“[They] Have A Bold Ambition To Atomize Entire Careers Into Micro-Tasks That Almost Anyone Can Carry Out Online”


Before robots take our jobs, a more mechanical form of human will handle many of them. In fact, it’s already happening.

The new connectedness and tools have allowed for certain types of employment to be shrunk if not disappeared. It’s true whether your collar is blue or white, whether you have a job or career, if you’re a taxi driver or the passenger being transported to a fancy office.

“Meatware”–a term which perfectly sums up a faceless type of human labor pool–minimizes formerly high-paying positions into tasks any rabbit can handle. It’s a race to the bottom, where there’s plenty of room, with the winners also being losers.

In Mark Harris’ insightful Backchannel article, the writer hired some Mechanical Turk-ers to explore the piecework phenomenon. The opening:

Harry K. sits at his desk in Vancouver, Canada, scanning sepia-tinted swirls, loops and blobs on his computer screen. Every second or so, he jabs at his mouse and adds a fluorescent dot to the image. After a minute, a new image pops up in front of him.

Harry is tagging images of cells removed from breast cancers. It’s a painstaking job but not a difficult one, he says: “It’s like playing Etch A Sketch or a video game where you color in certain dots.”

Harry found the gig on Crowdflower, a crowdworking platform. Usually that cell-tagging task would be the job of pathologists, who typically start their careers with annual salaries of around $200,000 — an hourly wage of about $80. Harry, on the other hand, earns just four cents for annotating a batch of five images, which takes him between two to eight minutes. His hourly wage is about 60 cents.

Granted, Harry can’t perform most of the tasks in a pathologist’s repertoire. But in 2016 — 11 years after the launch of the ur-platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk — crowdworking (sometimes also called crowdsourcing) is eating into increasingly high-skilled jobs. The engineers who are developing this model of labor have a bold ambition to atomize entire careers into micro-tasks that almost anyone, anywhere in the world, can carry out online. They’re banking on the idea that any technology that can make a complex process 100 times cheaper, as in Harry’s case, will spread like wildfire.•