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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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"I don't think the people who are running Mechanical Turk are terrible people," said Silberman. "But I can go up and say that the fact that people get paid $1.50 an hour to do these tasks and Amazon is getting all this press in Silicon Valley for creating it is wrong, and they'll say, 'Would you rather they not get paid at all?'" The consensus about it is, "there's not anything we can do." In a society and, especially, a sector where the market is king, Silberman said, "There's no one asking how we got to this state of affairs where two parties will engage quote-unquote 'freely' in a transaction but one is getting a lot more out of it."

While some like Parikh and Kulkarni are beginning to question microtasking, it remains to be seen whether tech companies will address these issues. One thing looks to be clear: This is still a developing field, and there are questions to be asked.

"There are surprisingly few conversations about ethics happening around here," said one employee of a local tech company that works with crowdsourced labor. "You'd be shocked."

If microtasking could be said to have a celebrity spokesman, it would probably be Lukas Biewald. Young, attractive, and charismatic, Biewald's something of a Silicon Valley dream: He's got a quick smile, perpetually mussed hair — and an armful of patents to his name. He's equally at home sitting on panels at SXSW as he is behind a computer, programming, and he's increasingly become the spokesperson for a movement that has few of them — not for nothing did one of my sources describe him as "a sound-bite machine."

Biewald talks about this stuff with the ease of someone who is either strongly invested in what he's doing or is used to defending himself — or, perhaps most accurately, both. "Nobody's getting tricked here," he said. "It's very, very clear what's going on with this kind of work. And it's really hard to coerce people to do something through a computer screen. People are choosing to do this." His microtasking company, CrowdFlower, conducts worker-satisfaction studies regularly, he said — "and we constantly find that over 90 percent of them are satisfied with what they're doing."

Rob has never worked for CrowdFlower but he generally agrees. "It was my choice whether or not to do it," he said. "If I felt like I was being exploited, I wouldn't do it."

The counterargument to that is, of course, that a job doesn't need to be involuntary to be exploitative, but Biewald has a bigger point. "I find it interesting that the people who complain" — meaning, mostly, academics, activists, and tech-industry observers — "are not the workers," Biewald said. "And the workers would actually be pretty pissed off if the people complaining were successful."

That's perhaps what's most unsettling about all of this: The workers aren't complaining — at least not publicly. If they did, it'd be easier for lawyers like Felstiner to regulate; easier for labor activists like Jones to decry; easier for all of us to wrap our heads around. If it's hard to understand that people across the world and in our own backyards are doing this kind of labor for these kinds of wages, it's even harder to understand why many of them don't seem to mind. In the same way that physical sweatshops have made strange bedfellows out of human-rights experts like Nicholas Kristof, who has argued that factory jobs are better than some of the lower-paying alternatives, and the companies who run said factories, so, too, do digital sweatshops. The truth is, in a stratified world, exploitation is relative, and what's appalling to progressive-minded Americans may be a godsend for people in developing nations.

That’s the point you’re most likely to hear from requesters: Both Franceschine, the game developer, and Grunstra, the potential mover, brought it up almost immediately when I asked them if they had any moral qualms with using Turk. And at the same time, Samasource, a nonprofit that brings crowdsourcing and other computer jobs to people living in poverty, has furthered the idea of crowdsourcing as a social good, or at least a more productive kind of charity: On its homepage, overlaid over a picture of two smiling Southeast Asian women, neat font implores visitors to "save your business time and money while doing good."

It's an attractive narrative, to be sure, but it's not so simple. As Irani pointed out, only certain segments of the population can participate in crowdsourced labor since it requires English-language skills, a computer (or, in some cases, a mobile phone), an Internet connection, and enough Western-cultural capital to be able to say, for example, what the difference between a sneaker and a dress shoe is. "Whenever people talk about Amazon Mechanical Turk, they'll say that Americans do this for fun and poor people in the Third World do this because it's a good salary," said Irani. "And both of these things are meant to stop questions about what the actual working conditions of actual people are."


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