Online crowdsourcing platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and the prettily named CrowdFlower provide companies and entrepreneurs with an easy way to tap into the so-called hive mind. Businesses can hire anonymous bee-laborers to perform what Amazon calls “human intelligence tasks,” or HITs, paying them microwages for cognitive piecework. Up to now, this has all been run as something of an underground economy, and the bee-laborers have had few rights and little recourse when their task masters, or “requesters,” stiff them, as the New Scientist‘s Hal Hodson reports:
Mechanical Turk’s entire business model hinges on persuading large numbers of workers to do tiny tasks for pennies at a time. And it relies on turning its group of human workers into “a system that doesn’t talk back”, says Lilly Irani, a computer scientist at the University of California in Irvine. Turkers, as they are known, have no idea whether an individual “requester” is likely to pay them promptly for their work, or even at all, as requesters can choose to reject work without any repercussions. This is vital because around 20 per cent of Turkers say that they always or sometimes need money earned during crowd work to make ends meet, according to a small survey carried out by Irani. “There are people for whom this is a crucial source of income,” she says.
Now, though, an incipient movement is afoot to organize crowdworkers and give them a little more power, individually and collectively. Irani, for instance, has set up a service, Turkopticon, that provides a way for workers to share information about requesters. It makes the hive a little more transparent. Crowdworkers are also beginning to take legal action against the platforms, charging them with violating labor and minimum-wage laws, according to Hodson. Calls for unionization are even being heard:
Without legal redress for online workers these efforts count for little, says Trebor Scholz at New School University in New York City. “People fought for 100 years for the 8-hour work day and paid vacation, against child labour. All of that is wiped away in these digital environments,” he says, and calls for crowd workers to form a transnational union.
At the very least, these efforts call attention to a small but growing part of the economy that has operated in the shadows. Terms like “crowdsourcing” and “hive mind” can obscure the fact that what we’re really talking about are people.
Photo by The Co-operative.