Exploiting the Makers

The increase in the number of makers is enabled by the fact that many people have an array of largely untapped skills; they are part of what Anderson calls the “long tail of talent” (127). New technologies both allow for the greater utilization of those talents and create a larger audience for their products. This stands in contrast to the past, and to some degree the present, model where organizations draw only on the talents of those employed in them. No matter how well an organization recruits its employees, nowhere near all of the very best people are likely to be employed in any given organization, nor are they ever likely to be.

Open-sourcing the long tail of talent opens up a whole new arena for the exploitation of makers who exist outside the confines of the organization. In Anderson’s view, this “can create an unbeatable economics for companies whose products are developed in this way” (109). All sorts of tasks- research and development, marketing, and support- can all be done free (a long-term concern of Anderson’s, see Free: The Future of a Radical Price) of charge by the makers who are part of a company’s long-tail. Of course, the free work that they perform was likely performed at one time by paid workers and the replacement of the latter creates increased unemployment. More important in this context is the fact that the makers are paid nothing, or perhaps a pittance, for their contributions. How are companies able to find, and to retain, the makers? Largely by offering them “social incentives” (109) such as elevating the best “volunteers” to “moderator status” or giving them a “`noob ninja’ badge”. Such rewards cost the company nothing, but seem to satisfy most makers. In any case, the makers are more likely to be doing what they do because they are involved in a collective effort in which they want to participate, doing things they want to do, and that will be of use to others. If that is insufficient, Anderson proposes a meager, largely, demeaning, reward hierarchy that runs from T-shirts, to coffee mugs, free hardware, a trip to a development meeting, and for a very few makers equity in the project.

Anderson proudly describes a small robotics company of which he is part owner. There are about 100 contributors to the company, but only 20 are paid employees. The rest are unpaid volunteers with some of them putting in “what in some weeks amounts to full-time work” (149). Anderson’s company earns profits and grows larger mainly because of the unpaid, and therefore heavily exploited, labor of these volunteer makers.

The makers who sell their handmade goods on Esty.com enrich that organization which in April, 2012 had 300 paid employees, sold $65 million worth of goods a month, and after only six years in existence was valued at more than 2/3rds of a billion dollars. What about the makers? Most don’t make a living on what they sell on Etsy and at least some come to the realization that their hourly pay compares poorly to those who work at McDonald’s. Anderson reassures us they are likely to be satisfied by, for example, having an audience for their products. In any case, we are supposed to be relieved to learn that while Etsy is on the road to being a billion dollar company, “it’s not about the money for most of” the makers (183).

While in the past capitalists thrived on exploiting poorly paid employees, it is now creating an even more exploited class of unpaid makers. Seemingly oblivious to the exploitation built into this system, makers are happily contributing to the emergence of a new, even more exploitative, capitalist system.


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