A seller stands next to his electronic devices outside in front of graffiti art on wall.

Automated informality: generative frictions in ADM systems

Focus Areas: News & Media
Research Program: People, Data, Machines & Institutions
Status: Active

Informality, especially in economic practice, poses a recurrent problem in development literature. Economic informality is broadly associated with weaker economic outcomes: countries with larger informal sectors have lower per capita incomes, greater poverty, less financial development, and weaker growth in output, investment, and productivity. As such regimes across the globe have sought to intervene in, and formalize the informal sector through worker registration drives, technology transfers, and other interventions which attempt to expand the reach of the formal economy bringing swaths of the working population under regimes of taxation, workplace safety, and enhanced productivity.

Recently, such interventions have turned on the possibilities and promises of automation. While industrial robotics systems boost manufacturing productivity, digital platforms make possible immediate and traceable circulation of funds, even as biometric databases enable automated identity verification in commercial and civic contexts.  Here new technologies of automation hold out the potential to formalize economic practices by extending standardized protocols in the form of apps, database architectures, and machinery.

Scholars of informal work have emphasized that informal and formal economic practices have long been intertwined, and they are connected by exchanges of personnel, ideas, content, and capital as highly contingent interactions. Especially in the Global South, the informal is not exceptional but typical with informality characterizing most economic practices. In India, for example, the rise of formal IT outsourcing firms has been matched by the growth of temporary and unregulated service workers who clean the offices, fix the meals, and provide transportation to professional employees.

In Brazil, wageless trash collectors sort recyclable items from Rio de Janeiro’s municipal waste dumps enabling the operation of this public infrastructure while extracting a livelihood from reselling this waste. Far from eliminating informal economies contemporary regimes of accumulation generate value by weaving formal and informal practices together.

Currently missing from this body of scholarship is a range of contingent and non-standard work that proliferates as a result of the friction that exists within automated systems as complex self-coordinating and self-organising mechanisms. This type of work – which we call small automation – is different from gig work in that it is unregulated, opportunistic, and marginalised; it is largely invisible and opaque, but unlike ghost work, its invisibility is key to its survival.

Small automation is different from both gig work and ghost work in the sense that it encompasses a range of informal enterprises created by informal actors that circumvent, exploit, or co-opt automated systems, rather than being deployed by Silicon Valley to develop new technologies.

This project maps a range of informal automated activities that proliferate within automated systems across various empirical domains, such as click farming, CAPTCHA hacking, phone farming, dropshipping, OTP scams, fraudulent loan apps, and free jacking. The proliferation of automated informality can create unexpected implications for the operation of automated systems and our information environment more generally. Our focus on mapping automated informality works to supplement current research on gig work and ghost work while demonstrating the theoretical and empirical value of examining automated systems in context.


Dang Nguyen

Dr Dang Nguyen

Lead Investigator,
RMIT University

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Adam Sargent

Dr Adam Sargent

Australian National University

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Rakesh Kumar

Rakesh Kumar

PhD Student,
Western Sydney University

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