Three cheers and a glass of fair trade, organic bubbly for Moshe Z. Marvit for winning the March Sidney Award for his Nation article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.” The Sidney is a monthly prize awarded by The Sidney Hillman Foundation to an “outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.” In recognizing Marvit’s work Sidney Award judge and investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein said, “Marvit casts a light on a previously obscure, but profoundly exploited class of workers.”
Crowdworkers are the vast, invisible labor force who toil in the hidden cracks of the Internet—the spaces where digital ingenuity fails and human skill steps in. Working through online brokerages like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower, these workers perform a range of monotonous “microtasks” (think brief surveys, tagging photos, identifying porn and other tasks a computer cannot do) for both large corporations, like Twitter, and random individuals who commission their labor. For this they are paid as little as $2 to $3 an hour, often less.
Among enthusiasts, crowdwork is often hailed as a kind of new labor ideal—a worker Xanadu where freedom, self-determination and flexibility reign. Yet most crowdwork, Marvit reveals, is little more than latter-day piecework draped in high-tech gloss. Working from home, crowd workers, who come from all over the world and are believed to number in the millions, enjoy little in the way of today’s labor protections: because they are classified as independent contractors, they do not qualify for basic employee protections; and because the technology is so new, and the system largely unmonitored, employers can engage in practices that are clearly not legal. The result, Marvit writes in his article: a vast and virtual free market that critics have called “the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed.”
Marvit, who is an attorney focusing on labor and economic law, first came across crowdworking in graduate school. As he tells Beyerstein in an interview published on the Hillman Foundation site, he learned of it from colleagues who were using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get survey answers. Curious, he began exploring. His research took him from the offices of Amazon, which brought Mechanical Turk online in 2005, to the eighteenth-century court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned the original Mechanical Turk, an automaton that audiences believed could play chess. It also took him into the worlds of actual workers, like Stephanie Costello, a full-time turker who has been known to stay up all night to try to find “good-paying” crowdwork. Her definition of good? One hundred and fifty dollars for sixty hours of work a week.
Yet, if the piece offers a devastating portrait of one of today’s more exploitative labor spheres, Marvit also sees it as a warning for potential dangers to come. As he tells Beyerstein, “Many conservatives have been pushing for greater deregulation of labor—such as lowering or eliminating the minimum wage, getting rid of child labor laws, dismantling protections for union organizing—and in Mechanical Turk we can see the world we’d be living in if such deregulation occurred.”
Or, to bring it home: in conservatives’ imagined deregulated dystopia, we are all Mechanical Turks.
(For Lindsay Beyerstein’s full Backstory interview with Moshe Marvit, check out the Hillman Foundation site, here. And for the full version of Marvit’s original article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine,” go here.)