Business (2015)

Amazon Mechanical Turk and Elance-oDesk

The crowd-working platforms Amazon Mechanical Turk and Elance-oDesk receive the BigBrotherAward 2015 in the Economy category for realising digital day-labourship. A trend which will not only turn our working environment inside-out. Job nibbles without minimum wages, without health insurance, without vacation entitlement and without solidarity are sold as “freedom”, “flexibility”, and “flat hierarchies”. Elance-oDesk uses a “Team App” to constantly watch keystrokes and mouse movements on the contractor's computer and sends regular screenshots to the client. This is what Elance-oDesk's German CEO Nicolas Dittberner calls “creation of trust”.
Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

The BigBrotherAward 2015 in the category “Economy” goes to The Crowd-working Platforms, Amazon Mechanical Turk and Elance-oDesk for the introduction of day-labourship under conditions similar to the beginning of the industrialisation, plus total electronic surveillance – completely “voluntary”, of course.

Both platforms distribute small work packages – starting at micro-jobs for a few cents up to fixed-price web design. Work on short notice, for a pittance, at your own risk, without any form of social security. Tempting for employers: they don’t have to employ anyone because they can go kerb-crawling in the digital red-light district to their heart’s content.

If this catches on, it will not only turn our working environment inside out, but our entire society.

It is about freelancing: “free work”. But this is neither the kind of “free” in “free beer”, nor the kind in “free speech”. It is more the kind of “free” in the cynical sense of “being set free”.

Do you know about “setting free”? That’s what the economy calls mass lay-offs.

Two platforms will receive the award representative for the entire sector. They represent the two ends of a scale. “Mechanical Turk” by Amazon is for those in precarious life situations, Elance-oDesk for the “digital bohemian”.

Mechanical Turk

Let’s start with Mechanical Turk.

The original Mechanical Turk was a fairground attraction in the mid 18th century. It was a machine that purportedly could play chess. In reality, though, there was a person inside the apparatus which performed the chess moves. Today’s computers have become pretty good at playing chess. But there are still other tasks which humans can do better, faster, or maybe just cheaper. The name “Mechanical Turk” has been aptly chosen by Amazon, because the platform makes human work invisible.

Amazon calls this “artificial artificial intelligence”. Meaning: the artificial intelligence is not artificial at all, it only looks that way. Jobs are delegated to an electronic platform, but are performed by humans in the background. Photos are being categorised (dog or cat, adult content or not), texts are translated, presentations are labelled, transcripts of talks or answering machine recordings are typed up, surveys and scientific questionnaires are filled out, and so on and so forth. For a few cents. Amazon receives a 10% commission.

Work is parcelled out into so-called HITs – Human Intelligence Tasks. Yes, there are also creative tasks. Draw a sheep for an art project1, write a poem, write a love letter for an unknown person, commissioned comments for blog posts, submissions to discussion forums, positive product reviews in on-line shops, mark rubbish with five stars … – Excuse me? … What?

“Turkers”, that is what people working for Mechanical Turk call themselves. According to a poll among “Turkers”, they would categorise more than 40% of the offered jobs as “spam”. What does that mean? Create fake accounts for e-mail, Twitter, Facebook or web sites, solve CAPTCHAs, write fake reviews for products, “like” articles and videos, click on ads, write fake comments for articles, etc. – everything is being “turked”.

With its Mechanical Turk, Amazon is creating the reductio ad absurdum of what we call crowd intelligence on the Internet: readers’ participation in discussions, consumer protection through user feedback, reputation through user reviews, simply the wisdom of the many. But these kinds of opinions have nothing to do with participation – they have been bought.

Amazon doesn’t give a damn.

Starting tomorrow, you will probably have a strange feeling when reading a product review, similar to what members of a local Thuringian NPD (German far-right party) group may have felt: Who is still real, between all those informants on the secret service’s payroll?

The casual-sounding, paid comment seems completely real, because people working for the Mechanical Turk are not stupid, and they can write. But why do they sell themselves for these jobs? Because the only alternative is unemployment? Because these dubious jobs pay more than honest ones? Because otherwise someone else will do it?

So how does all this work?

Clients pay directly to the Turker’s Amazon account. Or they don’t. They can just arbitrarily claim that the job had not been done properly and refuse to pay. This also causes the contractor’s scoring value to decline, possibly making them ineligible for higher-paid jobs.

Amazon doesn’t give a damn.

The contractors are evaluated with every micro-job. But conversely, payment morals and general behaviour of the clients are not visible on the platform.2

There are people performing Mechanical Turk tasks out of boredom or playfulness. Some are looking for a small additional income after their regular job.3 But most of its workforce is comprised of people in precarious life situations, whose alternative is joblessness.


Elance-oDesk is quite different. This is where the cool freelancers work, sitting in a café, in a bamboo hut in Thailand or in a one-room apartment in Little Bloggerston at a desk, programming, creating graphical designs, building web sites, writing advertising texts, translations, marketing concepts or business plans. In contrast to Mechanical Turk, this platform requires a CV, qualifications, and reference customers.

Advantages to the clients are marketed aggressively by Elance-oDesk: Labour is much cheaper. As a client you only have to pay those people you need right now. (Everyone else is just a useless eater.)

The freelancers are also courted:

Nicolas Dittberner, German CEO of Elance-oDesk is raving about the “rise of independent professionals” in his article for the Huffington Post: “The modern workplace is getting organised in an increasingly flexible and mobile and less hierarchical way. Everything that makes up an hierarchical organisation is currently under scrutiny: central control, surveillance, required attendance and internal power play.

But what about the reality? Getting paid by the hour for Elance-oDesk requires installation of a program with the nice-sounding name “Team App”. It registers keystrokes and mouse movements – and takes a screenshot at varying intervals 6 times per hour and sends this to the client.

Asked about this tool of control, Nicolas Dittberner of Elance-oDesk replied: “We don’t control people, we just offer a framework for creating trust.”

Control is Trust

Control is Trust. That sounds a damn lot like George Orwell …

Clients are motivated to pay only for measurable work – keystrokes and mouse clicks are measurable. Taking a break, thinking, preparations, a talk over a cup of coffee where new ideas are born, are not.

How is creativity supposed to develop, when every movement is made quantifiable, every action and inaction is monitored, registered and evaluated?! On the contrary: Constant surveillance reduces productivity, because it shifts energies towards continually pretending to be busy.

Freelancers are lured into a feeling of freedom. Be your own boss! Work from home! Wherever you want, for anyone you like. “Crowd-working” – that sounds wonderfully like voluntary work, achieving something together, the wisdom of the many, somehow like democracy – ingenious!

The whole development is a highly ideological matter – logic has nothing to do with it. The trade publication ZDnet endorses crowd-working and calls employees “9-to-5 wage slaves”. In the same article it suggests to wavering employers: “If you think people in offices work all the time, install some cameras: you will see that they don’t.”(!)

This is Californian ideology: it effortlessly marries self-fulfilment hippie history with brutal predator capitalism. It isolates people from each other to transform them into the shape that can be bought most easily: vulnerable and desperate – oh, sorry: free and flexible.

This is not a trend that comes about all by itself. It is the neo-liberal strategy. It creates a workforce on call for entrepreneurs not worthy of the title: easily terminable, saving on social security and taxes and first and foremost: cheap.

Speaking of trust:
Elance CEO for Germany, Austria and Switzerland Nicolas Dittberner was not informed by his company that it had merged with oDesk, and neither was he involved in the decision. He learned it through the media. A little personal taste of trust, participation and flat hierarchies.

We would really love to believe the promises of freedom, independence, trust, self-determination and all the rest. But for them to come true and not remain euphemisms for wage dumping, insecurity, lack of solidarity, constant surveillance and self-exploitation, a lot has to happen.

There is no dismissal protection, no vacation entitlement, no opportunities for advanced training sponsored by the company, no security in case of illness, injuries or for retirement. To be fair, Elance-oDesk has introduced minimum wages in November 2014 – of 3 dollars per hour. Three. Dollars. But even that is more of a PR campaign, because clients who consider that too much will just use a fixed-price arrangement.

“Everyone-for-themselves Economy”

We could really say a lot more about economic consequences of lost taxes by this kind of employment or about the “everyone-for- themselves economy”, and others will do that as well. Today we would like to make it clear that this is about a culture of surveillance and digitisation of human behaviour that has nothing to do with freedom and self-determination, even if that is what those responsible call it.

Well, who would be your preferred employer? Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which makes people disappear, and doesn’t care about a lot of other things, too. Or Elance-oDesk with their likeable German CEO, who calls surveillance “creation of trust”?

We couldn’t really decide who our sweetheart would be. So:

Congratulations, Amazon Mechanical Turk and Elance-oDesk, on the BigBrotherAward.


Updates to this awardee

Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to translate our updates into English.

Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage


2 To somewhat level this power imbalance, two scientists – Lilly Irani, Assistant Professor in Communications an der Universität San Diego and Six Silberman, Staff research associate at the University of Irvine – created a web service and a Firefox plug-in called “Turkopticon”. It allows evaluation of clients according to various criteria and to enter comments. The plug-in shows to people interested in jobs, what experiences other people have had with a particular client.

3 Dollars only, because Mechanical Turk does not accept employees from Europe anymore.

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

Organised by (among others):

BigBrother Awards International (Logo)

BigBrotherAwards International

The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.