“The Algorithm Made Us Do It”: How Bosses at Instacart “Mathwash” Labor Exploitation

Audrey Winn

Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain shops for a customer at the Safeway in Menlo Park, California. Bain began a campaign that would lead to a Facebook group of 14,000 Instacart shoppers, about 10% of the nationwide total when the company started using default design tricks to decrease the amount shoppers can earn in tips. (Photo by Nick Otto for the Washington Post)

Instacart is mess­ing with work­ers’ tips, again. The company’s work­ers are so fed up hun­dreds of them are out on strike this week.

Instacart—a gig econ­o­my com­pa­ny for same-day gro­cery deliv­ery — has had prob­lems with tip­ping date back to 2016. At that time, Instacart removed tip­ping from the app, before being shamed into rein­stat­ing a tip­ping pol­i­cy the next month. Then, in 2018, the com­pa­ny altered its pol­i­cy again by count­ing cus­tomer tips toward work­ers’ guar­an­teed $10 base pay — lead­ing to sit­u­a­tions where cus­tomers were pay­ing almost the full base, with lit­tle con­tri­bu­tion from Instacart. Now, Instacart is tak­ing aim at the default tip amount. When cus­tomers fin­ish their Instacart orders, the app had pre­vi­ous­ly sug­gest­ed a tip of 10%. This was uni­lat­er­al­ly dis­con­tin­ued and replaced by a 5% default.

In response to the default tip change, Instacart work­er and orga­niz­er Vanes­sa Bain penned an impas­sioned Medi­um post last month which inspired a walk­out of more than a thou­sand work­ers demand­ing rein­state­ment of the 10% default. Instead of improv­ing con­di­tions in the work­place, their col­lec­tive action was met with dis­cour­ag­ing news. Two days after the walk-out, Instacart slashed work­ers’ qual­i­ty” bonus pay — one of the only remain­ing pay incen­tives on the app, and an incen­tive that has been alleged to make up to 40% of the aver­age Instacart work­ers’ already low income (some esti­mates put this between 30 and 35%). The com­pa­ny also did not respond to the con­cerns work­ers aired in the Medi­um post.

Start­ing Decem­ber 16 and extend­ing to Decem­ber 21, over 300 Instacart work­ers are expect­ed to strike again to chal­lenge Instacart’s incen­tive cut, tip default changes, and declin­ing work con­di­tions gen­er­al­ly, with events sched­uled each day.

Amid mount­ing out­rage, Instacart has attempt­ed to deflect crit­i­cism by vague­ly cit­ing data. Dur­ing the last year, we offered a new ver­sion of the qual­i­ty bonus and found that it did not mean­ing­ful­ly improve qual­i­ty,” the com­pa­ny told shop­pers over email in Novem­ber, after the first walk­out. As a result, we will no longer be offer­ing the qual­i­ty bonus begin­ning next week.”

Through this state­ment, the com­pa­ny blamed unver­i­fied, unex­plained met­rics for the cuts, not its own exploita­tive mod­el. The met­ric is pre­sum­ably based on data, but work­ers and con­sumers are nev­er giv­en insight into that data. While the jar­gon is new, the under­ly­ing real­i­ty is not: A clos­er exam­i­na­tion reveals this is just a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for good, old-fash­ioned exploitation.

By what met­ric does Instacart mea­sure whether an incen­tive can mean­ing­ful­ly improve” qual­i­ty? For an improve­ment to be mean­ing­ful,” what quan­ti­ta­tive or qual­i­ta­tive fac­tors must be present? Is there a spe­cif­ic qual­i­ty” that is being mea­sured, and how does it take into account work­er qual­i­ty of life? Fur­ther­more, how does the com­pa­ny jus­ti­fy the gap between its low­est- and high­est-paid employ­ees? The aver­age Instacart exec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion is $279,596 a year — with the most com­pen­sat­ed exec­u­tive mak­ing $790,000. In con­trast, the aver­age Instacart work­er is mak­ing between $9.81 and $12.96 an hour.

By brush­ing off work­er com­plaints through ref­er­ences to unex­plained data that is avail­able to nei­ther work­ers nor con­sumers, Instacart is attempt­ing to uti­lize an insid­i­ous rhetor­i­cal tac­tic: math­wash­ing.”

Coined by tech-entre­pre­neur Fred Benen­son, the term math­wash­ing” can be used to describe attempts to use math terms like algo­rithm” to gloss over a more sub­jec­tive real­i­ty. In the case of Instacart, algo­rithms are being used to jus­ti­fy poor work con­di­tions, since a face­less algo­rithm is more con­ve­nient to blame than the greedy boss­es behind the deci­sions. Benen­son is clear in describ­ing why this is a problem.

This habit goes way back to the ear­ly days of com­put­ers when they were first enter­ing busi­ness­es in the 1960s and 1970s,” he stat­ed, in an inter­view with Tech​ni​cal​.ly Brook­lyn. Every­one hoped the answers they sup­plied were more true than what humans could come up with, but they even­tu­al­ly real­ized com­put­ers were only as good as their programmers.”

Though Benen­son orig­i­nal­ly used the term to describe how Facebook’s trend­ing top­ics were not neu­tral, but instead manip­u­lat­ed by Facebook’s data engi­neers, it arguably applies to Instacart and a lot of the don’t blame the boss­es, blame the algo­rithm” lan­guage that is com­mon across the gig econ­o­my. While oth­er com­pa­nies like Uber and AirBnb have relied on this rhetoric, how­ev­er, Instacart is a par­tic­u­lar­ly egre­gious abuser.

Talk­ing with TechCrunch in 2016, CEO Apoor­va Mehta relied on jar­gon and abstract lan­guage to defend work­ers’ low wages. He praised his work­ers’ NPS score” and not­ed that wages were not a zero-sum game” because the prob­lem that we’re try­ing to solve is very hard.”

Instacart’s process for decid­ing how to del­e­gate orders is described by its web­site as a Sto­chas­tic Capac­i­tat­ed Vehi­cle Rout­ing Prob­lem with Time Win­dows for Mul­ti­ple Trips.” In describ­ing deliv­ery sce­nar­ios, Instacart’s web­site dis­cuss­es using time-based sim­u­la­tions” to replay the his­to­ry of cus­tomer and shop­per behav­iors with the exist­ing algo­rithm and the new one.” The sec­tion shows col­or­ful graphs and charts that fail to describe most of their vari­ables, includ­ing one that sim­ply lists met­ric” instead of even pre­tend­ing to have a quan­ti­ty for mea­sur­ing effi­cien­cy. The lan­guage is so loaded with jar­gon and ital­ics that it is like­ly inac­ces­si­ble to the aver­age con­sumer or worker.

While this jar­gon con­veys lit­tle, Instacart uses it to mar­ket the company’s genius” design. To help read­ers under­stand that they are deal­ing with a com­pa­ny that is much smarter than them­selves, Instacart includes a gro­cery-inspired illus­tra­tion of Albert Ein­stein to accom­pa­ny expla­na­tions of its black-box algo­rithim. Instead of leav­ing with a sense of awe, how­ev­er, read­ers leave with a sense of hav­ing par­tic­i­pat­ed in a game of smoke and mir­rors. The expla­na­tion reads less like a help­ful primer and more like a des­per­ate attempt to get con­sumers to believe any­thing oth­er than the truth. Name­ly, that the com­pa­ny is the despot” in con­trol of its own algo­rithm.

This is not a mar­vel of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. It is a mar­vel of exploita­tion. You don’t need an advanced math­e­mat­ics degree to know the score.

Audrey Winn is a Skad­den Fel­low­ship Attor­ney work­ing and writ­ing in New York City. She is pas­sion­ate about work­ers’ rights, algo­rith­mic trans­paren­cy, and the inclu­sion of gig work­ers in the future of the labor movement.
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