Ethnography and Design 3: Labor in the Gig Economy

This AnthroPod episode is the last in a three-part series on the intersection of ethnography and design. The series was inspired by the conference “Ethnography and Design: Mutual Provocations,” which was hosted by the University of California Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design (CoLED) at the University of California, San Diego in fall 2016. In this series, we talk with three conference participants about what the theme of ethnography and design means in their work and for anthropology more broadly. The first two episodes featured interviews with Cassandra Hartblay and Keith Murphy.

In this episode, we talk with Lilly Irani, Assistant Professor of Communication and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, about her work as both a scholar of design and a designer. Irani discusses her research on Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), a website that allows programmers to outsource data processing work automatically. Programmers place piles of raw data into AMT and set a price, and workers chip away at these piles. When the processed data is integrated into algorithms, it is associated with artificial intelligence technology developed by the programmers; underneath the hood, however, it is human labor by which this processed data has been produced. In this episode, Irani also explains Turkopticon, a platform she helped design to support workers on AMT. Turkopticon augments AMT’s interface with reviews written by workers, making it easier to avoid exploitative employers. Additionally, we speak with Irani about her current book project, which examines the relationship between entrepreneurialism and national development in India.


Tariq Rahman and Katherine Sacco produced this episode of AnthroPod. Special thanks to Executive Producer Liliana Gil for valuable feedback and to CoLED for their support. The conference that inspired these episodes was made possible through funding from the University of California’s Office of the President, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and participating University of California campuses.

AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at [email protected] You can find AnthroPod at SoundCloud, subscribe to it on iTunes, or use our RSS feed. If you have any thoughts on this episode or on AnthroPod more broadly, please leave us a comment to the right or get in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Music: Sweeter Vermouth by Kevin MacLeod.