Friday, April 6, 2012

Young Mechanical Turks

I have seen the future and it's mechanical.

Amazon Mechanical Turk to be precise. In the future there will no longer be jobs - never mind careers - instead there will be Human Intelligence Tasks: HITs for short. I registered as a Mechanical Turk Worker to see what 'work' - or HITs - is available. For example, I can earn $4.75 for writing a 250-300 word article. Or I could translate 10 words from Amharic into English for $0.15. Most HITs pay closer to the latter than the former, by the way.

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a leading example of the Freelance Future I blogged about recently. Another is Demand Media - or the 'answer factory' as Wired called them. Demand Media have applied the HIT model to the creation of content. Again, no jobs - just 'Human Creativity Tasks'.

There are several key drivers of the HIT future:

  • The economy: with fewer jobs around (and there'll be fewer before there are more again) then the supply of willing Mechanical Turk Workers will expand enormously in the years ahead.
  • The workforce: more people with more qualifications means more people who work with their brains rather than their brawn, perfect for human intelligence tasks.
  • Technology: you can now set up and operate a business serving a global marketplace from your kitchen, and you don't need to employ anybody. Just become a Mechanical Turk Requester and wait for the queue to form of bright young (and not so young) things willing to work for you and, as it says on the website, you 'pay only when you're satisfied with the results'.

On the last point, The Futures Company have published a fascinating report on the future of work which notes that:
Over the next ten years, it will become easier to tell what employees are doing, but harder to tell them what to do, as the four horsemen of data, devices, screens and sensors enable greater monitoring of the workforce. It will be possible for a postal delivery company to track the movement and behavior of one of their drivers to anticipate when she should (or shouldn’t) be taking a break; it may even be possible to watch employees through their screens using bio-directional screens that integrate depth and position detecting cameras with displays.  
There could be productivity gains from pervasive surveillance which are of mutual benefit to employees and employers, for example remote supervision, or ‘spellchecker’ like devices which give feedback on task completion and performance.
If you think that all sounds a bit creepy, then what about employers demanding the Facebook passwords of prospective employees to see just what sort of people they really are?

Perhaps it is no wonder that today's youth are putting making money and being famous ahead of 'meaning' in terms of their life ambitions, as illustrated below:

Faced with a future of unprecedented uncertainty we should not be surprised. In a world of Mechanical Turk Workers there will be every incentive to stand out - to win the HITs - and eventually to step off, once you've piled up sufficient financial resources. Assuming you can.

Though right now the future belongs to the Requesters.


  1. So apparently the only future we can look forward to is life as a hi-tech 'coolie'. Truly appalling.

  2. It looks that way Hugh. Though quite what the lo-tech workers will do is anyone's guess.

  3. Do you agree with the depiction of future of work as described in Lynda Gratton's book "The Shift: The future of work is already here".

    Presumably the website "Coffee&Power" is another example of this type of trend as well as

  4. I haven't read Lynda's book - other than scanning the 'look inside' sampler on Amazon.

    I love the idea that we could all become 'impassioned producers' but I think it is naive. Firstly, a lot of people see work as a means to an end: either money to have fun with, or money to pay their bills/raise their children with. They don't go to work to be fulfilled.

    Secondly, her future vignettes (which appear well written) assume a world of economic growth (driven by the BRICs) coupled with technological innovation. Against that background you can imagine all manner of new ways of working, opportunities to earn etc. Bigger cake, new divisions.

    But what if the cake doesn't grow? Or shrinks thanks to the imploding legacy of financialisation? Then we're in the world of Amazon Mechanical Turk, living as hi-tech coolies, to use Hugh's analogy.

    Sadly a lot darker than what Lynda envisages.

  5. I began using mTurk this week and I have yet to see a HIT offering $4 for writing anything. In fact, there are many writing and transcribing hits, but they pay less than a dollar for an hour's work.

    People who speak and write English, but live in a poor country, are the ones who will truly have something to gain.

    I went to public school in America, and that is why I can only find work making less than a dollar an hour.

    Market Forces hate people.


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