Tyranny of the Mechanical Turk: The rise and rise of digital platform work

Menial digital labour is being outsourced to the four corners of the globe. Robbie Warin reports that exploitation flourishes whilst global companies file millions in profit.

June 18, 2018
12 min read

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

If you were to pick a point to start the story of online work platforms, you’d probably land on the 2nd of November 2005 and the launch of Amazon Mechanical Turk. “You’ve heard of software as a service” proclaimed Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, “now you have human as a service”. And with that a landslide was triggered, one which is transforming labour markets around the world. It started slowly at first, but is picking up speed with each passing day. Swept along in this landslide are millions of workers, slowly being hidden from supply chains and access to basic rights like the minimum wage. This is the gig economy, but not as you know it.

Bezos’s comments seemed innocuous enough at the time, but like many of history’s greatest inventions, its full implications were not immediately clear, least of all to its developers. Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) is an online platform that allows employers to connect with workers, to complete short tasks, known as Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs), for a fee. It had originally been set up solely for Amazon employees, allowing them to make a bit of extra cash in their spare time through identifying duplicate products, mistakenly listed multiple times on the Amazon marketplace. Computers weren’t, at the time, able to do this task effectively, and by outsourcing this task to a pool of people able to work at their leisure, the company was able to avoid the costs and hassle associated with hiring and housing a new group of workers. But the real eureka moment came when Amazon realized that this service could be rolled out across the globe, creating the ability to send tasks far beyond Amazon’s direct employees, and out to the corners of the globe, to anyone with internet access. And it was this innovation which would lay the ground work for a multitude of others to take up this model and spread it across the economy.

The rise of the platform

Online platforms play an ever increasing role in our daily interactions. Facebook and its subsidiaries mediate our social lives, Amazon mediates how we shop, and so it was inevitable that platforms would begin to mediate how we access paid work. Simply put, a platform is any space which facilitates different groups and individuals to come together for a shared purpose. They’ve existed in the offline world for as long as we have, a market being the most obvious example. As enough of us have come to rely our phones and computers to shape how we access goods and services, platforms have moved online. Whilst you might not have ever heard of Amazon Mechanical Turk, you certainly have heard of another work platform – Uber.

Uber is a platform as opposed to a taxi company, in that it doesn’t officially ’employ’ a single driver, and instead positions itself as a technology to connect riders with a pool of self-employed micro-entrepreneurs. But whilst these two platforms share a number of similarities, the critical difference between the model of Uber, or say the food delivery service Deliveroo, is that if you want someone to give you a lift to the station, or bring you a pizza, they at least need to be in the same country as you. Whereas if you want someone to train an image recognition algorithm through labelling pictures of animals, it doesn’t matter if they live next door or a thousand miles away. By detaching work from geographic location, these platforms are leading to the emergence of planetary labour markets, creating a global pool of platform workers, spread from Lagos to Bangalore; Austin to Bogota, to which employers, largely in the global north, can submit work 24 hours a day. A pool of workers that the World Bank currently estimates to number at 48 million, on countless platform, completing work ranging from low skilled click work to high end design and programming.

In part this is the latest in a longstanding trend, where communication technology has been used to seek out those willing to work for the lowest price, starting in the late seventies with the telephone and the movement of work to Asia. But whilst technology has long allowed for work to be offshored to different areas of the world, the current trend in unique in that it is fracturing the process to the level of the individual. “What is new is the ability for buyers and sellers of labour power to transact almost instantly at a planetary scale.” Says Professor Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute. “We have had outsourcing to the South for decades in order to take advantage of cheap labour costs. However, with the rise of the platform economy what we have now is workers transacting with bosses on the other side of the planet rather than their immediate call center boss in Bangalore or Manila.”

“I have clients across a bunch of time zones so typically I wake up around 8, work on things for my west coast clients. Once my east coast clients wake up I’ll start chatting with them on what their needs are. Then I have a couple of clients in Australia so towards the end of the day I’ll start the deliverable for them,” says Ray, a data strategist who works on the freelancing platform Upwork. He makes a good wage, around $75 dollars an hour and the platform has given him a number of different long-term jobs. For him, the platform offers flexibility and the ability to access high wages from clients across the globe. For him, the platform works. It is this ability to access high wages from Northern employers which has caused many development organisations to cite platform work as a means to tackle the large scale youth unemployment experienced in many African, Middle Eastern and South East Asian countries. The World Bank recently called on governments to promote platform work through promotional campaigns and increasing the amount of infrastructure in place.

But Ray’s story gives only half the picture. Upwork commonly features jobs which pay low wages with intensive working hours and require workers to alter their sleeping schedules to accommodate clients in different time zones. Jobs are regularly posted which pay as little as $3 an hour, and that’s for those lucky enough to be able to take them. Because for most people, the hardest part is simply being able to access work. A 2018 paper found that on one platform, the number of people unsuccessfully searching for work outweighed those successfully finding work by a factor of nearly eight. So whilst 198,900 people were able to find work, 1,576,600 weren’t.

Accessing work is complicated further by the way that rating systems operate, making it hard for newcomers to get any work as a result of having no, or few positive ratings. This results in them taking on badly paid jobs, from dubious clients who are liable to refuse payment, just to try to get a foot on the ladder. Or in other cases, prominent workers with a large number of reviews become de-facto intermediaries of work, taking on more jobs than they can do themselves and subcontracting them out to other platform workers for a fraction of the wage.

The frictionless world of online labour markets, free from regulation and the grips of national governments is unleashing the full force of the free market, and causing workers across the globe to undersell themselves and undercut each other. They know, as do their employers, that there will always be someone else who will do it for less.

Fighting back

Working on AMT is akin to an online factory, characterized by menial and repetitive work with humans filling in where computers fall down, with wages averaging around $2 an hour. “It can be hard on the eyes, the wrists, and the back. In fact, it can be more detrimental to your health than you might expect”, one AMT worker, Fanugi, told me. The bulk of the work involves labelling images and text to create data sets used to train machine learning algorithms, or filling in surveys for researchers. Yet HITs range from the mundane to the creepy. Reddit forums document tasks where people are made to watch videos of animals being slaughtered, to answering moral quandaries about who they would hit in an inevitable car crash – presumably as a means to crowd-source the ethics within driverless cars. “My best experience would be a HIT I did that showed people attempting to do the Michael Jackson moonwalk. I had to rate how well they did on a scale from 1-10”, says Fanugi. Workers are normally kept in the dark about what the purpose of their tasks are, so what this would be used for is anyone’s guess.

Whilst workers are in constant competition for work, they take the time to communicate with each other. One Reddit forum is dedicated to workers sharing well paid jobs and has over 46 thousand subscribers, with new work posted constantly. Kristy Milland runs the AMT forum Turker Nation and explained to me that whilst, this might seem detrimental to the individual, “at the same time, they benefit because the entire group shares and that permits them to learn about work they wouldn’t have otherwise.  This give and take is what has built such a strong community.”

These forums also act as a meeting ground to come together, organise, campaign and argue for better working rights. One such example is the ‘Dear Jeff Bezos’ campaign, where workers wrote on mass to the Amazon’s CEO to highlight the problems associated with the platform, a campaign which was reported by news outlets around the world. Others have taken matters into their own hands and developed tools which allow workers to collaborate on the platform itself. The Turkopticon, for example, is a browser plug-in which allows workers to share reviews on which clients are good and bad, helping them to choose the best work. AMT workers are plagued by clients refusing payment, in fact refusing payment is as easy as paying someone. This point was only truly brought home to me after using the platform. The two buttons hang in front of you, equidistant; [Approve] [Reject]. Deny someone the money they earnt doing the work you asked them to do, or hold on to your precious two dollars. No recompense. No one will know nor judge. Your choice will be kept between you, your conscience, and your browser history.

Turkopticon aims to circumvent some of the structural inequalities built into the platform, by allowing workers to share information about which clients are likely to refuse work, helping to lessen some of the knowledge asymmetries which favor those supplying work over those doing it.

Organising platform workers has its difficulties. Building campaigns and collective bargaining is harder when your colleagues are spread across the planet, than if you share the same city, time zone and language. But the strong sense of community and solidarity amongst AMT workers shows that this is possible.

On the demand side, Mark Graham and his colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute are working to develop the Fairwork Foundation, an equivalent to the Fairtrade Foundation for platform work. “Workers have very little structural power in a context of the massive oversupply of labour in a planetary market. So what we want to do is co-create minimum standards for digital work. Standards where we can say that any work that doesn’t achieve those minimums should not be considered decent or fair.” The hope is that by creating a certification scheme, the companies and individuals using these services can be persuaded to use platforms that are providing fair pay and good working conditions, and mean that no matter how large the oversupply of labour grows, a minimum standard of work is ensured.

Whilst this may seem like a far off world, devoid from connection to your life – another sphere, in which an army of workers you’ve never met, complete work you’ve never used – this is unlikely to be the case. Whilst you may never have heard of AMT, Upwork, Clickwork, Freelancer or Crowdflower, you likely have heard of Google, Linkdin and Twitter, all services which have made use of online work platforms. Sunk beneath their interfaces is the labour from these invisible workers, working tirelessly from around the globe. Their fight is your fight and it has already begun.

The Fairwork Foundation are currently looking for volunteers to help in the running of the project. If you’re interested in finding out more please email mark.graham@oii.ox.ac.uk

You help them develop their standards of fair work by completing their short survey