East Bay Express: Dawn of the digital sweatshop

Aug 1, 2012

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.

Read more at the EastBayExpress.com.