Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Severing Community from Geography

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The traditional conception of democratic citizenship roots itself in a specific polity, and will for the foreseeable future.  Disparate political communities, each with their own form of governance and view of the human good, do not serve as a deterrent to virtuous citizenship, but in some cases serves as a boon for good citizenship.  Most people believe in national identity and attachment to it as both inevitable and desirable.  Few and far between are cosmopolitans—at least outside of the halls of liberal academia—who bemoan particularistic and provincial attachment to nation, state, or local space.  “For the vast majority of human beings,” Leon Kass writes, “life…is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a web of human relations, institutions, culture, and mores that define us and—whether we know it or not—give shape, character, and meaning to our lives.”  This idea of citizenship and its connection to community is alive and well.

Yet, Jonathan Last writes in this week’s Weekly Standard that community and geography will sever, eventually, at least in one important respect, by the business practice known as “microtasking”—i.e., the use of Internet platforms that operate like job fairs, where willing participants sign up to perform tasks for business involving the Internet and paid upon completion of the task (provided the company is a legitimate, tax-paying and law-abiding one).  In Last’s case, he utilized to land a gig entering search terms into Google, clicking on the first result generated by the search term, and copying the URL into a work page.  He earned a paltry $0.16 for his labor, but worked less than two minutes.  But beyond his meager salary as a “Mechanical Turk,” Last’s participation in microtasking seems innocuous enough, yet highlights a problem with what any future economy may look like—completely remote participation in the workplace.

To be sure, Amazon’s platform—and others like it—represents a novel contribution, matching worker’s skills with jobs, or rather tasks, businesses need fulfilled on a part-time or one-off basis.  It does not make sense for companies to hire for such tasks, nor to allocate them to current employees, so the Internet affords them an outlet for such task completion.  Last notes that free-market advocates ought to like these types of platforms, where work is unforced, the labor and tasks defined transparently, employment discrimination nearly impossible, and the human factors such as résumé review and interview performance reduced.  The biggest and most profound shift engendered by these platforms, however, is the severing of community and geography—and without any pretense of replacing it in new ways.

The work-commute paradigm, where work centers around particular spaces of productivity such as offices, remains a particularly ossified concept, even in the digital era.  At their best, offices are places of dynamism, productivity, idea-swapping, and friendship.  Even if they are, in some senses, economically inefficient, we confirm them despite this inefficiency for the aforementioned reasons.  Microtasking destroys this nexus, however.  US business may contract with citizens of Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, or Mexico.  All that matters is that the task goes fulfilled, not the communal atmosphere of the office, the common devotion to the company and its product(s), or the vested interest of the workers in the long-term future and ethical behavior of the business.  Microtasking encourages fleeting relationships of utility centered on task completion for small monetary remuneration.

The implications, I believe, are straightforward.  Microtasking decreases the likelihood that businesses will view their relationship with the community in which they locate—or eventually, even the nation in which they place their headquarters—as vital to their future.  It decreases the likelihood that business will maintain a vested interest in that community—in its work force, its institutions, its sound government, its education system.  Tout court, it decreases the likelihood of business participation in all that makes a community healthy and vibrant.  The only way microtasking will not lead to the erosion of the nexus between community and geography is if any increased efficiency therein lands within the community or the American economy itself, which, for the nonce, is highly unlikely.  The change that microtasking brings to the American business experience and its historical linkage to communities is something unprecedented and overall, deleterious to the nexus we hold dear.


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