovation. As we head towards a global economic downturn, it appears that this at-will treatment previously reserved for the global south now spares no one.
Tech workers, whether working as ride-share drivers, content moderators, or BS Computer Science-educated software engineers — must come together in solidarity with consumers against an industry that has historically erased its people.
We need to call into question who the “technologists” that drive innovation are, especially when this innovation is at the expense of people. We need to recognize the breadth of forms that a technologist takes, and the truth that the massive forces of labor that write code, serve content, and protect us are continuously exploited. We need to know that maintaining a myopic view of the role of a “technologist” glorifies “technology” alone, detaching it from the human workforce that powers it. Without these laborers, these technologies would effectively be nothing.
At the end of the day, technology is nothing but a tool. Technology is shaped by people, for people.
I’m not discounting technology’s potential for economic empowerment; I disparage how technology has been used as an exploitative force rather than a transformative one. It is time to reclaim technology and look towards its potential for hope — where this act of reclamation begins with power placed on all tech workers rather than the few.
I want a world where technology is used to put us in dialogue with one another, breaking down barriers instead of enacting more walls that hide us from one another. I want a world where machines don’t replace artists, but instead help more people make more art. I believe in a world where technology is a tool rather than the solution, where we have agency to use it as we please. I believe in a world where we think of people, first and foremost, not over-optimization and hyper-efficiency. I believe in a world where technology is a communal medium in which we can imagine better futures, where everyone is a technologist and engineer, not a tool wielded by the few.
As technology is a tool, it is time for us to take it back. The truly magical part about technology is that it might be the most human thing about us. It is shaped by people, for people. – Rappler.com
Chia Amisola is Product Designer based in San Francisco, California who graduated with a BA in Computing and the Arts from Yale University in 2022. They are the founder of Developh and the Philippine Internet Archive.