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.