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Crowdsourcing – The People vs The Multitude.

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I make no bones at my open hatred for the whole concept of ‘Crowdsourcing’, but this week it seems that the design profession has banded together in a fantastic showing of David Thorne-esque contempt for the devaluing of design.


The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney ran a crowdsourcing ‘contest’ on an American crowdsourcing website, for the design of their poster. (I won’t link to it for obvious reasons) I was made aware of the project/competition/slap-in-the-face through a little snippet in The Age last weekend, but when I went to The Age website today to try and find it I could find no record of it.  Luckily, Limeworks have it all archived in all it’s glory.  Here’s the entry for the competition – 





Unfortunately, it appears that Rob Bell was coerced by Powerhouse in taking down some of the ‘more offensive’ submissions, and perhaps even more unfortunately despite all this still feels that crowdsourcing is ‘okay’.  Fortunately for him, the ones he has on Limeworks still manage to drive the point home.


I won’t go into why I despise crowdsourcing or any other form of ‘design by committee’ for that matter, but I’ll sum it up by the text from one of the posters from the ‘competition’.  If you think the proposition contained within sounds fair and reasonable, then frankly there’s something horribly wrong with you – 





In a similar vain, I was reading an interesting paper today from a guy called Michael Lynch where he talks about what he refers to as Immaterial Labor – that being, the shift that has occurred post the Industrial Revolution, away from the concept of ‘labor’ as a physical action, towards ‘immaterial labor’ which is the work that you do that is outside the wage negotiation.

This is a pretty fundamental shift in the power dynamic between the person doing the work, and the entity commissioning it – in the same way that crowdsourcing is.  On a fundamental level, crowdsouring devalues your immaterial labour.  All those things that you do outside of your wage negotiation, the way that your social life and your work life is now indestinguishible from themselves, are now an intrinsic part of your work life, and you’re generally not renumerated for it.  Freelancers are in an even worse situation.  Generally in my extensive life as a freelancer, people come to you because you offer better value than some firms because you have less overheads and less leadtime, so you can sometimes offer a better product quicker and more cheaply. Now, because of whatever reason – an excess of graduates, a stifling studio existence, lack of jobs – the freelancer is being seen as a repository for a wealth of free labor.

But whether you’re a freelancer or a PAYE employee, the concept of immaterial labour is the same, and it all boils down to this – you’re working more and more for less and less.  And you’re not just working when you’re at work, either.  On Saturday morning, you’re lying in bead reading a design magazine, reading the section on design in the local newspaper.  You’re going to festivals, gallery openings, exhibitions.  The labour revolution of ‘8hrs work, rest and play’ over the past 150 years has been irrevocably eroded to the point that in the West at least, you can be middle class in a professional job and still live hand-to-mouth.  You can be a ‘worker’ and be working 10-20 hours a week, for free – usually under the pretence that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and that if you work hard enough now, it will all be worth it sometime in that mystical place where all human endeavour resides – ‘tomorrow’.

Crowdsourcing is in some ways the last straw.  Design has become so pervasive, so part of our everyday experience, and yet people still refuse to see the value of it.  That’s the great thing about this poster competition – you don’t know what good design is until it’s gone – and these submissions sure to illustrate that fact in all their technicolor (yawn) glory.


The real issue with crowdsourcing – aside from being laughably ridiculous – is that it’s just another capitalistic erosion of whatever given profession it’s attached to.  Instead of supporting a framework for ‘fair work = fair pay’, it wants to engage the coup de grace – shift the power dynamic completely and utterly away from the professional (laborer) and towards the client (capitalist).  It wants 1,000 people to work for free, and pay only one of them, in the same way it wants you to work 10 hours for free this week, carry on your work outside of work hours, and have no life, and not renumerate you for it.  It wants you for a slave, because one day, if you slave enough, we might just give you back your 8 hours rest and play.


I think on a fundamental level, we all know this to be true, and evidence is hanging around our periphery just out of sight enough for us to ignore it.  Not that we have the time to engage with it even if we wanted too.


In terms of my studies as a Design Anthropologist, this engages directly with the question that Papanek raises in that ‘design is for everyone’.  Crowdsourcing is a perversion of the concept of engaging with ‘the multitude’ rather than ‘the people’. As Lynch describes, ‘The people’ is the resource of labor as a commodity, as something inexhaustible to be consumed. ‘The multitude’ is the resource of labor where there is coming together of common goals, but still room for the individual (and the professional, for that matter).  Nobody can deny that we are social animals, and the reason we’re not still living in caves is because of specialisation, and of working together towards common goals.  However, within this realisation is also the small matters of fairness, of praise, of giving credit where credit is due.  Crowdsourcing does none of this, it’s a flagrant ‘race to the bottom’ where nobody but one is recognised for their contribution, and the rest are a consumable commodity, to be used and discarded.  In being ‘for everyone’ it becomes for ‘no-one’.


How this is a recipe for a human-centric, fair and reasonable anything is beyond me.



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