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#rp14: my favourite talks: F. A. Schmidt on Crowdsourcing Design

So this is actually the talk I wanted to present first, but it was only uploaded today to the internet tubes.

In this talk, Florian Alexander Schmidt is talking on crowdsourcing design. He is a design researcher from Berlin in the process of getting his PhD in London at the Royal College of Art and author of several books on design theory. At re:publica 14 he presented the concept of crowdsourcing for design and the design of crowdsourcing platforms.

I want to present his talk titled “Crowdsourcing Design: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” here because it was about a topic that I didn’t know so far. Everybody knows crowd funding nowadays, with kickstarter and indigogo being the most popular platforms but by far not the only ones. In crowd funding a large number of people gives small amounts of money to small groups or individuals to fund different projects. The projects usually lead to products that are directly given back to the community in form of rewards for funding or as products that can be bought.

Crowd sourcing on the other hands works much more monodirectional. An individual or a small group divides small to medium sized tasks on a large number of individuals — the crowd. The crowd provides the work force and is rewarded more or — more often — less for it. Usual concepts involve either “winner takes it all” payments or really small amounts of compensation for every individual in the crowd. In the worst case the concept of crowd sourcing can be compared to classic outsourcing of labour into micro wage countries like India or Pakistan, where most of our clothing is sewed under bad conditions. Crowd sourcing adapts this concept to get digital work done. At the same time the very small but existing benefits of development of local infrastructure are eliminated. No housing or factories are built, no regional economy can profit from the investment of global players. Crowd sourcing brings the work into the living rooms by eliminating the middle man.

The crowd is briefed by the client to do micro tasks and gets paid small amounts of money or in vouchers like it is the case for amazon’s mechanical Turk service. The average hourly wages go as low as 1 $ per hour up to 5 to 6 $. The workforce is as cheap as it is desperate to get even this tiny amount of compensation. Another player in this field as presented by Schmidt is 99designs.com who offer the service of having a crowd of designers providing concepts for a logo and only one winner of the contest is paid while the rest is discarded with no pay. The winner also only gets the amount of money the client wants to spend on the project with no room for negotiation that is usually part of every design contract. As a result hundreds of designers work for free while only one gets a small payment for his work. If you ever talked to a designer on the amount of work that has to be put in good design and the money they get you will quickly understand that 200 $ won’t cut it. Especially not if only every fifth contract results in this payment and the other four are discarded.

Crowd sourcing is a neo-liberal capitalist’s wet dream: large workforces, little pay, no risk, no organization of unions or workers at all, anonymous workforce that does not know what the person next to them is doing. I was and still am disgusted by the concept and its success.

Florian Alexander Schmidt also presented some better examples of crowd sourcing that did result in less unfair conditions for the crowd. But they all have the same conceptual flaws in common: a contractor would not pay more for a crowd sourced work than for the same work to be done by a conventional agency. So the same money that used to be spend on one company is now spend on a much larger crowd, and no matter if a winner takes it all or every contributor gets a small amount, on average everyone is paid less for the work than a conventional company would be. And at the same time the usual dialogue between client and service provider is eliminated, as well as the risk of the client who can cancel his order at any time without having to fear the anger of a company that might sue. No single individual in a crowd would do that and the crowd is too unorganized to act as a whole.

These are just some of Schmidt’s points and a few of my thoughts. The whole presentation goes much further and more into detail. Schmidt is not the most skilled talker in the world and he seems a bit nervous, but that does not make the talk less interesting.

And if you wonder why he looks like a DJ with his headphones on: The stages 3 and 4 were headphone stages, where everyone, audience and speaker, wore wireless headsets to eliminate the sounds coming from other nearby stages.