I’ve known, and written about, HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), Turkers (people who perform HITs), the sharing economy (exemplified by Uber and Airbnb), and the precariat (“people whose lives are precarious because they have little or no job security”) for years now. What I hadn’t known was the word that’s often used to describe workers in the “global gig economy”: the human cloud.
Part-time data entry, done by residents of places such as Kibera, Kenya, is “arguably the fastest-growing part of the global gig economy, known as the human cloud.” Source
Does “human cloud” evoke for you a dust storm, or maybe a plague of locusts? Purely coincidental. This cloud is the homo sapiens equivalent of cloud computing, “the use of networked facilities for the storage and processing of data rather than a user’s local computer, access to data or services typically being via the Internet,” as the OED defines it. The OED’s oldest citation for cloud computing is a 1996 internal document from Compaq Computer Corp.: “The Cloud has no borders.” By the early 2000s, cloud storage, cloud provider, and cloud service were gaining traction. (There had been an even earlier sense of cloud used in telecommunications. “The public network cloud” was mentioned in a 1989 article in Network World.)
Human cloud shares many of the senses of the electronic cloud: it’s diffuse, widely distributed, and anonymous. The term isn’t yet in the OED’s cloud, or in Merriam-Webster’s. It may be too new: The earliest citations I found are from 2015. In August of that year, a company called Twago (“Europe’s largest platform for freelance work”—the name is an acronym for Teamwork Across Global Offices) was named “one of the world’s largest human cloud platforms,” which suggests that the term was already an established buzzword.
On October 8, 2015, the Financial Times published a “Big Read” article by Sarah O’Connor headlined “The Human Cloud: A New World of Work.” From the article:
Employers are starting to see the human cloud as a new way to get work done. White-collar jobs are chopped into hundreds of discrete projects or tasks, then scattered into a virtual “cloud” of willing workers who could be anywhere in the world, so long as they have an internet connection.
Some of these tasks are as simple as looking up phone numbers on the web, typing data into a spreadsheet or watching a video while a webcam tracks your eye movements. Others are as complex as writing a piece of code or completing a short-term consultancy project.
The uniting factor is that these are not jobs but tasks or projects, performed remotely and on-demand by people who are not employees but independent workers. Much of it is, in effect, white-collar piecework. Employers spent between $2.8bn and $3.7bn globally last year on payments to workers and the online platforms that act as intermediaries in the human cloud, according to a recent Staffing Industry Analysts report.
Proponents of the human cloud say it can lift people out of poverty and even, writes O’Connor, “return us to the age of the cottage industry, before we crammed into factories or offices and lost control over our work.”
Critics, on the other hand, “talk of dead-eyed operatives on production lines, not happy artisans,” of “unregulated virtual sweatshops” in which workers “compete in a worldwide race to the bottom.”
More recently, the boosters have been out-shouting the naysayers. At an HR industry conference in February 2018, one speaker described the human cloud as “curating and using technologies to create a disparate pool of talent.” In an undated publication, the global consultancy Deloitte called the human cloud “the next frontier in service delivery,” and suggested that employers start small by outsourcing “rote tasks—those that you may have been tempted to automate in the past, but didn’t or couldn’t do so for some reason. Data entry, writing code, answering calls, etc.—all could present a good starting point for testing the waters.”
Upwork, the Bay Area-based “top freelancing website,” where you can hire a “top-rated real estate data entry specialist” for $5 an hour, is betting big on the human cloud, which it says is “underutilized”:
Upwork has found that human cloud platforms save so much time, employees can vet talent and start a project within two days, instead of the average six weeks with traditional agencies. The platforms also deliver quality talent at 60 to 70% savings.
For big companies, that may represent a gleaming silver lining. For people struggling to make ends meet in a First World economy, it sounds more like a steady, damp drizzle of depressing news.
Related reading: The Con of the Side Hustle.