Amazon Mechanical Turk: The Digital Sweatshop
Unbeknownst to most users, our technological revolution depends in large part on the cheap-labor microtasking of Amazon Mechanical Turk and other tech employers.
Microtasking works by outsourcing small, virtual tasks to an army of online workers, who then perform them for pennies.
Illustration By Blair Kelly
The funny thing about the biggest shift in production in years is that almost nobody knows it happened. Which makes sense, if you think about it: It occurred invisibly, online, anonymously, all over the world, but at the same time, nowhere in particular. And it’s poised—if most people who know about it are to be believed—to completely change the way we think about work, the way we consume technology, and the way the global economy functions.
It’s called microtasking, and it works by outsourcing small, virtual tasks to an army of online workers, who then perform them for pennies. These tasks vary widely in scope and substance, but what links them all is that they’re essentially too difficult or too dependent on human analysis for a computer to do, but too simple for skilled labor. And they’re the bedrock of the internet.
Crowdsourced microtasking—conducted largely via Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk site—is now a multimillion-dollar industry, and one that doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Even as the global economy continues to falter, Turk is thriving, due in no small part to what it can do for companies under pressure to do more with less.
“There’s this sort of competitive insanity of the business environment,” said Six Silberman, a longtime observer of the field who helped create a forum, Turkopticon, for people doing this kind of work. “And everyone’s trying to cut costs as strenuously and as rapidly as possible.” In a globalized economy, that’s easy to do: Mechanical Turkers—even those who live in the U.S.—make somewhere around $1.50 an hour on average, enjoy no worker protections, and have no benefits.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, since Mechanical Turk’s inception, critics have emerged from all corners of the labor, law, and tech communities. Labor activists have decried it as an unconscionable abuse of workers’ rights, lawyers have questioned its legal validity, and academics and other observers have probed its implications for the future of work and of technology.
But at the same time, crowdsourcing has been hailed as a solution to one of the greatest problems of the 21st century: the massive volume of information provided to us by the internet, and the equally large difficulty associated with categorizing it. Technologists have praised Amazon Mechanical Turk for its efficiency, activists for its ability to employ people in the developing world, economists for its promise of creating new ways for people to supplement their incomes. On a 2008 NPR broadcast, Wendy Kaufman went so far as to call it “the biggest paradigm shift in innovation since the Industrial Revolution.”
One of the first and foremost observers of the crowdsourcing phenomenon was Jeff Howe, a tech reporter who coined the term in a 2006 Wired article and has since written a book on the subject, aptly titled Crowdsourcing. “[Turk is] both rather depressing and rather brilliant,” Howe wrote on his blog in November 2006. But if, back then, crowdsourced microtasking was still something of an open question, it’s now a force to be reckoned with. In seven years, Turk and its imitators have gone from experiment to emerging field to major industry.
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