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We will miss the workplace when it’s gone

By the end of the month, a company called txteagle will be the largest employer in Kenya. The firm, started in its original form in 2008 by a young computer engineer named Nathan Eagle and, as of this coming June, based in Boston, will have 10,000 people working for it in Kenya. Txteagle does not rent office space for these workers, nor do the company’s officers interview them, or ever talk to most of them.

 

And, in a sense, the labor that the Kenyan workforce does hardly seems like work. The jobs – short stretches of speech to be transcribed or translated into a local dialect, search engine results to be checked, images to be labeled, short market research surveys to be completed – come in over a worker’s own cellphone and the worker responds either by speaking into the phone or texting back the answer. The workers can be anyone with a cellphone – a secretary waiting for a bus, a Masai tribesman herding cattle, a student between classes, a security guard on a slow day, or one of Kenya’s tens of millions of unemployed. The jobs take at most a few minutes and pay a few cents each (payment is sent by cellphone as well), but a dedicated worker can earn a few dollars a day in a part of the world where that is a significant sum.

The txteagle story is a variety of things: a tale of savvy social entrepreneurs taking advantage of the proliferation of cellphones in much of the developing world, an example of the ability of clever programming to chop big jobs up into tiny discrete chunks and to assess reliability by checking the answers of different workers against each other. But txteagle is also, at the most basic level, a story of how people are rethinking what work can be.

The United States Government Accountability Office has estimated that so-called contingent workers – everything from temps to day laborers to the self-employed to independent contractors – make up nearly a third of the workforce. And forecasters believe that proportion will rise. The growth is being driven partly by economic factors, with the uncertain economic climate making short-term contract workers more attractive to firms than full-time employees, but of course broader technological changes are at work as well – cellphones, PDAs, and broadband make it easy to farm out work, even complex, interactive tasks that previously only made sense to do in-house.

This shift has begun to trigger a more fundamental examination of what a job is and what we expect to get from it. Despite the vast diversity of the work people do, the traditional notion of a job has tended to be a standard bundle of responsibilities, roles, and benefits: We do our work for an employer to whom we owe our primary professional allegiance, and that employer pays us and provides us health insurance and a sense of professional identity. In the United States, many of the laws that shape health insurance, retirement, and tax policy are structured around this model.

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