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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)

In 2007, Stephanie Costello had a boring office job with a lot of downtime that she spent online. She recalls the day she read one of those articles on MSN.com that have become a staple of the Internet: how to make extra money online. These types of articles often appear in the soft-news sections of MSN, Yahoo and other sites, usually with the message that there is money being left on the table. Costello was intrigued at the prospect of cutting through the boredom of her day with the opportunity to pick up a little extra cash. She went to the website, Mechanical Turk, where companies can post tiny tasks and workers can find and perform them online. It was free to register—no call for an “investment” up front, which indicated that it was not on its face a scam. And she began making money immediately. Very small amounts of money.

Costello is a trailblazer of sorts. She was one of the early workers to join Mechanical Turk, the first online, crowd-based, micro-labor platform. In her telling, she sounds like an alcoholic describing her first drink. It was fun at first—and when it became less than fun, it was still useful, if only to get through the week. But six years later, it has become a serious problem, and not just for Costello.

Mechanical Turk is the innovation behind “crowdworking,” the low-wage virtual labor phenomenon that has reinvented piecework for the digital age. Created by Amazon in 2005, it remains one of the central platforms—markets, really—where crowd-based labor is bought and sold. As many as 500,000 “crowdworkers” power the Mechanical Turk machine, while millions more (no one knows how many exactly) fuel competitor sites like CrowdFlower, Clickworker, CloudCrowd and dozens of smaller ones. On any given day, at any given minute, these workers perform millions of tiny tasks for companies both vast (think Twitter) and humble. Though few of these people have any sense of their finished work product, what they’re doing is helping to power the parts of the Internet that most of us take for granted.

Currently, computers are very good at certain sorts of tasks, such as identifying spelling errors, processing raw data and calculating financial figures. However, they are less able to perform others, such as detecting a positive or negative bias in an article, recognizing irony, accurately reading the text off a photograph of a building, determining if something is NSFW (not safe for work) or discerning among ambiguous search results. This is where the “crowd” comes in. In the current iteration of crowdworking, individuals are tasked with those parts of a job that a computer cannot perform. This work is used both to fill in the blanks and to train the computer algorithm to do a better job in the future.

Crowdworking is often hailed by its boosters as ushering in a new age of work. With the zeal of high-tech preachers, they cast it as a space in which individualism, choice and self-determination flourish. “CrowdFlower, and others in the crowdsourcing industry, are bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before, and we operate in a truly egalitarian fashion, where anyone who wants to can do microtasks, no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them,” asserts Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, in an e-mail exchange. (CrowdFlower claims to have “among the largest, if not the largest, crowd” available, with roughly 100,000 workers completing tasks on any given day.)

But if you happen to be a low-end worker doing the Internet’s grunt work, a different vision arises. According to critics, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk may have created the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed. Inside the machine, there is an overabundance of labor, extreme competition among workers, monotonous and repetitive work, exceedingly low pay and a great deal of scamming. In this virtual world, the disparities of power in employment relationships are magnified many times over, and the New Deal may as well have never happened.

As Miriam Cherry, one of the few legal scholars focusing on labor and employment law in the virtual world, has explained: “These technologies are not enabling people to meet their potential; they’re instead exploiting people.” Or, as CrowdFlower’s Biewald told an audience of young tech types in 2010, in a moment of unchecked bluntness: “Before the Internet, it would be really difficult to find someone, sit them down for ten minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those ten minutes. But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them the tiny amount of money, and then get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore.”

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