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Capitalism’s Brave New World

We have seen the future, and it microtasks

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Tired of journalism’s glamour and prestige, I decided to take a second job last week. I went to Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk website—a sort of virtual job fair matching thousands of businesses and online workers—and got a microtasking gig. It didn’t take long. I filled out a few forms, proved I was a live, human being with a functional email address, and Amazon put me to work. My first assignment was for an employer called “CrowdSource” and the task was to type a provided search term into Google, click on the first result, and copy that page’s URL into my work page.

Microtasking

David Clark

I have no idea what function this job could possibly serve, except to help someone game, or learn to game, the Google search algorithm. But I wasn’t getting paid to think. I was paid to type, click, copy, and paste. I completed eight of these microtasks in less than two minutes. I was paid 16 cents. Or rather, I will be paid 16 cents at some later date—provided that CrowdSource turns out to be a legitimate operation that pays its bills. Which, in the world of microtasking, is not a guarantee.

Welcome to the digital economy.

There is a certain view of economics that regards Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as both a utopian scheme and a vision of the future. Free-marketers and libertarians will be awed by the spectacle of an untrammeled labor market: A cavalcade of employers make available a wide variety of work. The jobs and compensation are exhaustively defined. A multitude of laborers examine this menu and decide which jobs appeal to them and whether the compensation is adequate. No one is forced to take a job he doesn’t like. No one gets tricked into a job he didn’t sign up for. In the world of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, there is no employment discrimination, none of the inefficiency and unfairness produced by credentialing regimes, and no workplace politics. Work is reduced to its purest components and as a result, opportunities for both employers and employees are increased. If you were sketching a graph of social utility, the Mechanical Turk sends a line asymptotically to the ceiling.

The only people who aren’t down with the Turk are the kind of bleeding-hearts who think that 16-cent jobs are a violation of human rights and that nonunionized workforces are herds of cattle marching across the grated steel floor of the corporate rendering plant—the complaints typically following the Occupy Wall Street line about serfdom and income inequality.

The hippies are wrong in the particulars. But they still may be on to something. Because while it’s true that the new world of anonymous, mass, remote freelancing may be a perfect distillation of a textbook labor market, it’s also a radical change in Americans’ understanding of the social compact between business and the citizenry. And it’s not clear that this change is for the good.

It’s worth appreciating the breadth of the change microtasking represents. It breaks up jobs into astonishingly small tasks—a job might take a minute, an hour, or a day. Imagine an assembly line that can be de-constructed and dispersed so that, instead of having to clock in for an eight-hour shift, workers can be paid by the piece. They show up to the line and do as much, or as little, work as they like. Yet because the line is decentralized over a large network of potential employees, it always runs smoothly.

Microtasking also obliterates geography—you can work from a bar in midtown Manhattan, a basement in Montana, or a brothel in Manila. And it wipes out the entire universe of credentials and gatekeeping. Gone are wasted years at Big State and master’s degrees in Lesbian Poets of West Africa. The Mechanical Turk makes jobs available to anyone willing to work.

The implications of such a job market are far-reaching. Imagine what instant access to an abundant supply of jobs could do for, say, the rural poor in Alabama. Whereas today escape from poverty requires some social skills, some education, and mobility, with the Mechanical Turk it requires only a computer with Internet access.

Flip the telescope around and you can see that it opens up worlds for business, too. Microtasking allows even relatively small businesses to scale a workforce up or down as needed. A startup company in Seattle with 3 employees can hire 1,000 people for an afternoon of work on a big task—at a moment’s notice. Then, when the job is done, it can instantly downsize.

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