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McGannon Center Book Prize for 2019: Gray and Suri’s “Ghost Work”

Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri

It gives us great pleasure to announce that Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri is the winner of the McGannon Center book prize for a manuscript published in 2019.

It is common wisdom that artificial intelligence (AI) powers popular networked applications like ridesharing, home assistants, and social media. Gray and Suri’s account in Ghost Work offers an important nuanceto this perception by describing the people and global industrial processes that bring these high tech services to market. They show that most of the celebrated AI-driven consumer products today (think Uber, Amazon’s Echo, or Facebook’s News Feed) significantly depend on underserved on-demand workers from around the world to function as expected. Drawing on extensive interviews and data analytics, Ghost Work demonstrates that technologies like geolocation, online payment systems, and content moderation do not work but for the labor of this large, invisible, and mostly unsupported workforce. Human labor, Gray and Suri illustrate, is essential to fixing glitches and gaps in every new networked application. This work, however, remains obscured by claims from Silicon Valley and their boosters about full automation and the power of AI.

The McGannon Center has awarded the book prize to wonderful manuscripts in the past, including Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, Daniel Solove’s The Future of Reputation, James Boyle’s The Public Domain, Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything, Christina Dunbar-Hester’s Low Power to the People, and Simone Browne’s Dark Matters.

 Last year, we awarded the book prize to Virginia Eubanks for writing Automating Inequality, an elegant and incisive account of the toll that automated decisionmaking systems have on the most vulnerable recipients of government services. This year, with this award to Ghost Work, we turn our attention to the unsung human laborers that make the newest technologies work as marketed. Ghost Work is the latest in a recent line of research, including Anatomy of an AI System by Kate Crawford & Vladan Joler and Behind the Screen by Sarah Roberts, that chronicles the political economy underlying today’s most popular networked services. The McGannon Center promotes research that uncovers the lived social impacts of communications technologies. We are honored to associate ourselves with Ghost Work through this year’s award. And we are grateful to Gray and Suri for writing it.