"The system is proprietary" is a common refrain you will hear when executives are grilled on the implementation of mysterious algorithms that basically dictate how workers make ends meet. It's an issue that has re-entered the public discussion with full force after Target's Shipt workers protested the grocery-delivery platform's algorithm that effectively decides how many hours they work and how much they are paid without the explicit knowledge of employees.
The algorithm is not made clear to the workers — the people who are most affected by it — and despite protests from Shipt workers, it's clear that the firm is taking a route oddly similar to Instacart's management of frustrated employees. Earlier in April, Instacart workers protested the conditions they were working in with pandemic-induced deliveries skyrocketing through the United States. With increased demand, customers were luring shoppers with fat tips, only to remove them upon delivery. It's cruel, without a doubt, but it is a feature of Instacart's system, not a bug. And the company essentially carried on with its business.
Background — At the moment, Shipt has over 200,000 workers with a system that remains under tight wraps, made inaccessible to employees who wish to understand how the internal algorithm works when it comes to their wages.
Time and again, it is clear that the people who stand to lose the most are on the receiving end of these systems. Think of facial recognition technology and how racial minorities and women remain curiously absent from the decision-making process as far as the implementation of these algorithms go, even as activists are targeted by them. Think about recidivism and how law enforcement authorities are relying on algorithms to make decisions about an individual's civil record. Or about the British government relying on algorithms to grade, which naturally failed to take account of class and race-based complexities. Or about how algorithms are increasingly used to assess human-made resumes and subsequently the possibility of finding a livelihood. Or not.
These algorithms permeate our lives in some known but mostly unknown ways. As their spread continues, technology scholars like Cathy O'Neil and Meredith Whittaker have emphasized the need to critically evaluate the deployment of these algorithms and most importantly, the need to induct workers — everyday people — into the conversation. All talk about "equality" and "democracy" from Big Tech is hollow if it refuses to consider the day-to-day implications of its own apps and internal mechanisms on unsuspecting people.