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Playbor

Social activity performed on digital platforms not only equates to correlational data that might be used for learning algorithms but can also blur the lines between social activity and labor. By gamifying tedious tasks, digital platforms are able to engage audiences into working without compensation. What has come to be known as crowdsourcing is the practice of externalizing labor costs of a company to a crowd that will perform it for free. The term “playbor” has been utilized to denominate the blurring between “play” and “labor,” denouncing an exploitative practice of corporations to cutting costs by outsourcing their production to a user.35

While a platform can utilize crowd engagement to solve problems or perform repetitive tasks such as the Amazon Mechanical Turk, where small repetitive and laborious tasks are distributed over a large population of cloud workers, other initiatives use the coordination of crowds to solve large, and often socially sensitive, issues. Developed at the University of Washington, the video game Foldit (Figure 4.5) attempted to offer a protein-folding simulation game that could be used to solve protein-folding puzzles. These three-dimensional structures had been historically difficult for algorithms to address. The Foldit proposition relied on the power of players to socialize the process. A player could slowly learn by solving simple puzzles, slowly developing the expertise toward proteins that had not been solved by scientists yet.The players were not alone, as an online community quickly grew around the project, where players would share tips and recipes with one another. It was this communication between members of a crowd that allowed for solution of players that provided breakthroughs in science. As was presented in the team’s paper in the journal Nature:

As interesting as the Foldit predictions themselves is the complexity, variation and creativity of the human search process. Foldit gameplay supports both competition and collaboration between players. For collaboration, players can share structures with their group members, and help each other out with strategies and tips through the game’s chat function, or across the wiki.The competition and collaboration create a large social aspect to the game, which alters the aggregate search progress of Foldit and heightens player motivation.

Foldit Video Game by University of Washington Center for Game Science. The game allows players to contribute to scientific discovery by solving protein-folding puzzles within a video game environment

FIGURE 4.5 Foldit Video Game by University of Washington Center for Game Science. The game allows players to contribute to scientific discovery by solving protein-folding puzzles within a video game environment.

As groups compete for higher rankings and discover new structures, other groups appear to be motivated to play more, and within groups the exchange of solutions can help other members catch up to the leaders.31'

The game is a simulation engine, working together with wikis and forums to constitute a powerful infrastructure for coordination and communication between players. But games such as Foldit face the difficult decision between becoming protocols of value extraction, where the labor of users could be harvested for the benefit of research sponsors, or defining protocols for the production of Commons, where knowledge generated by users could remain as part of the public domain.

A critical challenge in an age of inequality is to conceive of mechanisms where the power of social platforms is put toward the service of common goals, and not, as argued by Italian economist Christian Marazzi, as a mechanism for companies to externalize labor to consumers thereby reducing their own internal costs. The latter result is a consumer who is complicit in the production of value for a company. As Marazzi explains:

Empirical examples of the externalization of value production, of its extension into the sphere of circulation, are now abundant. Ever since the first phase of company outsourcing (subcontractors to suppliers and external consultants), which, beginning with the 1980s, saw the emergence of atypical labor and second generation autonomous labor (freelance, entrepreneurs of themselves, former employees that became self-employed) along the lines of the “Toyota Model,” capitalist colonization of the circulation sphere has been nonstop, to the point of transforming the consumer into a veritable producer of economic value. Co-production, where the individual is the co-producer of what he consumes, “is today at the heart of the strategies of public and private companies. They put the consumer to work in various phases of the value creation.”37

An alternative to the dynamics observed by Marazzi can occur if social production by citizens facilitated by digital networks generates value that remains in the hands of users or the communities to which they belong. The framework of Platform Cooperativism proposed by Scholz relies on social production in the age of the Internet but focuses on the final beneficiary of the value produced in order to legitimize the commercialization of leisure.

Combinatorial design as a culture of remixing may prove to be a scalable model for the production of goods and services, especially if it manages to be implemented at the scale of digital platforms. The asymmetry between the network and the consumer has grown out of proportion, requiring further architectures to restore rights and redefine the ethics of privacy. Digital applications and video games can be conceptualized as technologies for the production of the Commons, where data and value do not end up in hands of platform providers but rather in the public domain, enabling further proliferation of value through processes of recombination.

In cases where labor and social production are not a search function over a clearly pre-defined domain with possible optimal solutions but a cultural domain where value is not discovered but contingently created out of social codes and interactions, users should receive full governance for their contributions and a legal mechanism in order to claim ownership. The argument that has been put forward stands behind user ownership of production, protected by encryption and regulation.The attempt is to reduce the capacity of platforms to extract behavioral data, underscoring their role as public infrastructure managers.

 
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