Online Labor, On-Demand

Online Labor, On-Demand

"The Turkish Chess Player." Copper engraving from the book: Karl Gottlieb von Windisch, Briefe über den Schachspieler des Hrn. von Kempelen, nebst drei Kupferstichen die diese berühmte Maschine vorstellen. 1783. Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This Tech Tuesday, the University of Maryland's Ben Bederson joins us to explore some of the complexities involved on both sides of on-demand online labor.

"The Turkish Chess Player." Copper engraving from the book: Karl Gottlieb von Windisch, Briefe über den Schachspieler des Hrn. von Kempelen, nebst drei Kupferstichen die diese berühmte Maschine vorstellen. 1783. Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This Tech Tuesday, the University of Maryland's Ben Bederson joins us to explore some of the complexities involved on both sides of on-demand online labor.

Sites like Amazon's Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower.com are forums where people looking to fulfill web tasks that can't be completely automated - like a more detailed, nuanced language translation or certain ranking tasks, for example - can find workers to take them on for very low rates of pay, usually around $2.00 per hour.

But these online marketplaces give rise to a wide range of ethical questions about exploitation, fair wages, and concerns about outsourcing and job supply. Bederson says that although Amazon doesn't post data on where Mechanical Turk workers are based, we know that most of them are from India. The three things an individual would need to be able to take on these kinds of tasks are a fast Internet connection, English language skills, and a willingness to work for small wages.

Ahead of our show, Bederson posted a few tasks on Mechanical Turk to see what kind of responses we might get, and since Valentine's Day is almost upon us some of the responses he got to his query, "How would you express the idea 'I love you' without words?" seemed appropriate. 

The responses ranged from the simple: "Hold hands..." 

To the elaborate: "Wake her with breakfast in bed, draw her a bubble bath with candle light around the tub (throw in her current favorite book for good measure), surprise her with a maid for a month, prepare (or buy) a gourmet meal with candle light at home, clean her vehicle and leave a rose on the seat, present her with tickets to a show or concert she wants to see and when she arrives have the doorman present her with a box of chocolates, put out chocolate candies that she has to follow (the last chocolate is ontop of a box holding (gold) jewelry, hire someone to play her favorite love song and serenade her,  then there is the usual...1 dozen of long stem roses with a huge box of chocolates..."

To the very specific: "I would clean/polish his shoes.  Many men don't worry about how their shoes look so they can use a cleaning/polishing.  This is dirty work that takes some effort and eye to detail, but yields beautiful shoes.  They would be noticed and my work appreciated..."

And we'd like to think that all of them prove you can sometimes find little moments of poetry even in unlikely corners of the web.

hold

The Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.