Should you be afraid of the Mechanical Turk?

By April 3, 2013Writing about Writing

Imagine that your workday goes something like this: you get out of bed, queue up your computer or handheld device, and set to work on your Human Intelligence Tasks for the day.  No, this isn’t a scene from 1984.  This is what thousands of workers do every day over Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, which connects a “global, on-demand, 24 x 7 work force” (translation: regular people with nothing better to do) to employers in need of assistance with projects, euphemistically termed “Human Intelligence Tasks,” or HITs.

You might be asking yourself, what’s with the weird, Orwellian acronym?  A simple word like “jobs” saves just as much space as HITs, but that’s the point.  HITs are not jobs.  If you browse the hundreds of thousands of jobs, the first thing you notice is how remarkably small the compensation is.  In many cases an hour’s worth of work will earn you a less than a dollar, so it’s clear that the “requesters” are after the cheapest labor they can find around the world.

Obviously, this is disturbing to anybody who works in the digital media field (full disclosure: I’m one of them).  If you stretch something like the Mechanical Turk to it’s logical conclusion, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that in a few years this is how any industry could look, so long as it involves work that can be performed remotely, over the web, mediated by technology.  I’m looking at you, writers.

But truly, this is the exact phenomenon that Thomas Friedman described in a recent column for the New York Times:

“[T]here is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation. Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever.”

The trick for young people today, says Friedman, is to be “‘innovation ready’ — ready to add value to whatever they do.”  In other words, if you’re worried about the Mechanical Turk, then do your utmost to be irreplaceable.  There’s the added comfort that no employer is going to get very far, or even draw any particular talent, for offering a paltry $0.75 per HIT.