Microtasking: Don't Blame Henry Ford

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To its fans, microtasking -- the Web-based division of intellectual work into small units coordinated either by entrepreneurs or within a company -- is a miracle of high-tech efficiency, raising global living standards. To its critics, it's just the latest version of older ills like the assembly-line speedup and the deskilling of early automation, in effect the "digital sweatshop." The New York Times technology columnist Randall Stross presents both sides of this "thin-slicing" here.

Stross concludes:

Worker control is precisely what the Microtask model has engineered out -- that's the source of its insidious efficiency. Just as Ford's assembly lines a century ago brought work to workers who performed a single, repetitive task, Microtask's software, via the Internet, does the same.

Every two seconds.

But this statement misses an essential point about Henry Ford, especially before his battles with the United Auto Workers in the 1930s. While Ford's system was indeed based on an extensive division of labor, it also depended on a stable, high-quality work force concentrated on as much as possible in one giant complex. Ford's Five-Dollar Day, announced in 1914, doubled the going wage rate for most workers. Other industrialists condemned it; the radical writer John Reed, who only a few years later would have a hero's burial in the Kremlin Wall cemetery, praised Ford as "a powerful industrial baron who is interested in human beings instead of stocks and bonds."

Of course discouraging unionization was important to Ford, as was reducing turnover, but his strategy was the opposite of contracting with a dispersed network of small shops competing with low bids. Larry Summers, among other economists, believes Ford's system worked as planned. Where are the microtasking Web entrepreneurs who have found a way to double the wages of white collar workers? I'd love to read a column about them.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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