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Tweaking Technocapitalism

Fri Jan 30 2009 13:36 PST

lilly (admin)

Cross-posted to
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I've posted about
Turkopticon here before. Well, it's up, it has undergone a rev, and it has some users we don't know who seem to like us. I wanted to talk a little bit about what is at stake in it.

For a long time, I've been thining about infrastructure and technology design and, in particular, how certain designs (in certain contexts) end up giving certain people the crap end of the stick. As of late, my friend Six and I have been spending our spare nerd cycles on a particular case of this: Amazon Mechanical Turk, which lets workers do cognitive piecework usually averaging a dollar or two an hour. The low wages, the lack of health protections in a "work environment" (the computer) that has caused my arms and wrists much pain over the years, and the exuberant excitement many have for getting the faceless "crowd" to do work so cheaply were my initial cause for concern. As I started to survey Turk workers about their experiences, workers reported little protection from employers who don't pay and low wages as big problems. I heard from workers who did Turk after their main jobs to make food and rent when gas prices were high. While I don't have the power to regulate AMT or radically shift market dynamics at the moment, Six and I put our heads to the first problem of employers who take people's work and then don't pay.

So we made Turkopticon, a Firefox extension workers can use to access ratings and commentary of employers/requesters as they browse for HITs ("human intelligence tasks" and an unfortunate acronym). Turkopticon isn't revolution -- it's not going to fix the fact that jobs are increasingly contingent, that health care costs are insane, and people have fewer good choices about how to make their livelihoods. But it's a start at drawing attention to an information imbalance that has been letting some requesters abuse people. It's something that can make us ask why Amazon didn't design these informational safeguards in to begin with. And lest we think the traditional lines of employer v worker are simply drawn, Dolores Labs provided critical support and feedback. We started off as an empty database asking workers to install our extension, but there wasn't much for workers to see. Dolores Labs put up a survey for us and got a hundred or so reviews of requesters that formed the seed of the database, motivated in part by their desire to resist Turk being spoiled by crappy employers. (I'll probably post most about this in future posts.)

Is it just about Mechanical Turk for me? Not really. I see AMT as an dystopian extreme case of a the increasingly contingent, low paid labor I've been seeing creeping up for years.

Jobs aren't a great way to make a living these days. A few trends that disturb me. The practice of hiring temp workers on a mostly permanent basis so that they can be denied health benefits and other perks took Microsoft to court and even got its own neologism: permatemps. The largest employer in 2/3 of US states, Walmart, pays barely enough for a full-timer to make ends meet, claiming to only provide "supplemental income." About half of a those filing for bankruptcy in a 2005 study cited medical debts as a main cause [pdf source]. Livelihoods are precarious for a lot of hard working people.

People frequently argue that those working for these low wages have a choice. As one person I corresponded with explained, "I realize I have a choice to work or not work on AMT, but that means I would also not need to make the choice to eat or not eat, pay bills or not pay bills, etc." The thing we need to worry about is not only what choices people make, but what choices people have. Not all jobs are available everywhere. Not all people are equally able to move. Not everyone can afford a solid educational foundation. Not everyone even gets their knowledge and wisdom equally recognized and respected. People do have choices, but some have more choices than others.

Turkopticon is just a little Firefox extension, but for Six and I, it's also forcing us to think about a lot of issues in labor and politics that we just don't know enough about, but which have consequences around us every day.

Thanks to Dolores Labs, the 67 turkers who shared their experiences, and those who have been using Turkopticon and reviewing already.

Re: Tweaking Technocapitalism

Tue Jul 07 2009 11:53 PDT

mpau...@g...

Thanks. I just started on AMT July 4th. Some of it was fun but I don't think I will do any more "work". At a dollar an hour, I might as well join the homeless people and look for cans to recycle in the garbage cans of gas stations. Maybe McD is hiring. Minimum wage is starting to look good.

Re: Tweaking Technocapitalism

Tue Jul 07 2009 12:50 PDT

mpau...@g...

I heard a lecture on probability on the Commonwealth club recently. They made some joke about funding our schools with lottery tickets. They said that the funding came from people who are bad with math. Maybe hoping that AMT will help provide supplemental income is another instance of being bad with math. Or else, psychologically, working for AMT is like being in front of a slot machine. You are hopeful of reward but the reward just won't come.

Re: Tweaking Technocapitalism

Mon Aug 03 2009 10:02 PDT

meme20...@y...

Thank you for making turkopticon I have been using the reviews and have added my experiences with some of the requesters as well.I hope that turk will become a better place for honest requesters and for honest turkers. btw its that the correct term are we turkers or turkeys ? ha ha have a great week every one.

Re: Tweaking Technocapitalism

Wed Sep 08 2010 09:45 PDT

rjs...@h...

First, let me applaud Turkopticon for providing a place for Provides to post and give feedback on Amazon Mechanical Turk Requesters. The online database is great and the Mturk Extension is fantastic.

From the recent survey with information collected from MTurk providers on MTurk forums, it seems that I’m an anomaly when it comes to Mturk workers. I average about 1 hour a day of working on Mturk while I see the largest response was 5 hour or greater. I find it frightening that someone would have to spend so much time on Mturk to earn money.

I’m basically a hobbyist on Mturk. Since I have the luxury of not having to work on Mturk, I can pick the jobs I want to do. I know others aren’t so fortunate.

I’ve seen this push on wages for several years now. I have also worked at oDesk which works a lot like Mturk, but with bigger jobs. For some reason, I find it hard to work for oDesk requesters because they don’t pay a decent wage which is ironic, because I do a lot of work for Mturk at considerably less. Go figure. I guess it is the elective approach I use. I can elect not to work on a cheap HIT or for Mturk altogether. When I take on an oDesk client, I pretty much have to see the job to completion.

My brother says that I’m driving the value of real wages and professional work by doing Mturk. In a way, I can’t argue with him. Imagine if some of these requesters had to get paid the wages that Mturk workers have to make.

But the world isn’t a fair place. We have choices to do these jobs on Mturk. I know some people say they don’t have a choice. But I would estimate that for the U.S. workers on Mturk, there are alternatives. Now, I know someone is going to decry my last statement and will provide legitimate reason of why they cannot get a job. I’ll buy that, but I’m betting they are exception.

Ultimately, do I think the wages paid on Mturk are fair? No, absolutely not. Requesters should feel ashamed at how they exploit these people, but for some reason they don’t.

I sometime wonder about those ridiculously complex HITs with equality ridiculous pay that linger on Mturk for a while. Do the requesters get the message that these wages are awful or does some desperate person there finally take the HIT and that ends any chance of the requester considering upping the rate of pay?