Digital sweat shop labor and your PC’s need for electrons

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle at 2:33 pm by George Smith

Resurrected from “Comments” here, the profits from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk sweat shop work scaled against the cost in electrons:

The average PC will consume about 150 – 200 watts. I have no idea what the prices per kWh are in the US, but i assume it’s pretty hard to just break even when doing these jobs. — Christoph

We can figure that one out. From the Department of Energy, we can get a figure on PC power usage.

270 watts per hour including monitor.

The average price of electricity in Los Angeles County is available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s 20 cents a kilowatt hour, as opposed to national average of about 12 cents

Ideally, with all the sifting and non-suitable human intelligence tasks one must sift through to find the number one can do, my best can do between 45 cents and a dollar an hour, not more.

That assumes looking for jobs that pay 40 cents and upward a task although you can enlarge the pool somewhat by going to 30 or 20 cents.

Often one sees stories where it is claimed the average pay is 1 dollar or $1.50 or something even a little higher for Mechanical Turk work.

But I’ve found these claims to be personally ludicrous. There is simply no regular way to make that using what’s delivered as available work, the failings or features of Amazon Mechanical Turk’s front end and what you have to do to identify, accept and get such work done.

So I’m averaging 45 cents an hour. The cost of electricity through the pc and monitor takes about a third of that, so Christoph was pretty close.

If I had worked identifying the swimming pools of Los Angeles for Benedikt Gross and Joseph Lee and done the modest number of a 50 count, performed in — say — two hours, for which the rate would have paid 40 cents, I would have made this.

Two hours on PC = 540 watts = .54 kilowatt

0.54 kilowatt x 20 cents / kilowatt hour = 11 cents.

40 cents – 11 cents = 29 cents net profit.

That is, I would have made 40 cents under their rate, more than a quarter of it nullified by the cost of electricity to run the PC during that period. Using the average cost of a kilowatt hour in the US, say 12 cents, a US Mechanical Turk worker, all other things being equal, would have made the princely 33 cents net profit, with seven cents shaved off for electricity to run the machine.

You can jiggle the numbers a few different ways, for instance, and assume you could have counted swimming pools on digital photography more swiftly, thus driving the use of electricity per lot down. However,
the order of magnitude of the net profit — miniscule — cannot be changed and because it is so small the overhead of running the PC in the household while doing the work always shaves too many pennies off jobs that only earned a handful of them.

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a demonstration of what an immoral labor market with absolutely zero worker protections is like. It is easy to understand why the tech industry and corporate America would like this type of crowd-sourcing machine.

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 .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 a swimming pool, jiving nicely with the blog’s estimation of the cost yesterday.

If the work was done in the United States, the electricity cost of running the PC during the count would have taken anywhere from a bit over a quarter to a fifth of the total profit from the work.

The Jeff Bezos digital sweat shop — from the archives.
The face of innovation.



  1. Tom Paterson said,

    December 11, 2013 at 12:48 am

    How long before we read this:
    *Bezos in new Workfare talks with CalWORKs*

    Isn’t that where this is going?

  2. Christoph Hechl said,

    December 11, 2013 at 3:42 am

    I didn’t even start on the subject of the cost for the hardware itself, which has a limited life.

    There is however one question, that is not meant ironically at all:
    Would a slave be more expensive?

    Slavery was of course neither invented by nor limited to the US. But in cultures that used it, slaves where also quite often something of a status symbol or at least a rather expensive machine, that required some maintenance.
    Todays slave workers get a right to vote, how high you value that is your own call, but they have to take care of their own “life support”. Pay for food and housing as well as transportation to their work, take care of bureauocratic formalities of all kind and lately, as it appears, even have to provide the workplace itself.

    This is obviously not meant to ridicule the actual slavery, that we like to believe is a thing of the past and i am well aware that awful things happened, but quite honestly awful things do also happen to extremely hard working people today.

    I think it is only fit to use the phrase “slavery” maybe with a “neo-” or “techno-” attached to it, when describing work conditions, that are clearly inhuman.

  3. George Smith said,

    December 11, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Techno-slavery is not a bad way to describe it. The remarkable part is that if you read the comments on the pool Mechanical Turk work at Turkopticon they “reviewers” actually think it’s worthwhile to do “100” of those jobs. If they were working anywhere in the US they were essentially throwing their time away. And that’s something that plagues almost all of the chat boards on Mechanical Turk, or the US labor force in general: They’ve been so beaten up by corporate America and things have become so bad, they think it’s normal or acceptable.

    Right now there’s a similar job offered on MTurk, by another US university research team, this one counting clouds in satellite photos. It’s there every day.

    And I’m sure the people who use Mechanical Turk in this way think it’s fine. They don’t put much thought into the compensation or what it means in human terms, they just like that it’s absurdly cheap and they don’t have to do it themselves. Labor protections would change all that. It would make them go back to crunching large amounts of data the old-fashioned way, by getting your grad students and postdocs to do it, who aren’t paid much, but are still paid on a US scale.

    All the job and work bazaars the tech industry comes up work only on the principle of undercutting all labor costs and regulations in a desperation economy.

    *Bezos in new Workfare talks with CalWORKs*

    It’s going to unwind in a more subtle way. Private sector businesses will pitch doing things cheaper, and they’ll use Mechanical Turk as the engine for it. This looks like the case with Captricity getting a contract from the FDA to use people as identification and transcription robots for their document backlog. The people, squished down to nothing on Mechanical Turk, are probably a lot cheaper and better than the software.

    Government to private sector outsourcing has always been a big part of the great compression and national slump. Some business makes a pitch that it can do some gut work for an agency cheaper, the head of the agency who wants to go to work in the same sector eventually agrees, instigates lay offs and delivers a contract to the business that will plug the hole. The business hires back the fired workers but for much less, no civil service worker mandated level of pay, and no benefits and puts them to work doing what they did before in a windowless room. There were limits still imposed, minimum wage and such.

    With Mechanical Turk, the FDA and Captricity, it’s the same model but with the minimum wage and other minor labor protections completely tossed.

  4. Tom Paterson said,

    December 11, 2013 at 10:06 am

    It used to be that the local Zanzingers paid the corrupt warden of the County Farm for the use of convict labor. Now, I can envisage payments going the other way, the County/Parish paying rent for 4G tablet devices to issue to the unemployed & techno-slaves. Vile Bezos wins twice. In the UK, Amazon has already been involved in corrupt workfare scams:


    I never got Bukka White’s Parchman Farm double-time strum until I saw a video clip!

  5. Tom Paterson said,

    December 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes the lot of an African slave owned by Arabs. The slave is treated well through the course of his working life until the day he becomes too old and sick to work; then he is thrown out of the tent and left to starve.

  6. George Smith said,

    December 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Wow, the workfare thing is slave labor. Is it growing in England or has outcry had an effect? The Republican Party has been trying to attach something like workfare to the food stamps program for a long time. The problem with that, and it hasn’t met with any success in blue states or at the federal level, is that the majority of food stamp recipients are already working, a fact the GOP knows is true but generally refuses to acknowledge.

    So workfare hasn’t caught on here … yet. Some farmers in the south tried to have something like it implemented when harsher immigration policies and social security number checks emptied their fields of illegal labor. The idea was to get prison labor or ex-cons still on parole to come and do the work as training and condition added to their parole but it did not work. The people would walk off the job.

  7. Tom Paterson said,

    December 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    *Wow, the workfare thing is slave labor. Is it growing in England or has outcry had an effect?*

    The question deserves a sensible response; I am not qualified to answer it … I’m too flippant. Christoph Hechl has misgivings about using the word *slavery* to describe the current situation in the First World, given the horrific abuses of the historic (and present-day) Slave Trade. But what other word is there? To use a cliche, our situation ticks all of slavery’s boxes.

    For the most part people die quietly, behind closed doors, don’t they?

    Oops, polemic.

  8. George Smith said,

    December 11, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Here’s a link:



    Britain’s history of workfare stretches back beyond the Victorian era, when workhouses were used to get people to ‘do something’ in return for support. The 1834 New Poor Law created a national, centrally enforced system of workfare centering on the workhouses where inmates did sewing, cleaning, weaving and other local trades in return for poor relief. Many workhouses lasted until abolished by the 1948 National Health Service Act, championed by Beveridge.

    The workhouse system has similarities with current workfare programmes deployed by the British Government. Both assume that people without work are essentially to blame for this fact and that unpleasant mandatory work will motivate them to try harder to get a job.

    However, the current unemployment malaise is not caused by people who
    won’t work but rather by a lack of demand and austerity which has created job shortages in the US and UK.

    “The Government’s current approach is much more about playing to the punitive political gallery than improving skills, training or opportunity,” it reads..

  9. Tom Paterson said,

    December 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm


    And here’s another link.


    This powerful piece stuck in my mind but I’d thrown out the printed copy of the paper and it took a while to find online.

  10. George Smith said,

    December 11, 2013 at 2:51 pm


    And here’s US workfare, or welfare-to-work as it was called, which was enacted under Clinton. The result, according to this, was disastrous. It merely made welfare benefits much harder to get and didn’t put people in jobs, although it undermined other workers who were paid a normal wage.

    After the crash in 2007, so many people were thrown off welfare roles by the states that the only thing left for them was expansion of the food stamp program, which has logically happened. Of course, somewhat less than half the country — Whitemanistan — is determined to kill this as entitlement, even doing so in states where their constituents receive the most benefits from it.

    The same thing is happening with Obamacare. The poor are eligible for it under the Medicaid expansion, paid for by the federal government, but the Tea Party states have refused the government money. It’s purely punitive and it guarantees that people will inevitably die when they don’t have to at all. The blue states, California being one expecting to enroll 1.4 million in Obamacare through the expansion, will be giving healthcare to people who formerly did not have it.

    And this is creating a divide, a southern and red state healthcare slum, of sorts, where the politicians and their ideology are creating a place where their people can’t have healthcare because of hatred of the president.

  11. Tom Paterson said,

    December 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    And here’s one of Google’s first results for a search on *Universal Credit fiasco*.


    I remember that a commenter on *The Register: Sci/Tech News for the World* had suspicions that none of these overweening IT welfare schemes was ever meant to succeed … they were designed to fail, killing the poorest with no blame attached to the killers.

    Most of our future leaders spend time in the States either being indoctrinated, bought off, or being shown the true film of the JFK assassination (whose schtick was that? Carlin? Hicks?).

  12. Tom Paterson said,

    December 12, 2013 at 3:23 am

    From today’s Guardian:



    *Asked why a significant number of cancer patients had died before their claim for the new personal independence payment (PIP) was processed, the new minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, said it was critical to improve the service for terminally ill people. “We have to get it right because these people need the help as fast as they can get it,” he told MPs on the work and pensions select committee.

    Hundreds of terminally ill cancer patients faced long waits of weeks and months to receive income support because of changes made to the way the system is administered after the government introduced PIP, which replaced disability living allowance, earlier this year.*