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How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine | The Nation

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How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine

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Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Amazon created Mechanical Turk in 2005, a decade into its rise from online bookstore to massive virtual mall. Even in its early stages, Mechanical Turk was a “Jeff project,” meaning that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos took a special interest in it and worked closely with the project managers. By that time, Bezos and his team had already perfected the model that has made Amazon a tech-age giant: catering to customers, undercutting competitors and treating workers poorly. With Mechanical Turk, they further refined this approach, but with a twist: instead of exploiting labor to sell goods to an avid public, they created a system to sell labor itself, cheaply, to perform many millions of microtasks.

The name Mechanical Turk was not simply a whimsical choice by Bezos. The original Mechanical Turk (also known simply as “the Turk”) was a seemingly groundbreaking invention: a chess-playing machine commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. In appearance, it was similar to the other automatons of the era—a cabinet with a mannequin inside, performing some function usually reserved for humans—but this one was dressed in “Oriental” garb, not unlike the fortune-telling machine in the 1980s movie Big. Its mystical, mysterious air was meant to appeal to Western Europe’s conception of the East; hence the name by which it came to be known.

The Mechanical Turk seemed to promise an age when automated devices could attain the heights of human intellectual achievement—and it did so exceptionally well, convincing observers and challengers for nearly a century that a machine could play chess. In reality, however, the Turk was nothing more than an elaborate ruse involving a man or woman sitting inside the cabinet with an internal chessboard. The machine could approximate the movements of a man playing chess, but it was necessary to have a person inside to do what the machine could not.

If it was merely a hoax, then the Mechanical Turk would have been forgotten as yet another eighteenth-century oddity. However, the device fit perfectly into the creeping belief—replete with excitement and anxiety—that mechanical labor (and maybe mechanical minds) could replace human labor and agency.

The United States has been going through a similar period of excitement and anxiety since at least the 1970s. Whereas some companies, like IBM, have sought to create a supercomputer that can think as well as (or better than) a human, Amazon invested instead in its own Mechanical Turk—something that feels like a machine but really has people behind it. Instead of developing the perfect computer, Amazon thought, it could just develop a way for imperfect computers to “integrate a network of humans directly into their processes,” as the company wrote in its 2005 SEC filing. In doing so, it opened the door to the weird world of crowdworking.

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In 1911, the American engineer Frederick Taylor delivered a paper in which he announced that workers’ natural laziness and propensity for underworking was “the greatest evil which the working-people of both England and America are now afflicted.” His solution was a system of “scientific management,” wherein work would be divided into the smallest repeatable tasks and assigned a time limit. The aggregate of these tasks would then become the baseline for the workday, and “those who fail to rise to a certain standard are discharged and a fresh supply of carefully selected men are given work in their place.”

Almost a century later, Amazon hit upon a similar approach to worker productivity. Yet, whereas Taylor’s genius was in super-charging the assembly line by reducing all skilled work to tiny micro-tasks, the genius of Mechanical Turk is in creating virtual assembly lines.

Here’s how it works: the employers (called “Requesters”) can be actual humans or a computer program running a script that automatically outsources any task it cannot perform to the crowd. The Requesters place microtasks (called “Human Intelligence Tasks,” or HITs) on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website and offer non-negotiable contracts with a take-it-or-leave-it rate for each HIT. The Turkers (officially called “Providers”) perform only small microtasks over and over, rarely getting a glimpse of the whole. Using keyword searches for HITs, New York University professor Panagiotis Ipeirotis found that among the most numerous HITs were data collection, transcription, searches, tagging, content review, categorization and other similar tasks.

However, HITs can be any task that can be outsourced online. Many of the features of the Internet that we take for granted come from paid crowdworking. These include more efficient search results, transcriptions of audio and video, reliable local business information, marketing spam and other aspects of the Internet that just seem to be there. Crowdworkers also engage in tasks that can make certain individuals’ lives immeasurably better, such as providing near-instantaneous information on their surroundings for blind people with a smartphone and the right app.

A HIT typically includes a set of instructions, some quite involved, that one must read and understand before performing the task. The Requesters can set eligibility requirements. For example, they may restrict access to those with “Master Qualifications”—a designation Amazon awards at its discretion—that some have received after performing at least 50,000 HITs at an exceptionally high approval rate. Or the Requester may exclude certain workers, such as those from India, because in the world of online crowdworking, they are thought of as inferior workers.

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