Amazon Mechanical Turk
“Since 2005, Amazon also operates an online labor brokerage: Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT). Workers log on to the website and pick tasks from long listings. Similar to traditional piecemeal work in the garment industry, Mechanical Turk allows for a project to be broken down into thousands of bits, which are then assigned as individual tasks to so-called crowd workers.
On AMT, like in many crowdsourcing environments, inexperienced, novice workers are making between two and three dollars an hour. Just like migrant workers, barristers, or workers in the fast food industry, they are working long hours, are underpaid, are insufficiently protected by labor laws, have few or no benefits, and are often treated poorly by their bosses.
On Mechanical Turk, wage theft, while explicitly tolerated by Amazon, is a daily occurrence. Some consigners reject accurately executed work to avoid payment. Rejecting it, does not, however, stop these “black hats” and scammers from still using the work.
AMT’s conditions of use clearly state that consigners own the work immediately upon receipt, which means that they can do whatever they please with it. In a further twist, they don’t even have to explain their rejection of already performed work. Wage theft is a feature, not a bug. Consequently, it is not surprising that the turnaround among Turkers is roughly 70% every six months, according to Turker Rochelle LaPlante.
You might object: wage theft, payments below minimum wage — how is that even possible? After all, there is the Fair Labor Standards Act and many other legal protections for workers that would immediately power down such operations. A democratic society would not stand for exploitative work environments, right?
For now, such violations are tolerated by a broad coalition of silence. In 2011, the Department of Labor had just 1000 inspectors who were responsible for one 130 workers in seven million enterprises. Such strategic understaffing of the Department of Labor means that employers who violate labor regulations in terms of wage or safety only have a very small chance of getting caught and even if they get caught, all they have to do is give workers what they owe them. It’s like robbing a bank with the only disincentive being that they might have to return the loot when they are caught. Startups cleverly sail around the definition of employment by restructuring work in such a way that the people who are executing the tasks can be categorized as independent contractors instead of employees.
Amazon Mechanical Turk is relatively small; the actual number of active workers might be closer to 10,000. There are no conclusive studies about the size of the workforce in the crowd sourcing sector overall and Amazon treats these numbers as a trade secret. I am using Mechanical Turk as an example because it is an infectious business model that is mirrored on countless other upstarts. Now that the cruel genie is out of the bottle, the business logic of Mechanical Turk has been adapted by companies like 99designs and countless others.
Amazon‘s reputation is, of course, not solely built on micro wages and total workplace surveillance; it is also widely appreciated for its low prices and convenience (and that even before drone delivery). But this consumptive advantage comes at a price. To understand this, we can remind ourselves of last year’s face-off between Amazon and publishers. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, told a group of publishers, including Hachette, that “Amazon should approach … publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”
A few days ago, Amazon announced a new venture, called Home Services, which installs them as an online middleman when you are hiring an electrician or plumber. In cooperation with TaskRabbit, Amazon aims to enter this sector to collect rent on your home repairs and services, interestingly also including “academic services.”
So far, based on the evidence from Mechanical Turk and the labor practices in Amazon’s warehouses, there is no reason to believe that the company would understand its relationship to digital laborers any differently than that of a predator pursuing its vulnerable prey.”
let me discuss the invisible workforce of Amazon Mechanical Turk, before I move on to the “sharing economy.”
The original “Mechanical Turk” was designed by the Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769. A small-bodied chess player who controlled the mechanical hands of the Turk operated this “automaton,” hidden in a wooden case. The spectacle of the seemingly complex, mechanized chess-playing machine, complete with a turban, put small technical details on display as distraction while keeping the actual human labor out of sight. The operator-worker remains hidden in the black box, quite literally. It was a mega-hit in Europe at the time with dignitaries like Catherine the Great, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe coming to experience it. In 1940, Walter Benjamin references Mechanical Turk in Theses on the Philosophy of History. Already in 1814, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote about the Mechanical Turk in a short story entitled “Automata.” The name “Amazon Mechanical Turk” pays homage to this 18th century machine.
Where the historical Turk showed off technology to draw attention away from the human laborer, today, Mechanical Turk’s and CrowdFlower’s and Handy’s and oDesk’s crowd sorcerers work with coolness and the spectacle of innovation to conceal the worker.
As Alex Rivera put it in his film Sleep Dealer: owners are getting “all the work without the worker.”
Crowdsourced micro-tasks are paid between one cent and several dollars each. Tasks include the description or categorization of products, the filling in of surveys, the filtering out of pornography on social media, the removal of stuff that violates the terms of service, the tagging and labeling of images, and the transcription of audio and video recordings or receipts.
About 18% of Turkers are treating AMT as a full-time job, based on their reports that they are “sometimes or always” relying on Mechanical Turk to “make basic ends meet” (Ross et al.). (http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/04/think-outside-the-boss/)
“Amazon describes AMT as an “artificial artificial intelligence” service. One of the most striking illustrations of the different ways in which workers can be embedded in software is Soylent, “a Word Processor with a crowd inside.” In short, this MIT project, which has stalled in its Beta stage, is an add-in for Microsoft Word that “embeds” Turkers in a Word document. For the characteristically low fee, they will proofread or shorten your text — just highlight text and specify what you want to get done. Senior Microsoft Research scholar Mary L. Gray refers to this as “crowds as code.”
Going beyond the examples of Soylent and Mechanical Turk, expert and UCSD labor scholar Lilly Irani analyzes the importance of digital black box labor: the hiding of very real workers when it comes to attracting venture capital:
- By hiding the labor and rendering it manageable through computing code, human computation platforms have generated an industry of startups claiming to be the future of data. … Hiding the labor is key to how these startups are valued by investors, and thus key to the speculative but real winnings of entrepreneurs. Micro-work companies attract more generous investment terms when investors perceive them as technology companies rather than labor companies.
The term digital black box labor works well to describe this disguise of workers. The metaphor makes sense here. In his book Blackbox Society, Frank Pasquale reflects on the cultural meaning of the black box:
The term “black box” … can refer to a recording device, like the data-monitoring systems in planes, trains, and cars. Or it can mean a system whose workings are mysterious; we can observe its inputs and outputs, but we cannot tell how one becomes the other.
In online systems like Amazon Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower, it is mysterious where the labor is coming from, who is requesting it, and what they are intending to do with it. The workers are tucked away. The concealed workforce is not reflected in their business plans; they only show direct employment. Thanks to this concealed labor pool, it is now possible to build a large company while keeping the number of salaried employees to a bare minimum.
If this work would really be exploitative, nobody would do it, I heard consultant and net critic Clay Shirky argue at one point. But for some workers, there simply is no other option than toiling on this crowd working platform. The necessity to take up a low-wage gig is like “Zugzwang” when playing chess: no matter the next move, the player will always be worse off than before. Here is what one Turker said about what free choice meant for them. I don’t know about where you live, but around here even McDonald’s and Walmart are NOT hiring. I have a degree in accounting and cannot find a real job, so to keep myself off of the street I work 60 hours or more a week here on mTurk just to make $150-$200. That is far below minimum wage, but it makes the difference between making my rent and living in a tent. — (Posted on the Turker Nation Forum and sourced from Felstiner, Working the Crowd.) On the surface, it appears as if Turkers have flexibility when it comes to the days and even hours of the day that they wish to work. At the same time, however — just like TaskRabbits — they need to be glued to their computers all day long to catch higher paying tasks and respond to them immediately. But they could pass up such opportunities without losing the ability to continue to work on Mechanical Turk.
The global climate change of labor that we are witnessing right now is alarming, but the future is on fire. Inequality will increase ever more and paths of resistance are uncertain. I can’t make myself sign on with the Accelerationists who urge us “that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, critique, or détourne it, but to accelerate and exacerbate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.” (http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/04/think-outside-the-boss/)