Thanksgiving with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle at 3:34 pm by George Smith

Thanskgiving weekend earnings on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Helped along by a comment from TP:

On the Guardian Ladies Field Hockey team, the left back, Lucy Mangan, has noticed vile Bezos, the Mechanical Turk & TaskRabbit, but then fails to attack with any great vigour.

Mangan’s bit is short but includes the now familiar Dickensian descriptions of digital sweat shops, the miracles of the new sharing economy in which the only sharing that happens is the total liquidation of the life and possessions of the worker:

The lurking, many-tentacled monster is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. This enables people (“Requesters”) looking to outsource small personal or corporate tasks that can’t be done by computers, and that would be too inefficiently time-consuming to perform themselves or to employ extra staff (what with their bleatings about sick pay, holiday allowance and blah-di-everlasting-blah). Requesters post descriptions of their needs (“Human Intelligence Tasks”), and how much they are willing to pay, to a waiting army of workers dispersed across the world, who will, for an average of $2, or £1.25ish, to meet them. This would mean that, to make minimum wage (depending on which country you and your labour laws are in), you would have to complete just over five tasks an hour (and not be stiffed on payment by any of the Requesters). In one of those (un)happy confluences of colloquialism and subtext, accepting one of mturk.com’s jobs is known as “taking the hit”.

In short, this – and its smaller, but often more nimbly sophisticated and potentially effective competitors such as Fancy Hands and Task Rabbit – is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with the whimpering of hundreds of thousands of digital serfs unwillingly but desperately racing each other to the bottom in an unregulated labour market, while their – by which I mean, our – overlords’ individual or corporate coffers swell …

Mangan overestimates the average “pay” on Mechanical Turk. It’s considerably less than two dollars a job. My pay snapshot is for two jobs. That’s an average of 45 cents. But also in the lot are five others done during the same time, unpaid, because the “employers,” Amazon’s infamous “requesters,” took their time off over the holiday and did not approve payment.

Because quickly approving a few dimes for people would be work.

Anyone with a little bit of skill at arithmetic can figure out how the Mechanical Turk model boils down even 45 cent jobs to, practically speaking, even less.

It takes time to sift through the MTurk listings. Add it to all time spent on a job actually accepted. And then there are jobs, often quite a few, which the worker will “return” halfway through, for any number of reasons. Such reasons include, but are not limited to, the incompetence of the employer (the task for has a bug, or bugs in it, making it difficult if not impossible to complete without giving bad information), the lousy or duplicitous description of the “requester” (you find a task advertised as taking “eight minutes” for 30 cents eating up fifteen minutes of your time and it’s not even close to being complete), or jobs which the worker may not want to complete because they are odious. (How likely would you be to visit and use a website that allows your “friends” to anonymously assess your character? How many e-mails from “friends” recommending the site would it take to get you to visit it? As part of this “task” you will now visit the site.)

On Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, none of the work is actually easy, although it’s always pawned off that way. Every “hit” or job takes time, time to read and follow the instructions, time to look for and answer correctly trick questions designed to catch the inattentive worker, time to find even jobs for which you are “qualified.”

Because here’s the big nasty surprise nobody writing articles about crowd-sourcing on Mechanical Turk tells you.

Even at the very bottom of the economic food chain, where you’re nothing more than chum for Jeff Bezos’ infernal machine and those using it to leverage desperation, you’re not qualified for most of the work.

The worker will see hundreds of thousands of jobs listed. But when he uses the search function to boil the list down to those he or she is personally qualified for (let’s say, anything down to 30 cents and you have a job rating of 98 percent of 100 (!), you’ll get a return of, say, 120, maybe as many as 170 jobs to pick from.

A reader can do the quick math to find out what even a near perfect worker on Amazon Mechanical Turk is qualified for and post the percentage in comments.

Alms? Alms for the poor?

The empire of Bezos.

Chomsky: America hates its poor:

If you care about other people, that’s now a very dangerous idea. If you care about other people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, but you don’t care whether other people’s kids can go to school, or can afford food to eat, or things like that. In the United States, that’s called “libertarian??? for some wild reason. I mean, it’s actually highly authoritarian …


  1. Tom Paterson said,

    December 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I have excerpted this and posted it below the line as comment #36 under the Mangan piece at guardian.com.

    *George Smith (Dick Destiny) writes:

    Thanksgiving with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

    Mangan overestimates the average “pay??? on Mechanical Turk. It’s considerably less than two dollars a job. My pay snapshot is for two jobs. That’s an average of 45 cents. But also in the lot are five others done during the same time, unpaid, because the “employers,??? Amazon’s infamous “requesters,??? took their time off over the holiday and did not approve payment.*

    Can you update us all on your traffic stats?

  2. George Smith said,

    December 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Interesting. A lot of the comments defend it on the “libertarian” rationalization. Mechanical Turk is America-centric in that all the jobs I’ve ever seen on it — except for translations — are based in American needs. And although I’ve never mounted the links the few studies I’ve read on it estimate the workers on MTurk predominantly American, then Indian.

    As for doing it as hobby-work while engaged in other leisure activities, like watching tv, quite a few of the “requesters” don’t want their crowd-sourced labor delivered that way at all and go out of their way to state it, or ask directly within the job if you’re engaged in something else while working on their “HIT”.

    Plus, there is the matter of “qualifications.” Mechanical Turk is set up so the system, if it rewards anyone, “rewards” only those who are near perfect workers who have done huge numbers of jobs. And it takes a long time for almost nothing to rack up such numbers, if you can.

  3. Tom Paterson said,

    December 1, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    From the Chomsky piece at Salon that you linked to:

    *Well, that’s the effect of good propaganda: getting people not to think in terms of their own interests, let alone the interest of communities and the class they’re part of.*

  4. George Smith said,

    December 1, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    I don’t watch 60 Minutes anymore. It was last in the news for being taken in by a Benghazi-fabulist. Tonight, I noticed Jeff Bezos was on to impress them with Amazon Drones (!) for package delivery. 60 Minutes couldn’t be better for the Culture of Lickspittle, delighted by the fabulous wealth of the man who wants to out Walmart Walmart in terms of leveraging desperate American labor. Pay no attention to that stuff, just remember — Bezos “invented” one-click shopping and he found the Saturn 5 booster engine. And he’s a “libertarian.” In his case, meaning “freedom to shop.”

  5. Tom Paterson said,

    December 2, 2013 at 11:45 am

    From Ruskin’s Unto this Last:

    This “robbing the poor because he is poor” is especially the mercantile form of theft, consisting in taking advantage of a man’s necessities in order to obtain his labour or property at a reduced price. The ordinary highwayman’s opposite form of robbery—of the rich, because he is rich—does not appear to occur so often to the old merchant’s mind; probably because, being less profitable and more dangerous than the robbery of the poor, it is rarely practised by persons of discretion.

  6. George Smith said,

    December 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Also because the crafting of systems to rob the poor work best on masses without the wherewithal do anything about the robbery, even when they can see it. Thus now, the digitization of all systems allows for the automation of theft. The best and number one example that comes to mind is the extraction of banking fees for falling below “minimum balances” or other unspecified “services.” Taking apart banking regulations in the last few decades created this type of friction-less mechanized pick-pocketing and it is aimed squarely the millions of poor. The same with the creation of payment of wages through pay cards, aimed at the low end of American work. Payroll is handed to a bank, the bank issues pay cards to workers and extracts fees from the workers for the use of said pay cards.

    That’s mass robbery, stealing labor. The economic system we have now encourages, even rewards, these types of practices, often regards them as assets or virtues, good business, astute decision making in growing the bottom line, innovation. It is all software mediated and implemented, requiring only the throwing of the digital switch. And then it runs itself.