Today, there's a technology for practically every need. But many people don't realize how much human work it takes the keep these technologies humming — and how much of that work is not done by highly paid app designers and software engineers.
There are millions of minute tasks that computers just can't do on their own, such as transcribing audio clips and filtering racy photos from Facebook feeds. Collectively, millions of workers perform those tasks through platforms such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk). MTurk is a marketplace where employers can tap a massive worldwide pool of temporary workers to accomplish a large volume of work that might appear simple or repetitive yet could be done only using human intuition, emotional intelligence and pattern recognition — at rates of pennies per task.
Is this highly efficient, mutually beneficial commerce, or is it exploitation? That's what Lilly Irani wants to know.
Getting by on digitized labor
Irani is an assistant professor in communication at UC San Diego who researches emerging digital workforces and the labor rights issues that accompany them. "My work is concerned with how innovation creates new forms of inequality," Irani said. "Mechanical Turk is an example of a technology that lets companies outsource data processing at unprecedented scale and speed, powering AI and big data industries with skilled but undervalued data processing work."
What she has found is that, contrary to popular belief, MTurk workers are not all overseas employees or college kids making beer money in their spare time. Increasingly, they are underemployed or unemployed Americans trying to earn enough to get by. Because these workers are legally classified as independent contractors, they have none of the rights or protections afforded to legal employees, and all but a handful end up working long hours for just few dollars per hour, and many for much less.
Irani became interested in the phenomenon before she came to academia, when she worked as a user experience designer at Google from 2003 to 2007. She saw how Google used outsourced workers to hone its algorithms and filter ad results, and the experience stuck with her. In 2009, as part of her academic research, she conducted an informal survey of MTurk workers in an attempt to determine the biggest issues they had working through the platform.
As it turns out, lack of a minimum wage was at the bottom of the list. Respondents' top issue was unfair or arbitrary rejections. Companies hiring workers through MTurk can reject any work without explanation. And if they reject any part of a project, they're allowed to keep all the remaining, completed work without paying for it.
"Amazon provides no support at all for workers using Mechanical Turk, including no reputation system or indication of who is a good requester and who is a untrustworthy requester," said Rochelle LaPlante, a Los Angeles MTurk worker, activist and moderator of a Reddit subreddit for Turkers. "Their policy is to not get involved between worker/requester issues."
Keeping an eye out
This revelation led Irani to develop a software program called Turkopticon, which she created in collaboration with fellow researcher and programmer Six Silberman. Launched in late 2008, Turkopticon is a browser plug-in application that offers a way for workers to rate MTurk employers and avoid those with bad reputations.
"For me, Turkopticon was about demonstrating vividly some of the problems with high-tech industry culture," Irani said. "Now about 20,000 workers use it every month."
For LaPlante, Turkopticon has become a powerful tool that helps to level the playing field, if only slightly. "The Turking landscape would be much different without Turkopticon," she said. "I Turked for a long time prior to using it and I accumulated several rejections because I was working without any information. It's saved me a lot of time, hassle and headache."
Irani said that Turkopticon is only one piece of a much bigger issue she's exploring regarding labor rights for digital workers and finding ways for individuals across the globe to join forces and improve their working conditions. To that end, she collaborated with colleagues at Stanford on a project called Dynamo, an anonymous forum launched in late 2014 where workers can propose, discuss and vote on specific collective labor actions.
"Dynamo is more like a virtual union hall, a worker-only safe space where workers can post ideas about activist actions anonymously," Irani said.
In 2010, Irani, then at UC Irvine, and four fellow researchers published a survey demonstrating that, at a very conservative estimate, 20% of respondents were Turking to make ends meet financially. "Now, six years later, everyone seems to be talking about the future of work in the on-demand economy," Irani said. "The most lasting contribution I hope Turkopticon, Dynamo and projects around it make is to keep revealing the blind spots in the cultures of Silicon Valley."