What will you do the next time your client drops you into a real-world instance of the prisoner’s dilemma?
Our careers and daily work have moral implications, because everything we do has moral implications. Over time we get used to the explicit and implicit agreements that govern our work and we come to take them for granted. But the boundaries we set and the compromises we make become more obvious when they have to be renegotiated weekly, daily, or once in the morning and again the afternoon. In the gig economy – a catch-all designation for short-term piecework or contract work of bewildering variety – what you do and what you earn may change with each new client, and the moral implications and pitfalls along with them. At the same time, freelance work dispels any illusion of serving a greater purpose that employees of larger institutions may have. A freelancer is only in it for the money, along with everyone else he or she may work with – and that’s when things are going well. Mercenary work offers fewer salves for the conscience.
Take Sabbath observance, for example. At any given moment, it’s not Sunday somewhere in the world, and some client might be trying to contact you. What if your dinner on Tuesday depends on your work on Monday, which depends on your finding a paying client on Sunday? If you depend on your current gig and finding the next one, it’s easy for every car parked in a puddle to look like an ox in the mire.
In the gig economy, every hour comes at a price, so you can calculate the exact cost of pausing for family meals or church attendance, and the law of consecration takes on new urgency. If we’re serious about giving of our time and talents, we can’t object to giving away for free the work we’re accustomed to charging money for. People need help reading difficult records in old languages for their family history work. When do you charge for your expertise, especially when your marketable skill is something people too often take for granted? How much of your time and product can you afford to give away? The moral calculus may be similar for people working full time in other professions, but hustling for the next contract makes it a daily issue in the gig economy.
While some of the gig economy is local and personal – driving for Lyft or Uber, for example – online freelance work can be disconcertingly impersonal, with little indication of what your role might be in a worldwide chain of value creation.
Somebody has a document. They want something done to the document. You don’t know for certain if your client is the author, or the author’s client, or someone plagiarizing the author’s client’s client’s client. You don’t know if you’re playing a bit part for the defense or the prosecution, if you’re contributing to someone’s public-facing presentation or to developmental research or to fraud. All you know is that someone is willing to give you money to do something to a document. And so you do the thing. Can you demand more context before you agree? Can you trust the client to tell you the truth? Are there types of document or media you won’t touch for any amount of money?
While some gigs are arranged in complete anonymity, in other markets the ability to attract work is tied to the identity you project. You may not be a racist, sexist, nationalist, but the rates you can demand are bound up with your gender, race, native language, and nation of origin, and there’s no way you can escape from benefiting from (and suffering from) prejudice at some point. In the gig economy, starving oppressed people in misruled, impoverished nations are not an abstract concept. You might be competing directly with them for every project. Your daily bread is their daily hunger.
Every market is different, but over time you’re not just selling a skill, but also a reputation for integrity and honesty – moral values that are acquired at great expense but can be sold away cheaply. Even – or especially – in a world of disaggregated anonymous labor, morality is implicated in everything you do.
(As for the prisoner’s dilemma, the type of client who puts you in that situation has a way of cheapskating the reward for keeping quiet, and looking for solidarity among a mercenary workforce is a mistake. The only winning strategy is being first to snitch.)