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 to — if most people who know about it are to be believed — 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.
Microtasking as a concept is, of course, nothing new. Assembly-line-style work has existed in one form or another since the Ford company created the Model T; Verlene Jones, the western regional director of the United Association for Labor Education, compared it to the piecework system that's dominated the manufacturing and garment industries for hundreds of years. But what's different now is the scale, and the stakes. 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 US — 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. In Berkeley, several scholars associated with UC Berkeley's School of Information have essentially devoted their work to examining microtasking's challenges and opportunities.
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 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. "What are we to make of a Web site that facilitates works of profound imagination ... and yet also gives us a snapshot of a depressing future in which legions of click-slaves toil away at identifying duplicate Web pages for less than minimum wage?"
But if, back then, crowdsourced microtasking was still something of an open question — a paradoxical field whose socioeconomic effect on the world was still unknown and whose net impact was difficult to parse, even within the industry — 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 — and still, none of Howe's questions have been answered.
The name "Mechanical Turk" connotes two legends — one old, one recent. The first one goes like this: At the end of the 18th century and in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen invented what he touted as a fantastic technological innovation — a machine that could not only play chess against humans, but could beat some of the best players in the world. The Mechanical Turk eventually toured Europe, beating out Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. It took fifty years for anyone to discover the hoax: Inside it was a human chess expert, using magnets to move the pieces.
More than two centuries later, in the midst of the technological revolution, Amazon's Mechanical Turk was born. Its inventors, too, touted it as a fantastic technological innovation, and its story is no less compelling, though it's compelling in a distinctly 21st-century way. In 2005, having built millions of web pages for its various products, the online giant was faced with the problem of finding which ones were duplicates — a task that, for various reasons, confounded computer algorithms, but that a human could easily do in seconds. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had a clever solution: If computers can't do the work, why not hire humans to do it for them — to act, essentially, as another part of the software, performing infinitesimal, discrete tasks, often in rapid succession? He described it, elegantly, as "artificial artificial intelligence" — humans behaving like machines behaving like humans.
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