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Dawn of the Digital Sweatshop

All over the world, workers are paid pennies to do menial online tasks in a largely unregulated, multimillion-dollar industry. Welcome to the Internet's factory floor.

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On the eleventh floor of an office building in downtown Berkeley, a few UC Berkeley School of Information alumni think they may have found a different way. MobileWorks isn't, according to Kulkarni, the anti-Turk— it's more like Turk 2.0. Kulkarni and his cofounders are mostly computer scientists by training, and they're big believers in both the promise and the inevitability of crowdsourced work — they just think it can be better. "Turk was a great idea, but it was a nightmare to use," explained Kulkarni — from both sides of the equation.

"Obviously, from the perspective of the workers, folks would be working for hours at a time just to make a few cents," he said. A couple years ago, Kulkarni himself went on Turk, just to see how long it would take him to earn a dollar. It took more than an hour. "It was incredibly painful," he said. "It's so difficult to earn a living wage."

The irony is that requesters aren't even necessarily getting what they want out of it either. "You'd get right answers sometimes, wrong answers sometimes, and you'd never know if your results would get completed," said Kulkarni. Part of the problem with paying people so little — and doing so in a completely anonymous, decentralized system — is that people have a huge financial incentive to game the system by filling in fake answers. Chirag Ahuja, the inbound marketing director for a company called TranscribeMe, said that the inaccuracy and slow turnaround time associated with Turk eventually made his company move away from the service. "Accuracy was good about 70 percent of time. The [other] 30 percent was spam," Ahuja wrote in an email. "Workers were submitting spam and expecting to get paid."

But Kulkarni and his co-workers think they've found a solution to that, and it's a simple one: "We believe that as soon as you're paying people a fair living wage, they don't need to cheat the responses," he said. "They're just a lot less likely to scam the system." MobileWorks isn't a charity, like Samasource, which means it's intended to work within the system, rather than alongside it. Employees work from mobile phones and cheap laptops; the majority of them are women, and all of them are based in the developing world. They get paid roughly twice as much as Turkers do, according to the company.

As Irani and others have pointed out, relegating crowdsourcing to other parts of the world isn't as easy as it sounds, and it isn't an automatic absolution. The cost of living in Pakistan may be much lower than it is here, but it's not free, and low wages are still low wages. Furthermore, relying on organizational apparatuses in far-flung countries with divergent regulatory practices can open a company up to all kinds of abuses. And finally, there's the question of sustainability. "One of the big questions is, is this a viable career trajectory?" asked Parikh. "Will people be able to make careers out of crowdsourced work?" Parikh has acted as an adviser to Kulkarni and his cofounders, and he believes MobileWorks and others like it are a start.

Like many in the field, Kulkarni and Parikh take it as a given that the microtasking industry will only increase in scope and size. And in a weird way, the very things that make it so scary — its ubiquity, its efficiency — may be what prompt a shift in the field. After all, it may not be long before microtasking isn't just relegated to the developing world and pockets of out-of-work Americans, but to all of us. Crowdsourcing, broadly defined, has already spread to more skilled labor sectors, like computer programming, writing, and web design, and Kulkarni — as well as most of the people I spoke to — assumes that trend will continue. "If we're going to be working in a crowd-sourcing platform ourselves, are we sure that these platforms are giving us the kinds of opportunities that we're giving ourselves and our children?" At this point, it seems, the question shouldn't be whether crowdsourcing should be done but rather how it should be done.

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