Last year the New York Times wrote a story about so-called Gold Farms — factories where Chinese workers would labour through the initial stages of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft on behalf of wealthy Westerners who couldn’t be arsed. Well now Amazon have taken that model and formed a new business out of it.
The Amazon Mechanical Turk is named after an automaton from the 18th century, ‘the Turk’, which could play chess. The wooden man, compete with turban, appeared to be powered by clockwork and even check-mated Benjamin Franklin at one point. The Turk was — of course — a fraud, with a human chess expert hidden in the rather obvious, rather huge box on which the model sat. Amazon have no interest in hiding their wizards in this way. For fees ranging from a few cents and not much more, workers — who call themselves ‘turkers’ — will perform menial, time-consuming tasks — such as identifying nuances in colour or shape — which can still confound automated computer systems. Originally conceived by Amazon to assist its own sites, Mturk.com is now a marketplace where many companies ‘employ’ workers to do everything from transcribing podcasts for 19 cents a minute to writing blog posts for 50 cents. Amazon, of course, takes a cut for every task performed.
Amazon says that Mturk provider “artificial artificial intelligence” which as a zeitgeist phrase is sure to produce more than one dissertation. According to Adam Selipsky, vice president of product management and developer relations for Amazon Web Services,
From a philosophical perspective, it’s really turning the traditional computing paradigm on its head. Usually people get help from computers to do tasks. In this case, it is computers getting help from people to do tasks.
Like all crowdsourcing, turking seems to thrive by provoking people’s need to contribute — to be part of something bigger. To test this, UCLA Design/Media Arts grad student Aaron Koblin invited turkers to draw up to five sheep at the rate of 2 cents apiece. Over 40 days and 40 nights, the sheep flooded in at a rate of 11 per hour. By the end of experiment, 7,599 turkers had participated. He collected 12,000 sheep and put 10,000 of them up for sale at a rate of $20 for 20 sheep at The Sheep Market. This blatant profiteering had some turkers up in arms: “they’re selling our sheep!” was the cry on one message board. Another poster wrote, “Does anyone remember signing over the rights to the drawings?”. Of course they had. If there was ever a moral lesson to be learnt from Web 2.0, it’s always check the IP clauses. But even after the student stopped taking admissions for sheep, and after ruthlessly exploiting his workers, more people wrote to him wanting to contribute sheep for free. Koblin says:
“Most of these people clearly weren’t in it for the money. They weren’t doing it so they could get 2 cents. It was more about participating in something larger.
This is of course the philanthropic view. A more cynical take on turking and on the gold farms in particular is that it is just a new economy take on old economy exploitation. Labour activists and lawyers point to the total lack of workers’ rights. Rebecca Smith, a lawyer for the National Employment Law Project says:
The creativity of business in avoiding its responsibility to workers never ceases to astound. It’s day labor in the virtual world.
The workers themselves take a more relaxed view — arguing that it’s basically badly paid Sudoku. According to one, “I think it’s something of a hybrid between trying to make money on the side and a diversion, a substitute for doing a crossword puzzle. It’s sort of a mental exercise.”
MTV news has recently succeeded in getting hold of the first footage shot inside Chinese gold farms. According to the segment, half a million Chinese now make a living from the acquisition and sale of World of Warcraft gold to US and EU gamers. GigaOM has an interview with the filmmaker, Ge Jin:
GigaOM: What does WoW gold farming suggest about the future of work?
GJ: I think these gold farms indicate that the game platform has the potential to engage more people in Internet-driven economy. The gaming workers in China don’t have skills like English, software or graphic design to participate in other forms of Internet-driven work, but they can communicate and navigate in a 3D game world whose tools and routines they are familiar with… So if more social and economic activities happen in an accessible 3D game world, people who don’t have access to other culture capital but gaming knowledge will be more likely to be included in global interaction.
It makes you wonder if all those $100 laptops for kids aren’t actually going to bridge the digital divide but instead create a whole new economy of third-world labour.
Turking story source and quotes from Salon.