Revenge of the Chickenized Reverse-Centaurs

Algorithms and worker power

Cory Doctorow
Published in
8 min readApr 17, 2022


A horse-headed “reverse-centaur” whose eye has been replaced by the glowing eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are wearing a hi-viz vest and posed in shelving-aisles of an industrial warehouse.
Cryteria, CC BY, modified

In AI circles, a “centaur” describes a certain kind of machine/human collaboration, in which “decision-support” systems (which the field loves to call “AI”s) are paired with human beings for results that draw upon the strengths of each, such as when a human chess master and a chess-playing computer program collaborate to smash their competition.

In labor circles, “chickenization” refers to exploitative working arrangements that resemble the plight of the American poultry farmer. The U.S. poultry industry has been taken over by three monopolistic packers, who have divided the nation up into exclusive territories, so that each chicken farmer has only one buyer for their birds.

Farmers are “independent small businesspeople” who nominally run their own operations, but because all their products must be sold through a single poultry processor, that processor is able to exercise enormous control over the operation. The processor tells the farmer which birds to raise, as well as what the birds are to be fed, how much, and on what schedule. The processor tells the farmer how to build their coops and when the lights are to go on and off. The processor tells the farmer which vets to use, and tells the vets which medicines to prescribe.

The processor tells the farmer everything…except how much they’ll be able to sell their birds for. That is determined unilaterally when the farmer brings their birds to market, and the payout is titrated to the cent, to represent exactly enough money for the farmer to buy birds and feed and vet services through the processor’s preferred suppliers, and to service the debts on the coops and light and land, but not one penny more.

Chickenization has spread beyond chicken farming. Uber drivers are paid on a variable reinforcement drip-feed that gives them just enough to keep up the lease and gas and insurance payments on their vehicles, but not enough to give them breathing space to think about changing careers.

Likewise for Amazon drivers. Amazon styles the drivers as subcontractors working for a “Delivery Service Partner” (DSP), and the DSP is fully chickenized: They have to buy Amazon vans and subject them to Amazon maintenance, but Amazon reserves the right