Mechanical Turk and the ENIAC Girls

Amazon’s ‘Humans as a Service’ model in Mechanical Turk represents a return to the origins of computing (as described by Light), rather than an innovative new form of labor.

Both 21st-century Turkers and the women of early computing are treated as infrastructure, as they were incorporated into existing practices and “worked through” (Irani 732), rather than as human laborers. Irani also cites the reification of early-computing gender relations (733), as a component of Mechanical Turk, which I find to be a suspect argument. Rather than believe that MTurk is representative of the “man-machine loop” and the socio-cultural influence of gender within the United States (despite the fact that women are more likely to be Turkers than men), I believe that it is more a symptom of capitalism, and the removal of the laborer from the product of their labor.

Irani states “Like ‘cloud computing’ services more generally, AMT offered immediate, on-demand provisioning of computational power accessible through computer code. In this case, however, the computational power was human.” (721) Here, there is a clear parallel to the “ENIAC girls” described by Light, as they were first calculating ballistic projections by hand, and then by punch card programming. In both cases, the actual (human) labor behind the product is abstracted and hidden from view, with more attention and praise given to the interface (the ability to call MTurk in one’s code, the ENIAC computer itself). For computer scientists, such abstraction is highly praised, and is a quality to be admired. In the case of both Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the female computers and programmers of the ENIAC, it allows them to be rendered invisible and in many ways, stripped of their humanity– allowing for greater exploitation of labor.

For Mechanical Turk, a mechanism for promoting positive labor conditions (fair wages, worker protection, etc.) was not built in to the system. The human Turkers are equivalent to lines of code– they are “artificial artificial intelligence.” In a way, like the women who worked as computers, and then on the ENIAC project, they are substitutes for the ‘real thing.’ (true AI and men, respectively). Because the construction system already dehumanizes laborers, it is not surprising that they are paid in cents and have no workers rights. And like the ENIAC women, because they have been rendered invisible, they are given no credit for their labor. No software company will praise the thousands of Turkers who parsed data for their machine learning or computer vision algorithm.

Unlike the narrative surrounding early computing, I don’t think that the issues that lie in Mechanical Turk are explicitly to do with gender– I don’t think Amazon would treat Turkers better, or allow for a better labor marketplace, if Turkers were primarily men. (Maybe that is reductive to say…) However, I do think that for both the women of computing, and the Turkers, there is an ascription of “low-level” (Light 482) work that allows for the laborers to be mistreated and removed from the product of their labor.

This originally was a ‘forum essay’ I submitted for my Cultures of Computing class, intended to be a brief response that bridged the topics of automation and gender in computing.

**Sources: **

Irani, Lilly. 2015. “The Cultural Work of Microwork.” New Media & Society 17(5): 720–730.

Light, Jennifer. 1999. “When Computers Were Women.” Technology and Culture 40(3): 455– 483.

Written on November 20, 2017