We Have Met the Scab, and He is Us: Shadow Work and the Internet

You are a sucker.

Every day, you work for free, doing work that used to be done for a wage.

You work for nonprofits, government entities, wealthy companies. And you don’t even know that you’re do it.

This work is hard to track. There’s a Bureau of Labor, but no bureau of this kind of work. There aren’t any unions that can represent you, labor laws that can protect you. But this work has a massive effect on your quality of life. It’s called shadow work: the small pieces of unpaid labor we do in our day-to-day lives.

For example, in most modern grocery stories, you have the opportunity of being a checkout clerk for a few minutes after you shop in the self-service checkout. Something as simple as buying a plane ticket, something that we take for granted that we seek out ourselves on our own time, used to be done by workers that were paid wages. Gasoline, too, used to be pumped by a worker instead of you.

Not all shadow work is bad; with an automatic shutoff, unleaded gasoline, and gas pump credit card readers, it makes sense that we’d pump our own gas. You’re at the station anyway, and you’d otherwise just be sitting there while somebody pumps your gas. We do a little bit of shadow work, and we don’t wait as long at the pump. It’s a simple, direct trade.

But that’s the pernicious thing: shadow work creeps along the edges of our working lives until it becomes a big part of our day. It’s not worth it. It’s death by a thousand cuts, and only really troubling in aggregate.

This idea is outlined really well in the book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day by Craig Lambert. Lambert does a really excellent job of describing shadow work, and how it’s crept into our lives in all sorts of different transactions. But there’s big one piece of shadow work he overlooks, one that all of us overlook: our digital gatekeepers.

When we look at other sorts of shadow work, we can understand that there used to be some worker that pumped our gas, or bought our plane tickets. Some of them are still around. But our digital gatekeepers? The Internet wasn’t widely used within our lifetimes. It didn’t have a huge effect on our lives until the turn of the millennium. Google, YouTube, Facebook, these are services that never really existed before. What’s the worker that these services have replaced with us?

They’re replacing editors, a class of professionals that are much harder to see, much less appreciate.

An editor’s job is to sift through bunches of information, shape it up so that it can be presented to readers, and only offer the information that the editor deems worthy and worthwhile to customers. Editors, too, shape what comes next. Oftentimes a book will come out of an editors idea, or the sounding board that an editor will provide a writer.

Doing an editor’s work ourselves, however, costs us terribly, because doing so robs us of the one resource we have that is absolutely limited: our attention.

When you buy a magazine or newspaper, you can know with certainty that someone has edited the thing. Some human being has sifted through freelance pitches, pitches from their own journalists or writers, and brought the best stuff forward. There is a process by which your attention has been protected, because you’re not forced to sift through garbage.

Digital gatekeepers not only use our attention, but actively destroy it. They have to, because they curate by algorithm, in that they use a computer program to record our habits and predict what we’d like to see. In order for an algorithm to get really good at giving us what we click on, they need us clicking through all the content it can. You are the one that’s clicking through bushels of garbage online in order to let the algorithm know how to best serve you.

All this effort doesn’t guarantee the algorithm will show you good or entertaining information. It just means that it will give you the information that is easiest to click on. The more clicks they get, the more ads they can sell. That’s why we have terrifying algorithm-created children’s video content aimed at kids: little kids are some of the most mindless clickers in the world. It’s why we have click-bait articles specifically designed to appeal to our worst emotions. It’s why it these platforms have a vested interest in overwhelming our attention: thinking deeply about a subject or a piece of content, trying to understand it on a deeper level, only gets in the way of the clicking on new stuff.

If you want to see how much work you’ve put in making these services more amenable to you, go on your phone’s browser and look at YouTube. When I do, it’s kid shows, Jimmy Kimmel, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t want to watch. Google’s search function operates the same way; just try and search under an incognito window in your browser while you’re not logged into your Google account; you’ll get significantly different results than you otherwise would. Facebook is the same way; how much time have you put into making your Facebook feed palatable, blocking people or ‘taking a break’ from their posts, just so you don’t seethe with anger every time you scroll through?

All the clicking we do, editing our feeds and making them useful to us, is shadow work done in the service of these companies.

The modern battle for our attention has been given a lot of press, and countless books written about how battered we feel by our information; the reason we feel battered by our information is that we are performing work that once kept needless stories and information at bay.

It seems like only a click here or there, We barely register it. Over time, these clicks represent the death of our attention by a thousand, a million cuts. We lose the ability to focus our attention on the information that we do have. And focus, whether it be through a flow state, through creative epiphany, or just plain paying attention to the person sitting across the table from us, is vital to a satisfying life.

We are not suckers because we make choices about shadow work. Done with due consideration, shadow work can be helpful, and choosing the media to which we attend can give us power to hear distinct voices otherwise unheard. But being our own editors forces us to give up what is the foundation stone of a good life, not in the service of ourselves or even our own pleasure, but in the service of a group of already staggeringly powerful companies.

The definition of a sucker is somebody who doesn’t know they’re being fleeced.

With our digital gatekeepers, we fit that definition.

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