“I’ve been interested in questions around capitalism and exploitation, and technology has always interested me as well,” says Walsh. “And I’m really interested in how this evolution of technology gives us a kind of a utopianism that so often isn’t the case.”
“The Gig Is Up,” which received its U.K. premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Friday, focuses on the so-called “ghost workers” who do a myriad of unseen jobs at the touch of a button: Uber drivers, Deliveroo riders and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers.
(Better known as “MTurk,” Amazon describes the platform as follows: “A crowdsourcing website for businesses to hire remotely located ‘crowdworkers’ to perform discrete on-demand tasks that computers are currently unable to do.”)
These workers, who prop up the gig economy, were lured in with the promise that they could be their own boss. But as Walsh’s globe-spanning film makes clear, in most cases they’ve simply swapped a human boss for an algorithm less forgiving than even the most Darth Vader-like CEO.
“[Technology] will liberate us into a world in which we all have control of our time, and we can live this kind of perfect idea of work,” says Walsh of the allure of these companies. “And there’s a lot of good in that promise, certainly. But that’s what sort of prompted me on the journey I was thinking about: okay, let’s look at this from the perspective of what’s the promise that’s made? And what’s the reality from the point of view of people who are actually doing it?”
The reality, as her documentary shows, is often thankless, difficult and in some cases downright dangerous. One of the many stories Walsh interweaves into her narrative is that of a French UberEats cyclist who died after crashing at the bottom of a steep street while trying to make a delivery. In other cases, workers reveal how low customer ratings can cause them to be barred from the platform with no chance of appeal and how accepting jobs too quickly results in lower rates – because the algorithm senses their desperation.
Spanning four continents – Asia, Europe, Africa and America – and featuring dozens of gig workers, Walsh’s ambitious documentary also shows how we now live in a truly global marketplace, one that is dominated by tech companies. “I always have been making choral documentaries that are multi-voiced and I felt for an issue like this, for sure, it needs to be multi-voiced,” she says. “But also, there was just no way we could look at just the U.S. or just the U.K. We would see similar things, but it’s the scope of the flattening of the space of work that was so fascinating to me.”
Walsh shot the bulk of the documentary between August and December 2019 and was into the editing process when the pandemic struck the following March. But she quickly realized COVID was having a disproportionately large effect on gig workers: some, like Uber drivers, suddenly had no work and no income. Others, such as food delivery drivers, effectively became essential workers but with none of the health and safety precautions afforded to their employed counterparts. She therefore asked a number of those she had interviewed to send in updates via the web.
“I hope that when people watch it, they have more of a sense of connection to [the fact that] this is an important part of the economy and the society in which we live now,” she says, rather than just pretending our food has arrived on our doorsteps by magic. “The magic is beautiful. We like magic,” she says. “This is the utopia thing that I’m coming back to. Like, we want believe this story. And it’s just not true.”
Walsh is now focusing on her next projects, which include a documentary about Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenager who died by suicide following cyberbullying, and an intriguing project called “Adrian in the Castle” with artist/singer Little Scream about a real-life couple who built a mansion in Illinois in tribute to their romance.
But she says she can see herself returning to the topic of gig work. Especially because “The Gig Is Up” focuses exclusively on unskilled labor and, as she chillingly predicts, the parcelling up and farming out of tasks is eventually coming for all of our jobs.
“I think once upon a time we could imagine only menial labour [being broken down into gig work],” she says. “But absolutely, every element on the food chain is going to be impacted by this.”