Wired writer Miranda Katz explains how Amazon Mechanical Turk workers seek new cooperative forms of production and collective action, in collaboration with Niloufar Salehi (Stanford, CS), me, and Micheal Bernstein (Stanford, CS)
Tariq Ghani and Katherine Sacco of UCI Anthropology interviewed me for the American Anthropological Association’s podcast Anthropod. On the 25 minute interview podcast: “Lilly Irani discusses the human labor behind artificial intelligence technology. Irani helped create a platform called Turkopticon to support workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, a website that outsources micro data processing work. Irani also talks about her current book project on entrepreneurialism and national development in India.”
In 2017, I spoke at the conference of the UC Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design on Turkopticon and the politics of writing labor as an ethnographer. Ghani and Sacco interviewed as part of a 3 part series on the intersections between ethnography and design.
In addition to saving lives and conquering chaos, algorithms “can also put too much control in the hands of corporations and governments, perpetuate bias, create filter bubbles, cut choices, creativity and serendipity, and could result in greater unemployment,” finds a Pew report surveying experts. I was one of the experts surveyed and quoted. Download the full report here
I was invited to give a lightning talk on my research at a White House Office of Technology Policy summit on AI: Social and Economic Impacts in the Near Term. I gave this five minute talk distilling key parts of my research that challenge some dominant assumptions by economists and policy makers — particularly The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. People have told me that the talk was helpful to them and pushed points they had missed in my work before, so I’m reposting it here despite hating the video thumbnail facial expression!
Antonio Cassilli drew out these points in a recent post:
1) “Automation doesn’t replace labor, it displaces it”: computers learns to recognize texts, images, sounds via human computation workers who fuel AI by performing micro-paid & unpaid #digitallabor on platforms like Amazon MTurk (and many more). These workers “bridge the gap between AI and changing human culture”.
2) Micro-workers face a race to the bottom in an ever-expanding, largely unregulated labor market. (Personal addendum: We cannot think AI regulatory policies without also thinking about regulating these labor markets. So next time someone asks you “what should the government do to regulate artificial intelligence to keep it ethical?”, you might wanna answer: “Let’s talk about working conditions, modes of remuneration, health care of people that do AI”.)
This piece, “Hackathons and the Making of Entrepreneurial Citizenship,” comes from my ethnographic work on design as nation building in India. It will appear in a special issue on the politics of hacking edited by Johann Soderberg and Alessandro Delfanti in Science, Technology & Human Values.
From the abstract: “Hackathons sometimes produce technologies, and they always, however, produce subjects. This article argues that the hackathon rehearses an entrepreneurial citizenship celebrated in transnational cultures that orient toward Silicon Valley for models of social change. Such optimistic, high-velocity practice aligns, in India, with middle-class politics that favor quick and forceful action with socially similar collaborators over the contestations of mass democracy or the slow construction of coalition across difference. “
Our paper “We Are Dynamo: Overcoming Stalling and Friction in Collective Action for Crowd Workers” has been accepted for publication and awarded an honorable mention at CHI 2015. The paper comes out of a collaboration with professional Mechanical Turk workers (including co-authors Kristy Milland and Clickhappier) and Computer Scientists at Stanford. We built a system, We Are Dynamo, to create a protected space for online crowdworkers to propose and debate organizing tactics for activism. The intervention is both technical configuration and an attempt to change discourse about Turkers and their futures.
The system and the campaigns it supported seem to have done so, gaining coverage in both international news media and the tech press: Intellectual Piecework (Chronicle of Higher Education), Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers protest: ‘I am a human being, not an algorithm’ (The Guardian), Amazon’s Turkers Kick Off the First Crowdsourced Labor Guild (The Daily Beast), Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers want to be treated like humans (Engadget).
I reviewed The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson and McAfee and Mindless by Simon Head for Public Books. The essay, entitled Justice for “Data Janitors” looks at the value of labor in the production of technological “magic.”
I’ve had a new piece come out in South Atlantic Quarterly as part of a great special issue on extraction, logistics, and finance. The piece is entitled Difference and Dependence among Digital Workers: The Case of Amazon Mechanical Turk. In it, I explain the implications of organizing crowdworkers as programmable “human computation,” both for the subjectivities of highly valued tech workers, the valuations of their companies, and the limits of solidarity among the multitudes.
In an essay in ACM’s interactions magazine, Six Silberman and I write about the transformation of Turkopticon from a critical design project into an infrastructure some depend on, and what that tells us about the limits of focusing on design and innovation. I was especially excited to see that this one, unlike the standard scholarly paper, has an illustrator’s interpretations of the argument!
I have permission to share the PDF for non-commercial, educational uses so have at it: From Critical Design to Critical Infrastructure
I’m helping organize this conference. Workers, scholars, activists, organizers, we hope to bring you together around these questions. There is some funding available to support travel and attendance of digital workers! See the call