XXVIII.4 July - August 2021
Page: 27
Digital Citation

Interrupting invisibility in a global world

Noopur Raval

back to top 

With the rise of the on-demand platform economy, the term invisible labor has steadily gained purchase in multiple disciplines. Encompassing everything from task work or digital piecework to gig work such as Ubering and food delivery, "invisible work" has proven to be an important conceptual lens to understand the value of work and workers' well-being.

back to top  Insights

The invisible worker is a popular trope in platform labor studies but we need to go beyond revealing the hidden workers in the Global South.
Tech work across the world is tiered, not always hidden, and gets regulated through a global political economy. We need to engage with diverse and situated theories of tech and labor.

Within the sociology of work literature, scholars have shown how service workers, including flight attendants, secretaries, restaurant staff, nurses, and many others, constantly engage in self-maintenance, not only regulating their own emotions but also doing other forms of work not overtly recognized as part of their job—and hence unpaid. Invisible labor is prevalent in all domains of work and life, but people from certain professional and identity-based communities (women, disabled people, queer people, indigenous people, people of color, non-upper-caste people) undertake even greater forms of invisibilized work within the home and in the workplace.

It is important to identify and interrupt the invisibility of work, for at least two reasons. First, the recognition and valuation of paid market exchanges (or work) continuously erases while simultaneously depending on the reproductive labor of individuals doing unpaid labor (housework, caregiving, etc.). Second, as Lilly Irani, among others, has demonstrated, the deliberate construction and maintenance of "screens of invisibility" allows for the differential valuation of some workers as creative and highly valued (e.g., engineers, scientists, startup founders) while calling their others (outsourced offshore workers) mundane, unskilled, and replaceable. It is useful to note how the term and discourse of invisible labor have had global resonance, including in discussions on formal and informal work in the Global South. Measuring, documenting, and revealing how much unpaid work women and men undertake across the world has allowed for women's rights and labor activists to push for progressive labor policies.

Two recent important scholarly works have contributed to the growing literature on invisible labor. Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri's Ghost Work (2019) focuses on the hidden or obscured work of Amazon's Mechanical Turk workers in India and the U.S., while Sarah T. Roberts's Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (2019) looks at "the invisible workers who protect us from seeing humanity's worst on today's commercial Internet" by interviewing content moderators in the Philippines and Silicon Valley. Other recent books on "hidden workers," albeit just those within the U.S., include Voices from the Valley (2020) and Seeing Silicon Valley (2021). In this article, I build on these works to take a closer look at the analytical move to visibilize work or a worker, and the political function or hope invested in the tactic of visibilizing workers behind the screen. Speaking to this issue's theme, I ask what this "pulling the curtain" tactic—that of revealing and, by extension, including workers' voices—may or may not do for the present and futures of digital workers in the Global South.


Within HCI and adjacent scholarly communities primarily based in the U.S., this approach to studying "ghost workers" or invisible workers has gained traction. It has popularized a modality of seeing or revealing that is then positioned as a key step to realizing visions of globally progressive labor futures. In an email to me, Ghost Work coauthor Mary L. Gray clarified that "ghost work is not a reference to people or even specific types of jobs.... It is meant to describe the conditions left when workers' value and contributions are ignored or downplayed by the framing of AI and automation." Although Gray and Suri never use the term ghost workers—only ghost work—in their book, the concept has traveled beyond the original work's mandate to inspire a slew of writings on the ghost worker [1,2,3], especially when referring to Global South information workers.

Across these writings, so much hinges upon the trope of the hidden worker as the dirty secret of the otherwise clean, free-flowing, and "smart" Internet. Empathy and ethical action and/or consumption critically depend on our ability to see, to recognize, and hence be able to humanize the other—the back-end office worker in an outsourcing firm or her avatars, the Turker and the content moderator, the data labelers thousands of miles away sitting at their computers. The ghost-worker trope has been incredibly effective in drawing attention to a growing industry of data workers in the Global South, highlighting their centrality to the development of cutting-edge AI across the world. Its universal scope and appeal as a metaphor allows us to see the global economic and regulatory order where consumers in the Global North are afforded the maximum privilege, personalization, and protection at the direct cost of data workers in the Global South.

However, as many have shown, within the Global South, IT workers of all types are already extremely visible—even celebrated—in their home geographies as harbingers of global economic participation and modernity. What is unclear within the literature on new forms of invisible digital laborers is for whom this reveal is staged: Who are the people who have yet to hear about the hidden workers of tech? Further, where and how might these newly aware consumers act so that the ghost workers of India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and other places of the Global South may reap the fruits of ethical action in the Global North? Finally, building on Lilie Chouliaraki's [4] and Jonathan Corpus Ong's work [5], I ask: What does this seeing/knowing—hence generating empathetic affect among Global North users—provide in terms of meaningful paths to action for Global South subjects (workers and others) located in predominantly informal economies with vastly different normative realities of legislation, employment futures, and more?

The invisibilization of work is real and has consequences for workers irrespective of geographic location. However, based on my survey of existing work within HCI and CSCW, I have also found that what we use as theoretical and conceptual work not only mostly emanates from the Global North but also deals in universal or organizational language [6,7]. So while arguments about gig workers, tech workers, and invisible work often refer to units such as the society, the market, or the worker, U.S.-based scholarship often fails to clarify where the market is located and how all domestic markets that figure in a global order are not equal or the same.

The tactic of visibilization reaches its limits in the Global South; simply exposing working conditions has historically had very little effect on transforming the material realities of Global South workers.

Two issues arise when I try to think with these metaphors, albeit from a place in the Global South (Bengaluru, my field site) and with my interlocutors (gig workers and IT workers in the Global South). First, information technology work is a very popular professional choice in India; it has been so for decades due to the socioeconomic mobility that various forms of tech work have afforded. Books by Xiang Biao (Global "Body Shopping," 2011), Carol Upadhya (Reengineering India, 2016), AnnaLee Saxenian (The New Argonauts, 2007), Kiran Mirchandani and Winifred Poster (Borders in Service, 2016), Purnima Mankekar (Unsettling India, 2015), Sareeta Amrute (Encoding Race, Encoding Class, 2016), and many others have thoroughly documented and investigated the rise and implications of outsourced IT work, the lives of transnational and domestic IT workers, and their contribution to shaping the cultural, political, and economic landscapes of neoliberal India. Popular American TV shows and movies are rife with stereotypes of the Indian IT worker. While studying gig workers in India, looking back at the canonical literature on digital laborers, I often wondered, Who are these Global South workers hidden from? Who needs to see them and what does seeing them do for the workers and the consumers of platforms? On the streets of Bengaluru, zooming past on their bikes in platform-company T-shirts and in taxis with Uber and Ola logos, gig workers were almost too visible. In a country with more than 600 million people under the age of 25 clamoring for gainful employment [8], walls, telephone poles, bus stands, and public restrooms are covered in ads for IT jobs with the promise of quick pay. If anything, the city is oversaturated with scenes of IT work and workers.

Second, the visibility of tech workers as a whole, domestically and internationally, has not necessarily resulted in pro-labor reforms for Global South workers. Given the scope of this article, it is not possible to detail how tech work fits within the larger story of neoliberalization and India's growth story as a global power, as well as how tiered the industry is ("low" workers versus high-tech ones, service workers supporting IT work, etc.). What is apparent is that if the tactical move to visibilize the so-called hidden workers has succeeded in moving the needle at all, contributing to industry moves such as Facebook paying minimum wage to its contract workers, including content moderators, these reforms have not been extended to the global army of contractors and subcontractors within the same pipeline: the Global South counterparts in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The tactic of visibilization reaches its limits in the Global South; simply exposing working conditions has historically had very little effect on transforming the material realities of Global South workers.

This is not a new observation. Based on her decades of research with female Bangladeshi garment workers, Dina Siddiqi has offered a powerful critique of the Global North boycott movements that emerged in the aftermath of the infamous Rana Plaza factory collapse. Siddiqi's critique is relevant to my own in that the familiar, commonsense modes of Global North empathy and the tactics that emerge from it are insufficient to create the desired change in the Global South. As my and other Global South scholars' work has emphasized, transitioning to "clean work," such as computer-based work, with a registered company is a huge improvement from many other manually intensive and informal sector occupations. In India particularly, dignity of labor and, relatedly, dignity of life are privileges that most people do not enjoy. The erosion of labor laws, increasing deregulation, the role of globalization and financialization, and the creative practices through which multinational companies manage profit incentives, reduce labor costs, and limit liability are perhaps more pertinent to understanding labor valuation in a country like India.

Referring to Global South bodies as ghost workers then, even as a reclamatory move, does not foreclose the debate on how we might talk about a new generation of outsourcing workers. But language shapes our world and metaphors are incredibly powerful in guiding what we see in the field and how we see it. To that effect, metaphors such as ghost worker, hidden workers, and behind the screen sustain the "ophthalmic" relationship (one of seeing and being seen) between mostly Global North consumers and a variety of so-called hidden workers in the North and South. Simply or vehemently emphasizing the role of knowing and seeing (if only they could see the hidden workers!) may not be adequate to automatically offer pathways for alternate or emancipatory design in a world that we share unequally. The visibilizing of production performs an important aesthetic function of jolting Northern progressives because it hinges upon revealing how proximate they are to the distant back offices of data labelers in Kenya, just as they once realized their proximity to the sweatshops in Bangladesh. But in a world of global supply chains, care or empathy defined and enacted only through seeing the Global South Other as just like us (human) but poorer has little effect unless it translates into at least a fundamentally decolonial cosmopolitan ethic. This would be an inculcated worldview of one's shared place and interdependence, hence an engaged knowing of local and national contexts, histories, and politics beyond and before one realizes that one's AI was made by what Americans and Europeans deem underpaid hidden work.


back to top  The Way Forward

There is no easy way out of the metaphor itself, but my critique is not limited to language. This article intends to trouble the underlying ophthalmic relationship between the Global North and South as exemplified by the trope of the invisible tech worker. The trope encodes a relationship of seeing and revealing as key to imagining and mobilizing consensus around ethical tech futures, but it also travels widely because it offers universal language to articulate linkages between different capitalist subjects in a globalized world. Part of the work of disrupting capitalism is to zoom in, attend to its heterogeneity, and follow it close to the ground, in all its specificity. The implication is to not limit our reach to site-specific studies, although rigorous ethnographic work is invaluable to our field. The open question here is one of theory building: How do we develop theories that are not pegged to the center-periphery relationship of the global North-South (especially through the U.S.)? Fortunately for us, models and examples already exist, namely South-South solidarity networks [9], Indian Ocean studies [10], and theory from the South scholarship. There is a longer list of intellectual projects that deliberately travel and hence create maps of alterity, those that do not rehearse the North-South circuits and offer different views of the world. This is a meandering answer to the conundrum of hidden workers, rather than a straightforward solution, precisely because the trope is linked to the larger project of theorizing within technology studies, where knowledge from the North is universalized and Global South studies in HCI are cited for their particularities as "case studies." Beyond research, for designers, teachers, and practitioners in the Global South as well, the aim here is to encourage conceptual thinking that can better attend to Global South concerns and material realities.

Part of the work of disrupting capitalism is to zoom in, attend to its heterogeneity, and follow it close to the ground, in all its specificity.

A non-universalist approach allows us to understand that forms of work as good or bad, valued or devalued, all appear unmistakably in a relationship of relativity between North and South. Crucially, choices of work cannot be understood unmoored from both their local and national contexts as well as the global division of labor that has long determined the opportunities and ethical and moral geographies of the South and North. In a review of The Cleaners, a documentary film on content moderation in Manila [11], Lisa Parks raises questions that researchers could ask and answer about hidden workers: What can be learned from digital inventors and workers in other parts of the world? What labor are these workers performing and for whom?

Broadly, IT workers in the Global South are not just the hidden and devalued counterparts of Global North workers. It is useful to document and show what their specific challenges are but research, design, and advocacy for Global South tech workers will have to go beyond "pulling the curtain" to reveal them. As shown in this article, empathy and awareness among Global North academics, activists, and users has had limited impact on local and national worker movements. Perhaps it is time to recenter the heterogenous material and political conditions of the majority of the world to inform theory and design for worker justice in HCI.

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Mary L. Gray for engaging and offering clarifications on ghost work. I also thank Seyram Avle, Sarah Fox, and Paul Dourish for their generous feedback.

back to top  References

1. Wakefield, J. AI: Ghost workers demand to be seen and heard. BBC. Mar. 28, 2021; https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-56414491

2. Royer, A. The urgent need for regulating global ghost work. Brookings TechStream. Feb. 9, 2021; https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/the-urgent-need-for-regulating-global-ghost-work/

3. Chen, A. How Silicon Valley's successes are fueled by an underclass of 'ghost workers.' The Verge. 13 May 13, 2019; https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/13/18563284/mary-gray-ghost-work-microwork-labor-silicon-valley-automation-employment-interview

4. Chouliaraki, L. The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

5. Ong, J.C. Toward an ordinary ethics of mediated humanitarianism: An agenda for ethnography. International Journal of Cultural Studies 22, 4 (2019), 481–498.

6. Avle, S., Lindtner, S., and Williams, K. How methods make designers. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2017.

7. Chan, A. Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism. MIT Press, 2013.

8. Jack, I. India has 600 million young people - and they're set to change our world. The Guardian. Jan. 13, 2018; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/13/india-600-million-young-people-world-cities-internet

9. See Sundberg, J. Reconfiguring north—south solidarity: Critical reflections on experiences of transnational resistance. Antipode 39, 1 (2007), 144—166.

10. Every approach listed here has its limits but the Indian Ocean Studies framework is particularly interesting to me in that it not only troubles North-South and Atlantic trade assumptions but also decenters nation-states and land-based perspectives. See: Hofmeyr, I. Universalizing the Indian Ocean. PMLA 125, 3 (2010), 721–729.

11. Parks, L. Dirty data: Content moderation, regulatory outsourcing, and the cleaners. Film Quarterly 73, 1 (2019), 11–18.

back to top  Author

Noopur Raval is a postdoctoral researcher at the AI Now Institute at New York University. Her work looks at labor and urban transformations through gig platforms and AI technologies. [email protected]

back to top 

©2021 ACM  1072-5520/21/07  $15.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found