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The 'microworkers' making digital life possible (bbc.co.uk)
100 points by bauc 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments



> Why do the media keep running stories saying suits are back? Because PR firms tell them to. One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren't about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.

http://www.paulgraham.com/submarine.html


This. I worked at a midstage startup for 3 years. Even the major newspapers would print (or at least publish online) your press-releases practically verbatim. They seemed particularly susceptible to anything which contained some dubious statistics.


I was having a hard time deciding which pair of glasses to buy a few years ago, so I posted a survey to mTurk with selfies in a bunch of different frames. About $20 got me ~150 responses and a clear winner. I've been fascinated with the service ever since.


I would love that as a quick and dirty service, e.g. Test haircuts, bio texts, job descriptions, etc against each other and ideally have a specific target group evaluate them.


Already exists for job descriptions! https://jobdescription.app

For all I know, it could exist for haircuts too.


Expensive! But they seem to target employers not employees who want to pamper their cv.


Aren't you worried choosing your look based on the demographics of mTurk would make you attractive to a non-representative sample of the population?


According to the article, they'd make gp attractive to a highly educated sample of the population :)


People have more in common than differences.


Attractiveness is very cultural.


You can use FaceApp for this now


The value of the parent strategy is that they got external feedback from many different people. Because it's hard to see oneself as a stranger.


Does Faceapp give a result of popularity? I don't think it allows testing different haircuts and see which one is more popular


If you want to catch a glimpse into the lives of some of those workers, kolostories.com[1] "interviews" the workers of their captcha solving microworking site. It's macabre yet fascinating.

1: https://kolostories.com/contents/list


Wait, is this a real company? What employment agency (sort of) promotes their service by showing how easy it is to ditch their workers and visualises that by shooting them down?! [1] If it is not a parody, macabre doesn't even capture it.

[1]: https://anti-captcha.com/


So you are doubting the integrity of a company that circumvents captchas, which are supposed to prevent fraud?

> Wait, is this a real company? What employment agency (sort of) promotes their service by showing how easy it is to ditch their workers and visualises that by shooting them down?!

The buff guy wearing the mask and cape is supposed to shoot the cheaters, not the honest workers. On the other hand, at your command, he will shoot the second guy who is clearly filling in the correct answers. In other words, if you just want to see the world burn, he will be your willing henchman.


Silicon Valleys' slave labor force that makes the tech plantation work.


So we're automating repetitive physical work and then shove people into repetitive information work that pays peanuts, has no benefits, forces you to work in isolation and spend tons of time sitting in front of the screen. And a lot of this information work goes towards training more systems that will automate away more jobs.

And this gets semi-positive coverage from the same press who gladly calls for erasure of individuals from the digital society based on the notion that any "incorrect" opinion can potentially constitute grave societal harm. Hah.

Obviously, the solution isn't to delete automation. It is to make AI algorithms into tools directly usable by average individuals. What is happening right now is kind of the other way around.


I had a really mind bending conversation with someone a while ago that actually liked this kind of work. They where supported by their significant other and no job they could take would really change the couples standard of living.

It’s competition is daytime soaps not a 9-5 jobs. It’s still flexible and a little extra spending money makes themselves feel better.


Man, I didn’t realize Venezuela was so fucked that dentists are now doing mTurk.


It's been like that in Cuba for years. These guys made an actual commercial, for an actual Cuban doctor, who actually sold cars, that ran on actual late night TV, lampooning it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b5CKSqlz60

Plenty of examples in Cuba of luggage handlers making more money than doctors.


Ew a luggage handler? What makes them think they can earn money, the horrendous little urchins.

Cuba.... Cuba... isn't that the country with the best healthcare system in the world? Don't they send thousands of doctors to the USA on humanitarian missions, because the USA doesn't give healthcare to its people? [1].

Now, you'll laugh at this because of decades of anti-Cuban propaganda (the luggage handlers!), but your anecdote of a Cuban doctor dissatisfied is very cute in the face of what is actually the best healthcare system in the world.

Hard to believe that an industry runs better when a handful of individuals aren't a huge, profitting strain on its resources.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_medical_internationalism


There's nothing wrong with manual laborers making money, what's wrong is that doctors can't.


But they can.


If doctors are running in droves from Cuba to be luggage handlers or car salesmen in the US, you don't see a problem with that?

From the Wikipedia link you posted:

> According to Luis Zuñiga, director of human rights for the Cuban American National Foundation, Cuban doctors are "slave workers" who labor for meager wages while bolstering Cuba's image as a donor nation and "the Cuban government exports these doctors as merchandise".[34]

And the reason it's luggage handlers and not other kinds of laborers is because luggage handling specifically puts you in contact with wealthy foreigners whose seemingly small tips are big money in the local currency.

In order to make any kind of real money in Cuba, you must find yourself in a position to interact with foreigners. The local economy will never provide that opportunity.


I begrudgingly cited wikipedia, but there's enough in there to show, at the very least, that Cuba has a better healthcare system than the USA.

Cuba is desperately poor, like most post-colonial countries. Despite this, Cuba has: [1]

- a greater life expectancy than the usa. - more hospital beds per capita than the USA. - more than double the number of physicians per capita than the usa.

The list goes on. Communism works in theory, but in practise the CIA spends trillions of dollars making sure it doesn't. And even then it puts them to shame.

The only way Cuba's way of doing things, not their embargo-induced circumstances, is sub-par is if you toy with the fascist idea that not everybody deserves basic human rights like healthcare.

BTW, this is across industries like healthcare, education etc. The war on Cuba is the same one waged on the poor in America.

[1] https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Cuba/Unite...


I'm not going to wade into the muddy waters of trying to argue that Communism doesn't work at all, but rather to point out that a) the CIA doesn't have 'trillions' of dollars to throw around, and b) the American embargo doesn't prevent Cuba from making trade deals with other nations. It just prevents them from drinking from the teat of American foreign aid and access to limitless American markets and investment.

The US has enough soft power to make Cuba's life difficult on the international plane but it can't render Cuba impotent. If Cubans need to flee to the US for a chance at a better life that's the fault of Cuba's atrocious institutions and politics making opportunity impossible to find.

The CIA is an organization with tens of thousands of people in it and Cuba is a country with millions. The CIA has to spread its 15 billion dollar budget all over the world, while Cuba is free to spend its 50 billion dollar revenues on whatever she wants.


And I'll stop wading through the waters of arguing with somebody void of the history of the topic. After I point out that the CIA made hundreds of attempts to assassinate Castro.

You seem to be missing a whole portion of the story. So all I have for you now is, you are wrong.


Fine by me but can I point out before you leave that your points keep wandering. First it's "trillions" of dollars, when challenged, you say I know nothing of the history and state what just about anyone knows, that the CIA has attempted to assassinate Castro.

I don't even know what point you're trying to make here. Cuba does not have a world-class medical industry, it's not a better place to live than the US, people do not flee the US to live in Cuba.

Do I think the embargoes should end? Yes. Do I think the US interfered with Cuba's politics? Yes. Am I going to play a weird shell game with where I try to figure out what point you're trying to make? No. Cuba's a hellhole, we didn't make it that way, Castro was more than capable of doing that all by himself. He certainly was capable of resisting hundreds of assassination attempts, if indeed Escalante's 638 number referred to actual attempts.


Manufacture your own victory if you wish. No better way than to nitpick an estimated figure in a quip, which incidentally is a correct one. I could suggest your next move: claim that I didn't mean spending over decades and imply I meant all in one day.

Britain, the U.S., a selection of European countries, Russia , Israel and allies have fucked the world for the benefits of their elites. But, please, another anecdote about how people don't flee the USA (despite the glaringly obvious ramifications of wealth distribution on infrastructure). I conjecture that your inability to fathom my point is not my problem.


Sending lots of doctors out into the world doesn't mean that they're any good.

Working for a good healthcare system doesn't imply good pay.

Getting tips in dollars instead of castro monopoly money really helps your salary in Cuba.


No, but being recognised throughout the world for their quality does mean they're "any good".

Your last comment tells me who I'm speaking to. Fly your eagle, man. Fly!


Were you referring to my comment?


John's "Castro monopoly money" comment.


> Cuba... isn't that the country with the best healthcare system in the world?

I don't know. Is it?


'tis yea.


That's absolutely benign compared to everything else going on in Venezuela right now.

If you get a surgery, you have to bring your own basic supplies, like, say, sutures, or they don't have them. Expect regular power outages too.


I grew up in Honduras and got a third-degree sunburn during Holy Week (Semana Santa, when everyone goes to the beach). It became intolerable the night before Easter and my mother took me to the ER.

Most of the lights were off, and there was a single receptionist at the desk. My mother explained the situation, and…

Receptionist: Oh, well if you want to borrow the desk phone you're free to do so

Mother: ???

Receptionist: You know, to call your doctor

Mother: ????

Receptionist: We're happy to let you use a room and our supplies, but all of our doctors are on vacation. It's Semana Santa.


Isn't it rather the digital life that is making microworkers possible ?


I went into full-time freelancing career as a graphic/web designer in 2007, then came the financial crisis and by mid-2008 I was struggling to feed myself because of the lack of work.

So in my desperation I tried mechanical turk.

I worked very hard for 8 hours tagging stuff, correcting text and selecting things with boxes. It was horrible, repetitive, mindless grunt work. And I earned like 5 dollars. That was not going to work.

So instead I advertised my very limited PHP and JavaScript skills and I started working as a programmer instead of a designer. It turned out there was still a demand for those.

I am very thankful that I had some coding knowledge because I don't know what else could I've done.

(I also tried 99designs, which paid better while still being dehumanizing, but that's a story for another day)


I had a logo made on 99designs last year. I quite liked the experience as a customer; with limited experience in hiring a creator, I got what I wanted. But the process made me a little uncomfortable.

Basically the process went like this...

- put up description of what I want

- declare how much I am willing to pay

- have people submit proposals

- ask designers I like it iterate on design as needed

- pick a winner

I wasn't comfortable asking people to do work and have no money change hands if I rejected all the designs, so I committed to selecting a winner so that at least someone got paid. I was OK enough with this part of the process, as it felt a bit like people applying to a job and hiring one of them, and I was doing my best to make the job not crappy.

The part that got under my skin was that I got so many submissions. Like 50. I was paying like $400 for what I had originally thought would cost $99 (paid more to attract more submissions, so not sure why I am surprised). It hadn't really registered with me how much work I'd be creating for other people by through this process.

In the end, I am OK with the platform as a tool for finding designers I like. I have since hired the designer who won for more work, so in a sense it's a recruiting platform for me. But I can see how many would put in a lot of work and never get paid at all. Kind of like real life :P


As a designer I didn't really liked the experience (but things may have changed since 2008). But I had to basically enter as much competitions as possible every day, that meant doing as much as four or five proposals daily. The quality, as one could expect, wasn't as good because a) I spent little to no time refining each idea and b) there was no time to edit myself. Out of the tens of competitions I entered I won two (I won 3k which was very welcome at the time) and both become regular clients outside the platform.

I may have getting used to working on 99designs eventually, but I'm just not wired to that staggering amount of rejection and sense of uselessness.


I was surprised at how much quality some of the people cranked out. I suppose a logo is tightly scoped, especially when the directions were "make a ninja pope". I didn't even need to do much back and forth. I got what I wanted with some Minor feedback eye colors and pose.


I was expecting something about Fiver but this is even more micro.

The killer is spending 20 minutes to get 60 minutes of work, so 8$/hr only nets 6$/hr


What are your favorite microworker hacks?


My favorite hack is trying to avoid the 2019 equivalent to sweatshop labour.


Got to love rich westerners who want to remove options that improve that lives of people in the third world.


Yeah, we're improving lives guys, not maintaining and furthering an unjust system.


You seem to disregard that in many countries the alternative to "sweatshop labor" is becoming a beggar.

A dollar an hour can be a good income in some parts of this world, believe it or not. If you can't compete on price like that, don't bid.


> You seem to disregard that in many countries the alternative to "sweatshop labor" is becoming a beggar.

Know who hasn't disregarded this? The wealthy people exploiting it, who pointed it out to you in the hope that this level of depth on the matter was all you needed.

Nobody on HN is a participant in a race to the bottom. Don't advocate it as a career strategy.


It's the neoliberal Panglossian response -- the best of all possible worlds!


You have named your nemesis, but can you show that he's wrong?


> Know who hasn't disregarded this? The wealthy people exploiting it, who pointed it out to you in the hope that this level of depth on the matter was all you needed.

So? What's the alternative, then? You can complain all day about how people are exploited and that exploitation is bad. I don't disagree on that part.

The question is, are you making the situation better by preventing exploitation "per decree"? Let's say you raised the minimum amount of compensation for clickworking, what would happen? All the work that remains economical is compensated better, but all the work that isn't economical at that rate just disappears.

What also happens is that no worker gets the opportunity to compete on price. Let's say people from country A are poorer on average and therefore can offer better rates, but the quality is lower on average than in country B. People from country A can still get work by offering lower rates. If rates were forced up, there's no reason to purchase from country B anymore, because price is the same but quality is worse.

You have given country B an unfair advantage and you have worsened the economic prospects in country B, even though it is already poorer. This is trade protectionism. If you think it is "good", you can just go shake hands with Donald Trump and praise the China tariffs.

> Nobody on HN is a participant in a race to the bottom.

A lot of people on HN are on the "Those poor people! We need to regulate this!" bandwagon. Their intention might be right, their comprehension might not.

> Don't advocate it as a career strategy.

I'm not, that would be ridiculous. Clickworking is not a career. Most people don't have a career. Clickworking might not be a great opportunity for most people, that doesn't mean it should be taken away.


You're right, taking advantage of desperate people is OK if you give them a slightly better quality of life than homelessness offers.


I'm not saying it's "OK" in the moral sense. It's of course morally better to pay people fairly than to exploit their situation, but it's also morally better to exploit their situation than not doing anything for them, or even make their lives worse by removing the opportunity to "get exploited" - for the purpose of moral posturing.


These companies that we all work at get millions in funding, and are happy to pay programmers 150k+ a year because they need them to succeed. The difference between a dollar and hour and five is negligible to these organisations at the levels most of them are using this sort of labour. This is rarely a choice between paying subsistence wages and none at all - instead it's a choice between subsistence wages and making a decent living.

There's also the fact that people who are affected, who slip out the bottom of whatever calculation is going on, are going to have more opportunities locally if their peers are still employed doing more profitable work.

I see a lot of people fall for the argument that starvation wages are an alternative to no wages, and it's not true now any more than it was when the industrialists tried it in the 19th century. Standard of living, wherever it may be, is better off when money is in the hands of ordinary working people.


> These companies that we all work at get millions in funding, and are happy to pay programmers 150k+ a year because they need them to succeed.

They're not happy to pay that much, they just need to pay that much because that's the rate for programmers in the area. You can easily get far cheaper programmers from abroad, but then you'll need to manage that. You can also move your whole company abroad but then you're further from venture capital.

Also, with programmers there's this meme that a bad programmer will ruin you, so you need to get "good programmers" at all costs. A programmer can't really go out and say "I'm not that good, but I'll make up for it by charging less!". Unlike clickworker output, programmer output is not fungible.

> The difference between a dollar and hour and five is negligible to these organisations at the levels most of them are using this sort of labour.

That's your uninformed claim. A quadrupling in compensation is a quadrupling in cost. Whether that cost is negligible depends on the amount of work relative to all other work. If you have a company working on AI solutions, the cost of labeling can easily be one of the most significant positions.

> This is rarely a choice between paying subsistence wages and none at all - instead it's a choice between subsistence wages and making a decent living.

These people are not paid wages, they are not employees, they are directly compensated for what they produce. To pay wages, you first need a company to pay those wages, which implies that these companies are compensated for what they produce. Companies don't get a guaranteed minimum compensation, they need to go by the market rate. For the same reason, clickworkers need to go by the market rate.

> There's also the fact that people who are affected, who slip out the bottom of whatever calculation is going on, are going to have more opportunities locally if their peers are still employed doing more profitable work.

How is that a "fact"? If you're doing clickwork, that means you're at the bottom in terms of earning potential. It means every conceivable opportunity around you is worse, be that financially or in terms of working conditions. Why would they suddenly have more opportunity?

> I see a lot of people fall for the argument that starvation wages are an alternative to no wages, and it's not true now any more than it was when the industrialists tried it in the 19th century. Standard of living, wherever it may be, is better off when money is in the hands of ordinary working people.

What does that imply? What are you actually saying should happen?


> To pay wages, you first need a company to pay those wages,

No, individuals without any kind of “company” can and do pay wages to employees, e.g., domestic staff.


You're missing the point. Nobody hires a "domestic clickworker". The government doesn't hire clickworkers. Non-profit organizations don't hire click workers. So who is left? For-profit companies.

There are for-profit companies employing click workers and those workers are indeed employees, but if you work on the platforms like mturk directly, you are not an employee and you do not receive a wage. As a result, you get to keep more of the money, not less.


When it really comes down to it, it's corrupt governments that create an environment where people are poor and desperate. Mostly because businesses aren't really interested in the risks involved.

Nobody cares about fixing this though. They just think throwing money at poor nations will somehow bring people above the poverty line.

Many countries in Africa are a good example of this not working.

We also perpetuate the issue through massive donations because local industries can't compete with free and the citizens become endlessly dependent.


try kUbernetes, the replicas and failover make it seamless when any of the podpeople get killed due to resource starvation.


I've read somewhere that mturk was never profitable for Amazon. I wonder if this is still the case since there are now a plethora of labeling service companies out there


I was really surprised at Scale AI's recent 1 billion valuation considering it's also more or less just another labeling service: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20614672


I dunno - having done my own share of labelling, a company to make that horror go away is certainly of value - that said, converting people to cogs in AI systems is worrisome




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