Amid a massive wave of tech company layoffs in favor of AI, Google is firing thousands of contractors tasked with making its namesake search engine work better.
As Vice reports, news of the company ending its contract with Appen — a data training firm that employs thousands of poorly paid gig workers in developing countries to maintain, among other things, Google's search algorithm — coincidentally comes a week after a new study found that the quality of its search engine's results has indeed gotten much worse in recent years.
Back in late 2022, journalist Cory Doctorow coined the term "enshittification" to refer to the demonstrable worsening of all manner of online tools, which he said was by design as tech giants seek to extract more and more money out of their user bases. Google Search was chief among the writer's examples of the enshittification effect in a Wired article published last January, and as the new study out of Germany found, that effect can be measured.
With CEOs' short-sighted AI gold rush claiming ever more jobs, the termination of the Appen contract is particularly harsh not only because of how crappy Google Search has gotten, but also because of how crappy things were and are for people who work for the Australia-based AI training firm.
In a shocking exposé published last October, Wired revealed that people who attempt to make ends meet by doing gig work for Appen often make as little as two cents per training task, often netting only a dollar or two per day when work was slow. As one young man in Pakistan put it, working for the company was tantamount to "digital slavery."
As the union presenting workers at Alphabet, Google's parent company, stated in a press release earlier this week, the contract termination will impact at least 2,000 workers, or perhaps more given that "contracts with Google account for roughly one-third of Appen’s business revenues."
While Google rushes to pour billions of dollars into AI, it also, as the Alphabet union points out, chose to terminate the Appen contract without any severance benefits, much less "transparency or accountability" about how or why the decision was made.
"This news should be a wake-up call for workers in the tech industry and anyone concerned about the impacts of AI on working people," Toni Allen, the union's executive board secretary, said in the statement. "As subcontractors for Google we have been a canary in the AI coal mine calling out the precarious labor conditions we face being the human workers standing between large language models and their end users."
"This is what AI work looks like when workers have no say in the process," Allen continued. "It is time that the world heard our voices before this situation repeats itself far and wide."
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