Microtasking: Don't Blame Henry Ford

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.

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In