Mechanical Turk is the innovation behind “crowdworking,” the low-wage virtual labor phenomenon that has reinvented piecework for the digital age. Created by Amazon in 2005, it remains one of the central platforms—markets, really—where crowd-based labor is bought and sold. As many as 500,000 “crowdworkers” power the Mechanical Turk machine, while millions more (no one knows how many exactly) fuel competitor sites like CrowdFlower, Clickworker, CloudCrowd and dozens of smaller ones. On any given day, at any given minute, these workers perform millions of tiny tasks for companies both vast (think Twitter) and humble. Though few of these people have any sense of their finished work product, what they’re doing is helping to power the parts of the Internet that most of us take for granted.
Crowdworking is often hailed by its boosters as ushering in a new age of work. With the zeal of high-tech preachers, they cast it as a space in which individualism, choice and self-determination flourish. “CrowdFlower, and others in the crowdsourcing industry, are bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before, and we operate in a truly egalitarian fashion, where anyone who wants to can do microtasks, no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them,” asserts Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, in an e-mail exchange. (CrowdFlower claims to have “among the largest, if not the largest, crowd” available, with roughly 100,000 workers completing tasks on any given day.)
But if you happen to be a low-end worker doing the Internet’s grunt work, a different vision arises. According to critics, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk may have created the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed. Inside the machine, there is an overabundance of labor, extreme competition among workers, monotonous and repetitive work, exceedingly low pay and a great deal of scamming. In this virtual world, the disparities of power in employment relationships are magnified many times over, and the New Deal may as well have never happened.