Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Mechanical Turk

Amazon Mechanical Turk: The Digital Sweatshop by Ellen Cushing
Utne Reader, Jan-Feb 2013

The Turk or Mechanical Turk or Automatron[1] Chess Player was a hoax of the late 1700s. The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine.

“The funny thing about the biggest shift in production in years is that almost nobody knows it happened. Which makes sense, if you think about it: It occurred invisibly, online, anonymously, all over the world, but at the same time, nowhere in particular. And it’s poised—if most people who know about it are to be believed—to completely change the way we think about work, the way we consume technology, and the way the global economy functions.

It’s called microtasking[2], and it works by outsourcing small, virtual tasks to an army of online workers, who then perform them for pennies. These tasks vary widely in scope and substance, but what links them all is that they’re essentially too difficult or too dependent on human analysis for a computer to do, but too simple for skilled labor. And they’re the bedrock of the internet.

Crowdsourced[3] microtasking—conducted largely via’s Mechanical Turk site—is now a multimillion-dollar industry, and one that doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Even as the global economy continues to falter, Turk is thriving, due in no small part to what it can do for companies under pressure to do more with less.

“There’s this sort of competitive insanity of the business environment,” said Six Silberman, a longtime observer of the field who helped create a forum, Turkopticon, for people doing this kind of work. “And everyone’s trying to cut costs as strenuously and as rapidly as possible.” In a globalized economy, that’s easy to do: Mechanical Turkers—even those who live in the U.S.—make somewhere around $1.50 an hour on average, enjoy no worker protections, and have no benefits.”

Read more at Utne Reader.

 Bezos describes the work as “artificial artificial intelligence”. Hence the nod to the Mechanical Turk.

It’s not only being used to add a few bucks to people’s income, it’s being used to replace a lost job.

Laws don’t exist to cover this type of work.

The output of a Turker can be rejected for any reason and the Turker gets no feedback, just the rejection.

This is another commercialization of the trend begun by open source projects[4] in the world of programming.

It’s touted as a revolution as important as the industrial revolution and the future for the Internet.

In my opinion, it’s a trend headed in exactly the wrong direction. It’s the industrial revolution on steroids – hierarchy, segmentalism, exploitation, fragmentation, purposelessness, siloing, soullessness and all the other ills we should be trying to get away from. It like the Mechanical Turk is a fraud, a cruel hoax, perpetrated on the people.

[1] “An automaton is a self-operating machine. The word is sometimes used to describe an old-fashioned robot, more specifically an autonomous robot.” Wikipedia
[2] “Microtasking is the act of breaking a large project into tiny, well defined tasks. The resultant microtasks are proposed to a crowd and are characterized because: it can be performed independently, it requires human participation or intelligence (so it cannot be performed automatically by a computer) and because it can be done in a short period of time. Some experts, like Sharon Chiarella, vice president of Amazon Mechanical Turk, indicates that this “short period” should be less than an hour.”  Crowd Sourcing Blog
[3] “Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. This process can occur both online and offline. Crowdsourcing is different from an ordinary outsourcing since it is a task or problem that is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific body. Crowdsourcing is related to, but not the same as, human-based computation, which refers to the ways in which humans and computers can work together to solve problems. These two methods can be used together to accomplish tasks.” Wikipedia
[4] “In production and development, open source is a philosophy, or pragmatic methodology that promotes free redistribution and access to an end product's design and implementation details. Before the phrase open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of terms for the concept; open source gained hold with the rise of the Internet, and the attendant need for massive retooling of the computing source code. Opening the source code enabled a self-enhancing diversity of production models, communication paths, and interactive communities. The open-source software movement arose to clarify the environment that the new copyright, licensing, domain, and consumer issues created.” Wikipedia

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