From Flash Teams to Flash Fiction

Posted by Cecilia Aragon on January 13, 2015

When Andrés Monroy-Hernandez invited me to the Microsoft Research FUSE Labs 2015 Social Computing Symposium, I was thrilled.

Then he said, “We thought it would be fun to have a debate about the utopian and dystopian views around crowdsourcing. We’ll have [brilliant crowdsourcing expert] Michael Bernstein taking the utopian side. How would you like to take the dystopian side and lead off with a 10-minute presentation?”

Uh… thanks, Andrés?

Say again what you thought my qualifications in crowdsourcing were?

After the vision of being publicly humiliated subsided, I found myself saying, “That sounds like too much fun.”

So I wrote a science fiction story.

I figured I’d need to read it out loud in 8 minutes. At my normal reading rate of 150 words per minute, that gave me 1200 words to play with. In other words, flash fiction territory. Perfect.

(Recent work by Michael and his team at Stanford, Expert Crowdsourcing with Flash Teams, won a best paper award at UIST 2014.)

Thanks again to Andrés and Michael for an awesome session, including fantastic work on crowdsourcing by Niloufar Salehi, Meredith Ringel Morris, Yanni Antonellis, and Michael Galpert, as well as a discussion led by crowdworkers from TaskRabbit, AMT, and oDesk. (More details and video at

Afterwards, some folks asked me to post my crowdsourcing dystopia, so here it is.



Green or Not At All

I was born in debt.

Well, all children are, nowadays in the 2070s. It costs money to install an Oracle RFID, a Google Eye. The surgery is delicate, on a newborn.

But it has to be done. How else would you survive? No way to connect to the net, no way to work, no way to earn your living. No way to pay for food, water, air. Since the Taxation Ban of 2041, signed into law by the first World Bank president, a fundamental tenet of our Constitution has been that no free citizen should be required to pay for another’s upkeep. We are all free to make our own future, to live without the onerous burden of providing for someone else too lazy to work.

So as kids, we start getting out of debt as soon as possible. We’re lucky that, with the passing of the Children’s Freedom Act of 2049, co-sponsored by the oil senators, we’re now legally allowed to work from birth.

I was four when I worked my first hit. My parents were so proud of me. They told me my debt counter had gone down for the first time in my life. They pointed out the blinking red numbers on my wrist, but I didn’t really understand yet. All I knew is that I’d flicked my Eye over the Dasher just like I’d been practicing, and eyetyped in the blurry numbers I read from the image captcha on my eyescreen.

Sixty seconds of work, and it earned me my first dollar. My mom smiled for the first time that week and took me into her warm arms for a big hug, and my dad tapped my head with his knuckle, saying “This brain works.” My debt counter, which had barely reached a megadollar by then, had taken its first downward step.

The first of many, I vowed.

When I was old enough for kindergarten, every day I would skip down the hall from our cube to the elementary school on corridor B6, scan my wrist RFID at the big blue door, get it debited for my daily education charge, and join a hundred kids from our neighborhood sitting at carrels learning to read, eyetype, do math, and program; or if we were lucky, playing on the shaggy orange rug in front of the Window.

Just like all the other kids, I loved pressing my nose to the Window and looking out over the city. As far as the eye could see, tall buildings speared up into the pale brown sky until their edges were lost in the distance, shimmering in the heat. The sun glared down like an old-time furnace, and you could feel its searing blaze even through the thick filtered plexiglass. Every now and then, an Outside worker in all their protective gear would come rappelling down past the glass, waving at the children who clustered around in excitement.

“I’m going to work Outside when I’m grown,” bragged Willy, a tall boy whose debt counter was, amazingly, below a megadollar.

Kim sniffed. “You’ll never be able to afford the gear,” she scoffed. Nobody looked at her. Everyone knew Kim had the highest debt counter in the class. How she would dig herself out of that hole enough to qualify for a loan on the hugely expensive Outside gear, especially when everyone knew she was behind on her hit homework, was pretty much impossible. She didn’t work enough hits fast enough even to pay for her education, much less start slowing her debt counter’s ballooning growth.

But still, we all had big dreams. Don’t all kindergartners? I worked all my hit homework and then some, studiously avoiding the game tab on my Eye until I had surpassed my goal for the day. Still, my debt counter crept slowly upward. School, food, oxygen, all took their daily bites out of those numbers on my wrist. I just wasn’t good enough, at six years old, to work the higher-paying hits. But I played the hit lottery each day, dreaming of that magical hit that would make me a big winner.

“Play the Amazon Lottery! It only takes one hit to win! Imagine your debt counter, and your entire family’s, being reset to zero. You too could join these lucky winners in the world of green numbers!” The images of laughing families proudly displaying their wrists with the astonishing winking green of the rich flashed across my Eye, and I sighed and closed my eyes to work faster.

I would be rich one day. Anybody could be rich if they worked hard enough, if they earned a high enough rating to qualify for the more lucrative hits. Of course, you had to be careful. At six years old, Kim had already been blacklisted by many of the major corporations for doing poor quality work. If her rating kept going lower, she wouldn’t ever have a chance to get out of debt. And even worse, she might be crowdshunned, blacklisted by other workers, who didn’t want to work a team hit with her. Once you were crowdshunned, that was it. There was no chance of turning the numbers around. When she turned eighteen and couldn’t stay with her parents anymore, she would be kicked out of their cube and sent to one of the lower floors, where they couldn’t afford to pay for hallway air conditioning and where the oxygen levels were low. I’d been there on field trips, seen the people slumped in hot, dim corners, their wrists blinking red with unimaginably high numbers, and returned with a headache from lack of oxygen, sweaty and scared.

But I was going to be rich. Not only would I be rich, I would be an Employee one day, actually drawing a salary from JP Morgan, or Comcast, or Microsoft. My favorite net show was “Green Employees,” a sitcom about a group of friends who worked in one of the domes, played games on real grass, swam in pools and had private toilets, who actually received money every week that made their green numbers go up. The main character was a kid who had once been just like us. Just like me, he lay in his slot at night with the panel closed and worked hits until he fell asleep.

The villain of that show was a terrorist, who had once been the friend of the main character when they were kids. But he had tried to get the workers of their neighborhood to organize, to refuse to work hits that he said paid too little. But that made the requesters complain that if their labor costs went up too high, they would go out of business and stop creating jobs. They started withholding hits to that neighborhood. So the other workers crowdshunned the terrorist and he ran away, hiding somewhere in the city and trying to sabotage his former classmate. The main character was always getting in trouble because he had a soft spot for his terrorist friend.

As I caught the latest episode on my Eye while standing in line for the toilet one morning, I grimaced at the antics of the main character. When I grow up, I’ll never act soft like that.

After all, I’m from an upper-middle-class family. We have a responsibility to those less fortunate.

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