Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Will Micro-tasking Take Over the World

President Obama and his acolytes are making a big deal about "outsourcing", the evil Republican plan to help evil corporations send all American jobs offshore.

But perhaps an even bigger threat is "microtasking", the on-line movement for people to do small tasks for corporations over the Internet for cash.  After all, argues Jonathan V. Last, it could detach corporations from the people that do the work.
Because while it’s true that the new world of anonymous, mass, remote freelancing may be a perfect distillation of a textbook labor market, it’s also a radical change in Americans’ understanding of the social compact between business and the citizenry. And it’s not clear that this change is for the good...

Because they are perpetual and, in a certain sense, unaccountable, modern corporations have a different set of interests than flesh-and-blood people, and a very different relationship with the people’s voice--government--than old-fashioned sole proprietorships or partnerships... [T]he corporation by design has only an interest in its own survival and profitability: It will concern itself with government insofar as it can enlist the government in helping it make money. On every other question, the corporation is, by definition, indifferent.
So global freelancing will take over the world, right?

Well, not exactly.  We turn to liberal Jonathan Haidt and his The Righteous Mind.  He writes about how instinctively humans color every action with moral judgment, and how profoundly "groupish" we are.

Humans love to belong to "teams", according to Haidt, from families to tribes to religions, and we do our best work when we work as part of a team.  The most notable kind of team is the military squad, and it turns out that parade-ground drilling helps form the bond of the band of brothers, the critical bonding between soldiers that prompts them to sacrifice for each other.  Rhythmic dancing is similar to rhythmic marching; it helps promote a "groupish" feeling.

A corporation, Haidt reminds us, is just such a group.  Loosed upon the world two hundred years ago, it turned out to be a "winning formula."
It let people place themselves in a new kind of boat within which they could divide labor, suppress free riding, and take on gigantic tasks with the potential of gigantic rewards...

It is possible to build a corporation staffed entirely by Homo economicus... But this approach (sometimes called transactional leadership) has its limits...

In contrast, an organization that takes advantage of our hivish [i.e. groupish] nature can activate pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm among its employees and then monitor them less closely. This approach to leadership (sometimes called transformational leadership) generates more social capital--the bonds of trust that help employees get more work done at a lower cost than employees at other firms... Unlike Homo economicus, they are truly team players.
 Maybe we should stop worrying about whether "outsourcing" and "offshoring" will end the world as we know it.  Markets are wonderful, and capitalism has given us enormous wealth.  But almost everyone navigates the capitalist ocean in a boat with a crew of other humans.  It's likely that capitalism wouldn't work at all unless its workers worked in the modern teams we call corporations.  Just as soldiers since time immemorial have been organized in the 150-man unit called a "company."

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