Informatics Seminar Series
Spring Quarter 2023

Friday, May 19, 2023

“Can Ghost Work Become Good Work? Digital Labor and Organizational Culture in a Transnational Tech Startup”

Benjamin Shestakofsky
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Pennsylvania

Recent scholarship on AI systems has drawn attention to the hidden labor that enables innovation. Research on computational labor largely focuses on digital “crowdwork” platforms on which anonymous workers complete short-term information-processing gigs. These intermediaries—designed to distance employers from workers by minimizing transparency, accountability, and the flow of information—typically leave workers feeling isolated, disempowered, and devalued. In this article, I use an anomalous case to advance an underexamined perspective on computational labor. I draw on 19 months of participant-observation research inside a hiring firm that I call AllDone, which employed 200 computational workers in the Philippines as long-term contractors inhabiting a stable organizational structure. How did AllDone’s employment model shape computational workers’ working conditions and experiences? I show how members of AllDone Philippines received consistent earnings, were able to directly communicate with and learn from managers and each other, and pursued opportunities for advancement within the organization. Yet although AllDone Philippines was formally included in the company’s organizational structure, team members were often excluded from knowledge and decisions pertaining to matters that directly affected their work, and their status as independent contractors limited their access to employment benefits and protections. I then turn to the emergence of the team’s organizational culture of familial love, which endowed work with meaning while simultaneously obscuring how the company’s labor practices perpetuated vast inequalities. I conclude by discussing the study’s implications for theories of digital labor and managerial control. Although these findings suggest how computational labor can be structured in ways that advance organizational goals while simultaneously supporting the dignity of workers, they also highlights the durability of the disparities that characterize tech companies.

Benjamin Shestakofsky is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also affiliated with the Center on Digital Culture and Society. His research centers on how digital technologies are affecting work and employment, organizations, and economic exchange. His book project, under contract with the University of California Press, investigates how the venture capital financing model shapes the labor of innovation. Other current and recent projects examine the sociology of artificial intelligence; the governance of digital platforms; power and positionality in organizational ethnography; platform-based workers who work in organizational settings; and the relationship between venture capital, organizational cultures, and organizational change.

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