Research & Insights

By Aaron Shaw, December 21, 2009

Not-quite-live-blog: Jonathan Zittrain on “Minds For Sale”

Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law and Faculty Co-director (and co-founder) of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, gave a presentation at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View about a month ago that ought to be required viewing for anyone interested in Cloudlabor and Crowdsourcing.

Drawing examples from all over the Internet – including a certain iPhone app that you may have heard of – Zittrain raises some serious (and some seriously entertaining) questions about ethical and legal aspects of distributed human computing.

Straight from the Berkman Center YouTube channel, here’s the full video (which is also available for download under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license from the President and Fellows of Harvard College:

Zittrain focuses on the potential alienation and opportunities for abuse that can arise with the growth of distributed online production. He also contemplates the thin line that separates exploitation from volunteering in the context of online communities and collaboration.

I enjoyed his analysis and the discussion afterwards, although I suspect that some of the conversation with the audience might get lost in the video. As with Zittrain’s most recent book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, this is some of the best thinking about life online that you’ll find anywhere.

Zittrain has also published an abbreviated portion of his argument in Newsweek under the slightly more extreme title “Work the New Digital Sweatshops.”

I find a lot of what Zittrain has to say compelling; however, I do wonder if the efforts of ReCaptcha-spammers and sock-puppeteers to exploit Crowdsourcing markets will ultimately prove successful. I also wonder whether the imposition of labor regulations in these contexts makes sense or would prove effective. Should my decision to kill time or make a few extra bucks by filtering images be subject to labor law? What about the ability of other people to offer money for distasteful and perhaps unethical (but usually not illegal) micro-tasks?

It may be a few years before anyone really understands if Crowdsourcing lends itself to unique types of market failure along these lines, but Zittrain and others such as Lily Irani and Aaron Koblin are doing us all a favor by asking some of the most important questions early in the game.

Full disclosure: the author of this post is affiliated with Harvard and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he was a fellow during 2008-2009. While he doesn’t think that his affiliation influences his opinions about Zittrain’s work, it does mean that he’s very pleased not to be spending another winter in Cambridge this year.