Mechanical Turk Is Not the Future of Human Labor

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this critique, and while I am sympathetic to the impulse I think it’s extremely off-base:

As Miriam Cherry, one of the few legal scholars focusing on labor and employment law in the virtual world, has explained: “These technologies are not enabling people to meet their potential; they’re instead exploiting people.” Or, as CrowdFlower’s Biewald told an audience of young tech types in 2010, in a moment of unchecked bluntness: “Before the Internet, it would be really difficult to find someone, sit them down for ten minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those ten minutes. But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them the tiny amount of money, and then get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore.”

Outside of direct personal services like nursing or exploitative rent-seeking jobs in finance, this sort of small-scale machine assistance job is where the labor market will increasingly trend over the next couple of decades.

And it’s a completely unregulated mess. Just another sign of a broken, 19th-century economic system utterly inappropriate for a 21st-century world of globalization, mechanization, flattening and deskilling.

This is based on a misunderstanding of what these services are for.  Mechanical Turk and the like aren’t directly competing with more highly-paid labor – they’re competing with more expensive capital.  In this day and age, the dominant solution is definitely not to have highly-paid professionals doing routine and repetitive tasks.  The dominant solution is to have computers do them.  Mechanical Turk fills in the niche of “things that would be nice to automate but haven’t been automated yet”.

One major use for MT is actually to provide the means to get rid of it.  Firms will track the inputs and outputs and use that as a “training set” for machine learning.  These are algorithms that don’t directly accomplish the task at hand by design, but rather can simply match like-to-like.  So instead of designing an incredibly smart software program to mark content as “NSFW” (not safe for work), you take a huge set of stuff that has already been flagged as NSFW and use it as a feed for a dumb algorithm that simply figures out what that set has in common.

Mechanical Turk is not the future of work – by nature, it is marginal to the larger economy.  Anything that Mechanical Turk is used for heavily provides the data to move solely to a software-based solution.


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