John Terrill, workplace ethics, Amazon, mechanical Turk, microwork

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The Mechanical Turk Is Not Content

How microwork sites can dehumanize workers — and what to do about it.

The bust of a man, adorned in Turkish clothing, sat atop a mechanical box, and in the late 18th century, “he” was the world’s best chess player. The mechanical Turk, as the creation was called, was an automated chess-player, made by Hungarian inventor Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen and commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The automated man was said to be able to strategize, play, and defeat using its own calculations. Certainly the first of its kind, it baffled opponents for decades. 

But such an advanced mechanism wasn’t quite possible yet in the late 1700s, and the automated chess master proved to be a hoax — but a hoax that fooled onlookers and great chess players alike. The box upon which the chess game sat, the Turk’s “table,” was eventually revealed to be an intricate contraption concealing a human chess master within its structure. 

Even the most advanced tech needs a little work behind the scenes. But what dignity is the invisible chess master given?

The end of work as we know it?

Social theorist Jeremy Rifkin predicted in 1996 that the world would eventually split into two classes of workers — the information and technological elite who oversee the global economy and the economically displaced who suffer diminished opportunities in an increasingly automated world. In Rifkin’s view, after hundreds of years of valuing humanity in economic terms, the loss of traditional human labor would leave “the mass worker without self-definition or societal function.” Rifkin warned about this nearly 30 years ago — so too do contemporary experts: According to McKinsey & Company, up to 14 percent of the global workforce will need to switch jobs by 2030 due to automation and artificial intelligence. 

But not everyone sees the future this way. Author Phil Jones, presents a different, though no less dour view, suggesting that automation’s elimination of jobs is a red herring. Rather than wholesale removal, the service sector is evolving into gig-related crowdwork, where people “working on and alongside the algorithm” is increasingly the norm. Crowdsourced work evolved from outsourced work, which took its earliest form in call centers dating back to the 1950s. As high-tech firms grew in scale and their technological sophistication increased — including digital platform companies that have leveraged the internet to connect people for commercial and social purposes — microwork filled the gap. This is where Mechanical Turk enters the story. 

What is microwork?

Microwork is a relatively new development, and though it sounds similar, it’s notably different from that of outsourced work or work by independent contractors. It is characterized by small, discrete tasks carried out by an online and decentralized workforce. Microworkers function in a variety of roles, but most train algorithms to think better. Examples vary from identifying and categorizing images captured onboard autonomous vehicles for better navigation, to improving voice recognition by training chatbots to better identify words and grammar. Their work tends to increase the “intelligence” of machines.

One might expect these jobs to be stable and offer good pay, but the reality is just the opposite. Microworkers scramble on a variety of digital platforms to complete tasks that may last for only a few minutes. They’re paid on a piece-rate basis and are not ensured protections granted to traditional employees or spelled out in independent contractor relationships. As Jones notes, “Behind the search engines, apps, and smart devices stand workers, often those banished to the margins of our global system, who for lack of other options are forced to clean data and oversee algorithms for little more than a few cents.”

Here’s how the system works: Microwork sites (Appen, Clickworker, Toloka, Sama, Scale, Upshift, to name a few), of which Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is the most prominent player, invite companies to prune large tasks into small pieces that are completed by a virtual workforce. Many of the requesting companies on MTurk need human intelligence to clean and train their data. Under this arrangement, participating companies, known as requesters, post their human intelligence tasks (HITs) to MTurk, which are displayed instantly to up to a half-million workers — Turkers, in Amazon lingo — who are spread around the world and compete for jobs. Some Turkers participate for supplemental income, and others depend on microwork for their livelihood.

The modern-day Mechanical Turk was created in 2001 by Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, who sought to solve an internal problem: The company’s algorithms were failing to detect duplicate product listings. To correct the issue, Bezos orchestrated a hybrid human-computer solution to clean up the mess. As the economy matured, Bezos saw a market opportunity, formally launching (the aptly named) MTurk in 2005.

Microwork and its discontents

The uses of MTurk and its peer platforms vary, from simple data validation to content moderation to survey participation. And there are advantages to using the system — for both workers and requesters. The World Bank has touted microwork as an engine for job and wealth creation. Microworkers around the globe can earn significantly more than two dollars per day, the World Bank’s international poverty line, below which 700 million people live. 

Despite its potential to serve the common good, microwork has failed many workers who’ve sought stability in its promises. Among the challenges of taking on microwork, three have proved particularly widespread and complicated to overcome: unfair pay practices, a lack of employee empowerment and support, and the absence of meaningful work.

Unfair pay. Jones, along with others, sharply critiques MTurk’s platform: “In the hour it takes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to make $13 million, a refugee earns mere cents teaching his algorithms to spot a car.” Companies utilizing microwork platforms seek flexibility and agility, avoiding formal employment. There’s nothing inherently immoral about this arrangement. But unfortunately, at times, companies abuse the lack of protections, forcing workers to take payment in gift cards or other remuneration forms with little value in certain parts of the world, or rejecting work for nefarious reasons — both of which equate to wage theft. Companies may also advertise microtasks to take less time than they actually require. These practices hurt microworkers, with the latter making it hard for workers to quit a task once started unless they’re willing to forfeit pay.

As Christians participating in the economy and the marketplace, we must not turn a blind eye to these business practices. The Bible speaks clearly to those who impose unfair pay, and in the strongest terms prohibits holding back wages rightly earned. The author of Leviticus warns, “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (Lev 19:13). Lest one think this is only an Old Testament injunction, James warns, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4).

Lack of support. Microwork diminishes the image-bearing capacity of individuals when it intentionally mutes workers’ voices. This occurs in three ways. First, microwork sites remain anonymous and amorphous places that lack community, connection, and meaning. Jones builds on this idea of place and work in his critique of the system, comparing work in the early industrialization period to the crowdsourced workplaces today, “In a 19th-century textile workshop, a certain amount of reliability regarding who pays the wages, as well as where and when, meant that workers could at least identify a thief.” By contrast, microworkers who go unpaid may be unable to find any person to whom they might appeal. 

Because of this structure, the microwork system is extremely impersonal when it comes to reporting issues and solving problems. The rating systems employed by microwork platforms favor the requesters, not the workers. When new to a platform, workers have no reputation, even though they may have an exceptional record on another platform. Unlike workers in other settings, a good reputation often goes unrewarded. According to scholar Jamie Woodcock, “This means that workers have to grind through low-paid — and more frequently unpaid — work to develop a reputation through ratings from requesters.” And when disputes between requesters and workers occur, the hosting platforms often remain neutral to uphold their standing as unbiased intermediaries. Workers have little to no recourse. 

There’s a reason lack of empowerment is so problematic. Dignity is given to workers when they are acknowledged, when they feel belonging and the ability to advocate for themselves. The common Hebrew word for place, maqom, appears throughout the Bible and communicates a sense of purpose, relationship, and belonging. It’s the word spoken to Moses when God’s glory burns in and through a bush on Mount Horeb. “Remove the sandals from your feet,” God declares, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). A sense of purpose, relationship, and belonging is sacred. And Paul’s warning to the church at Corinth is also instructive here. Leaders should not be people of “hot air” or “mere talk” but rather men and women who invite an “empowered life” (1 Cor 19-20). Giving voice to people is not just good practice but a biblical injunction.

In an attempt to level the playing field, Turkers have created Turkoptican, a plug-in that allows workers to evaluate requesters and publish results. But microwork sites often reinforce these issues by blocking community efforts like Turkoptican — site operators should instead aid workers in achieving a collective voice.

The absence of meaningful work. Finally, microwork sites can create a digital version of the dehumanizing work conditions realized during segments of our nation’s rapid industrialization. Unjust work is often rote with little or no opportunity for creative expression or career advancement. Microwork can fall into this trap, constricting “the aperture of knowledge to a tiny sliver of light, divesting workers of the capacity to know what they are doing and to what end,” Jones says. A textile worker in Manilla, for example, knows they are making a garment; a worker on a microwork platform may have no idea for what or for whom they are working. As Jones notes, microwork can be spread so thinly across dissimilar tasks that it leads to “occupation negation,” meaning workers don’t develop any occupational strengths. Though a worker can become a jack of all trades, they become an expert in nothing, and over time, this hurts their ability to contribute in meaningful ways. This impedes the cultural and stewardship mandate of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15.

Making microwork good

In 1956, Daniel Bell, abor itor at Fortune Magazine, criticized “the cult of efficiency in America,” railing against the dehumanizing time-motion studies that transformed factory work in the late  and early 20 centuries. Microwork — full of promise for millions around the globe who might otherwise not have access to good work — is equally rife with peril. The currents of a giglabor economy will not necessarily flow in the direction of fair pay, worker empowerment, and meaningful work. Nor will it naturally lead to a sense of place and belonging that is integral to human meaning-making and societal flourishing.

As more jobs are automated and crowdsourced in support of machine learning, it’s incumbent that leaders take responsibility for creating equitable working conditions. Failing to do so damages the image of God in others and mars God’s image in the one called to serve and steward God’s creation.

Microwork, at its best, can lift people out of poverty by distributing work efficiently across geographic borders. But at its worst, as Alana Samuels explained in The Atlantic back in 2018, microwork can create a “new type of terrible work” characterized by “mind-numbing tasks” with little vision for career development or advancement, and in its most common manifestations, can impoverish the soul.

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