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.

  • Crowdsourcing
    Microtasking works by outsourcing small, virtual tasks to an army of online workers, who then perform them for pennies.
    Illustration By Blair Kelly
  • Artificial Intelligence
    Jeff Bezos described microtasking elegantly, as “artificial artificial intelligence,” humans behaving like machines behaving like humans.
    Illustration By Blair Kelly
  • Microtasking
    If computers couldn’t do the work, why not hire humans to do it for them?
    Illustration By Blair Kelly

  • Crowdsourcing
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Microtasking

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’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.”

1/26/2015 3:40:41 PM

"Of the half-dozen current and former Turkers I spoke to for this story, none said they made more than a couple dollars an hour, and the vast majority earned far less." You definitely talked to the wrong Turkers. No one I know works for less than $6/hour, and most won't work for less than $10. You can't generalize from such a small number of people you spoke with - there are ~40,000 Turkers worldwide. Panos and Ross' data is too old to be cited as representative today. As Hunter Couts said, it's about being selective - I don't make $20/hour by doing low paying tasks, I hold out for the good ones, which is obviously something the people you interviewed need to learn more about. Also, if they were on one of the many Turking forums they'd probably be making much more. And the workers are complaining: It's just starting, but our voices will be heard. Many don't "choose" to work on mTurk - they are disabled, can't get a job where they live, don't have skills beyond the simple tasks offered there, or can't leave the house for another reason. mTurk may be the only way they can make a living. For them, it is not a choice, and it is for them we need to fight to get fair treatment. Fair treatment in this situation isn't a minimum wage, but it is ensuring respect by Requesters and the ability to make enough to match their cost of living.

6/7/2014 9:35:19 AM

I am a new discoverer of microtasking. I so far have only dedicated part-time hours to it, and am planning on turning that to a full-time income for a while in order to escape a very desperate situation for a better life. In general it is a low-income job but um..yeah. this is America, half of us apparently make under $27K a year now. Now, if you're an average worker that is one thing; if you are an adept knowledgeable worker who already knows that most of mturk is crap pay and gets a masters qualification or at least the best quals, follows the reddit threads.. and prefers focussing on other microtask sites over mturk, choosing the tasks well and doing a great job on them while working longer F/T hours, you can make $3-4K per month. Besides, this is only *one* way of bringing in a WAH income; there are others such as freelance writing, consulting, graphic design, web design etc etc etc. *No one* is forcing anyone into slave labor here! Jeez. Ive heard stories of EMTs getting bored in between calls to make some extra moolah on the job. by microtasking (type A personality at work here). Five minutes, or 15 hoURs straight- it's up to you, no one requires anything of you. THAT IS WHY I DO IT! Socialism is cool... but the 'woe is me' ideology is a bit overwrought lol.

4/30/2014 2:33:51 PM

There very well maybe handfuls of decent paying work on MTURK. However, this does not excuse the tens of thousands of jobs out there that clearly exploit. You may say that folks are "suckers" for taking those types of jobs, but I say that these low paying jobs that pay $1.00 for what they misleadingly say is a 10 - 15 minute survey, that turns into one hour is in clear violation of the spirit of the minimum wage laws in the United States, and is exploitation. People will do these jobs out of desperation, knowing that they are being exploited. I called the Cleveland Wage and Hourly Division to make a complaint about and MTURK. The lady on the phone asked me what position I was hired as, and how many hours did I work for a given week (clearly scripted questions). Their thinking is a normal job that you go in and punch the time clock in and out of. But there isn't any provisions for piece work like this. The laws are antiquated, not keeping up with the global, digital, and internet world. I tried to explain that MTURK doesn't display my total time of all jobs, nor does it keep track of my my time for individual jobs (which Amazon has the ability to do). MTURK only displays a timer for each job while you are doing it, so you have to keep track of. Therefore, no one has to account for hours and wages. Very slick, very disturbing. If I were to clock in for just 15 minutes at my regular job, then clock out, my employer would have to pay me for 15 minutes worked at the State minimum wage. Therefore, if I do a survey on MTURK and it takes me 15 minutes, and everyone else averages 15 minutes on the same survey, then I should be payed at the State minimum wage, no different than if I was clocking in at a physical job location. The only way that things might change, is if enough MTURKers complain to their state and nationals reps. I don't think that would do anything perhaps, since most politicians have big businesses in their back pockets. But it might be worth the time at least trying.

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