Tag-Archive for » free market «

Tweaking Technocapitalism: Turkopticon

I’ve posted about Turkopticon here before. Well, it’s up, it has undergone a rev, and it has some users we don’t know who seem to like us. I wanted to talk a little bit about what is at stake in it.

For a long time, I’ve been thining about infrastructure and technology design and, in particular, how certain designs (in certain contexts) end up giving certain people the crap end of the stick. As of late, my friend Six and I have been spending our spare nerd cycles on a particular case of this: Amazon Mechanical Turk, which lets workers do cognitive piecework usually averaging a dollar or two an hour. The low wages, the lack of health protections in a “work environment” (the computer) that has caused my arms and wrists much pain over the years, and the exuberant excitement many have for getting the faceless “crowd” to do work so cheaply were my initial cause for concern. As I started to survey Turk workers about their experiences, workers reported little protection from employers who don’t pay and low wages as big problems. I heard from workers who did Turk after their main jobs to make food and rent when gas prices were high. While I don’t have the power to regulate AMT or radically shift market dynamics at the moment, Six and I put our heads to the first problem of employers who take people’s work and then don’t pay.

So we made Turkopticon, a Firefox extension workers can use to access ratings and commentary of employers/requesters as they browse for HITs (“human intelligence tasks” and an unfortunate acronym). Turkopticon isn’t revolution — it’s not going to fix the fact that jobs are increasingly contingent, that health care costs are insane, and people have fewer good choices about how to make their livelihoods. But it’s a start at drawing attention to an information imbalance that has been letting some requesters abuse people. It’s something that can make us ask why Amazon didn’t design these informational safeguards in to begin with. And lest we think the traditional lines of employer v worker are simply drawn, Dolores Labs provided critical support and feedback. We started off as an empty database asking workers to install our extension, but there wasn’t much for workers to see. Dolores Labs put up a survey for us and got a hundred or so reviews of requesters that formed the seed of the database, motivated in part by their desire to resist Turk being spoiled by crappy employers. (I’ll probably post most about this in future posts.)

Is it just about Mechanical Turk for me? Not really. I see AMT as an dystopian extreme case of a the increasingly contingent, low paid labor I’ve been seeing creeping up for years.

Jobs aren’t a great way to make a living these days. A few trends that disturb me. The practice of hiring temp workers on a mostly permanent basis so that they can be denied health benefits and other perks took Microsoft to court and even got its own neologism: permatemps. The largest employer in 2/3 of US states, Walmart, pays barely enough for a full-timer to make ends meet, claiming to only provide “supplemental income.” About half of a those filing for bankruptcy in a 2005 study cited medical debts as a main cause [pdf source]. Livelihoods are precarious for a lot of hard working people.

People frequently argue that those working for these low wages have a choice. As one person I corresponded with explained, “I realize I have a choice to work or not work on AMT, but that means I would also not need to make the choice to eat or not eat, pay bills or not pay bills, etc.” The thing we need to worry about is not only what choices people make, but what choices people have. Not all jobs are available everywhere. Not all people are equally able to move. Not everyone can afford a solid educational foundation. Not everyone even gets their knowledge and wisdom equally recognized and respected. People do have choices, but some have more choices than others.

Turkopticon is just a little Firefox extension, but for Six and I, it’s also forcing us to think about a lot of issues in labor and politics that we just don’t know enough about, but which have consequences around us every day.

Thanks to Dolores Labs, the 67 turkers who shared their experiences, and those who have been using Turkopticon and reviewing already.

Almost 40% of American women are sexually sick. Please help us.

According to the Washington Post story, research at Harvard Med School funded by a pharma company that makes drugs for female “sexual dysfunction” finds that “Forty percent of patients have sexual concerns, and 12 percent have enough of a concern that it’s a significant dysfunction in life. This needs to be addressed.” And it needs to be addressed with drugs and by medicalizing sexuality. Fuckin’ brilliant.

The survey included “problems” like “diminished sexual desire.” Um, why is not wanting to have sex as often as cosmo seems to indicate you should or maybe even your partner thinks you should your problem that you should fix by pathologizing your body?

This topic of medicalized sexuality has probably been touched on a lot in queer history, at least, but I feel like some sort of historical and anthropological intervention to place sexuality, sickness, sexual citizenship, medicine, and capital in their proper relations.

What is the haiku author? Adventures with Mechanical Turk

I’ve been making some excursions into the land of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where many thousands of anonymous workers with IDs like A30K1ZD4E07JX do cognitive piecework (“Human Intelligence Tasks”) for several cents a “HIT,” making what amounts to a dollar or two an hour. Mechanical Turk once instance of crowdsourcing, getting things done by employing the often low-paid enthusiasms of large crowds.

I’ll write more about the labor politics of Mechanical Turk later. I’m still exploring that. But one of my explorations in qualitative engagement with people I can’t meet has been documented on a blog I created Haiku Turk. I put up calls for a penny, ten cents, and fifty cents and asked people for a haiku. I wanted a parsimonious, fun way to make a human connection through the anonymizing web interface. In the last batch, I decided to intervene in the anonymity by offering people the opportunity to list their IDs and pick a nom d’plume.

Some of the strangely delightful haikus submitted include:

McCain picked Palin
Palin is not good for us
McCain, do not die [permalink]

graveyard shift provides
rare opportunities for
paid masturbation [permalink]

To learn more about the conditions of working in Mechanical Turk, you can check out my other engagement, Turk Work: Bills of Rights. It’s not very synthesized, but it’s there to wander through to hear different workers’ ambivalences. Unscrupulous work requesters who won’t pay up are a huge complaint, as is the very low pay. But some also value the flexibility of at-home, variable time labor they can do as a form of play or extra cash whenever they have the time.

I am plotting an intervention. More news on that later.

beta-testing on a grand scale

About a week ago, I heard a radio commentator whose beat is the stock market exclaim, “The market is broken!” What struck me about this is that nearly all such market commentators, whether on NPR or Fox, are free marketeers who at most pay lip service to what one might call ‘regulation lite’. So I found myself wondering in what possible sense could the present crisis be construed to mean that the free market is broken? On the contrary, isn’t this a classic example of a (substantially) free market working… freely? Notably, the mess around credit default swaps and other new derivatives has happened in precisely the least regulated areas of the market. I’m no economist myself, but I have to wonder what it means when something that operates as it’s supposed to is nonetheless taken to be broken, not by its critics but by its adherents. For one thing, it suggests that a good many people who argue for free markets actually don’t understand the concept (taking the promise of good outcomes on faith, an economic religion) or engage in self-deception, preferring to look only at the upside. I suspect that either position–the faith or the self-deception–is enabled by belonging to the safer zones of the middle class and becomes harder to sustain the closer you get to the economic margins.

Speaking of credit default swaps, it occurs to me that the slew of such financial instruments being invented over the last decade constitutes a new technology of money, and that what the banks that promulgated them have been doing is beta-testing them on us. Forced, de facto beta-testing is nothing new (think Microsoft Vista), but I wonder if one consequence of the computer era is that we have internalized the idea that such beta-testing of new technologies without consent of the testees is socially acceptable. If Microsoft can do it to its user base, AIG can do it to, in effect, everyone. Bioengineering is another obvious example of a field in which citizens have been beta-tested (through their food) without prior consent. To put it another way, free market capitalism normalizes large-scale beta-testing as as an opt-out rather than an opt-in system–but without any easy way to opt out.

We’ve had several hundred years of beta-testing free market capitalism. I hereby volunteer as a beta-tester for a true American social democracy.