The digital sweatshop letter the LA Times didn’t print

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle at 3:29 pm by George Smith

Hello: Your interesting Column One — Mappers Spot all the Pools in LA Basin — informed that 43,123 pools in the Los Angeles basin were counted by the digital sweatshop house, Mechanical Turk. And it cost researchers Benedikt Gross and Joseph Lee $350.

I thought you might like to know what that came out to so I ran the arithmetic. Each swimming pool was counted on MTurk for eight tenths of a cent. If you counted 1000 pools for the research project, you made $8.11.

That’s a lot of swimming pools to count, even for someone working in a digital sweat shop. But if you only counted a much more reasonable 50 Los Angeles swimming pools in Google pictures, you made 40 cents for your work.

The newspaper informed it cost $3700 to publish Gross and Lee’s swimming pool research. That’s over ten times what the researchers paid Mechanical Turk workers, most of whom are American.

Along with loss of privacy, the digital world seems to be taking away quite a bit of earning power, too. How much would it have cost to count the swimming pools at a minimum wage, or using hand’s-on grad student labor?

Just saying, low wage jobs being in the news these days and all.

LA pool researcher Joseph Lee.


Note: Here are some Mechanical Turk worker comments on the LA swimming pool research at Turkopticon. One hundred jobs paid 3 cents a job, which would have brought in three dollars for an unspecified period of time.

If the researchers paid $350 total for their Mechanical Turk counting of 43,123 pools we can estimate that 100 hits paying 3 cents a hit for three dollars was 0.8 percent of the total.

0.8 percent of the total is 345 swimming pools or false positives, or 3.4 – 3.5 per job/human intelligence task. At three cents a job, that comes out to roughly eight tenths of a cent made for each swimming pool, jiving nicely with the letter’s estimate.

If we assume one could identify, say 50 swimming pools from photography, in two hours of work on Mechanical Turk (or the rate of about one a little over every two minutes while clicking and working through the MTurk interface), we can further figure how much it actually cost the worker in electrons to do the job. It is not an insignificant number.

If the work was done in the United States, because the rate of pay is so low in the digital sweat shop called Mechanical Turk, the electricity cost of running the PC during the count would have taken a decent chunk from the work which paid in handfuls of pennies.

Example: Earnings from counting 50 swimming pools in digital photographs in two hours.

50 swimming pools x 0.8 cent / pool = 40 cents.

Here we estimated the cost of electricity to be 20 cents a kilowatt hour in Los Angeles county. For counting 50 swimming pools in 2 hours, we further estimated the PC expended 0.54 kilowatt hours worth of electrons costing 11 cents for the counting on Mechanical Turk.

40 cents profit – 11 cents power cost = 29 cents profit for counting
swimming pools on the digital sweat shop, Mechanical Turk.

If the cost of electricity is assumed to be the lower than LA county
national average, 12 cents, a somewhat larger profit is generated.

40 cents profit – 7 cents electricity (the national average) = 33 cents net profit for two hours of work.

The numbers can be run for any amount of swimming pools counted
in the Mappers Spot all the Pools in LA Basin.

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