Digital Black Box Labor

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Amazon Mechanical Turk as Digital Black Box Labor

Trebor Scholz:

“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 cheaper and better hidden a workforce promises to be, the higher the speculative fortunes of these companies will rise. The digital infrastructure that Amazon has put in place, the code in tandem with its terms of use, choreographs rote, often repetitive, potentially exploitative interactions — what I call crowd fleecing.

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.” (