Anamaria Cuza: The on-demand gig work of survival

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 6:13pm

Anamaria Cuza

Anamaria Cuza Buy this photo

Amid all the news that dominated the media last week, Amazon also made the headlines. After months of pressure, it raised the minimum wage of its U.S. employees to $15 an hour.

You would think this marked at least one happy ending following the amalgam of events occurring last week. Instead, Amazon's decision only reveals the bubble of indifference in which big tech companies are wrapping themselves. While Amazon raised their hourly pay by $1, it also decided to cut their yearly bonuses, making its workers lose at least $1,400 dollars a year, as estimated by one of its workers. Still, this is only part of Amazon’s story, a story that conceals the struggles of a subset of its workers.

Part of my research at one of the labs in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department is collecting data on how people perceive similarities between words. I was told to set up a task on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online platform that researchers use to collect data from people which are later used in creating artificial intelligence models. Or, the way Amazon likes to put it, a “marketplace” that allows the use of “human intelligence” in solving tasks that computers are currently unable to do. This was my first time using anything remotely similar to MTurk. The process, though, was misleadingly easy. Selecting the number of cents to pay each respondent, getting 500 responses in less than 8 hours and immediately rejecting 200 respondents for unsatisfactory answers was strangely straightforward for something that affected 500 people. After all, those cents were someone's food for the day. After all I had rejected 200 people, who would never receive those cents.

While I was looking through the comments section filled by MTurkers (that’s how we call Amazon MTurk workers) I noticed how many of the comments were a simple “Thanks!” or “I really enjoyed taking this survey.” I started wondering about the people filling in the answers to my word similarity task. My eyes glided toward the answers they had provided on their demographics. The majority was middle class, educated people, known to use MTurk to supplement their earnings, but there was another predominant group. One filled with people who were part of the lower middle class or even living in poverty.

Still, I couldn’t stop there. Those few comments filled with human gratitude had built a small bridge between those MTurkers and me. "My job just fell through" was among the first titles I saw on Reddit’s forum dedicated to discussions between MTurkers. It was written by a person who had just moved to a new city, had lost their job, had no degree and was suffering from anxiety, asking if working on MTurk could provide enough money to survive for the next three to four weeks. The first answer the person received said a couple of years ago MTurk provided users with enough money for minimum survival but that was no longer a possibility. The rest of the posts were of a similar nature: people desperate to earn enough money for survival through MTurk and responses from those saying that Amazon was no longer providing that possibility.

A 2016 Pew Research found 5 percent of workers earning money from MTurk used the platform because there was no other available work in their area. Imagine having a full-time job where your performance is constantly monitored. Where there is a clock timing the amount of time you spend on each task that you have, a clock that stops whenever you go to the bathroom, take lunch or start daydreaming in front of your computer. At the end of the day, your pay is based not on the 8 hours spent at the office, but rather the number of minutes completely focused on your work. Imagine on top of that, for every mistake you make on your tasks your manager takes away a certain percentage of your money. Imagining this doesn’t even fully encapsulate the life of an MTurker trying to survive the gig economy.

The reason why my survey was completed by the time I woke up on that next day? It’s because people who use MTurk to support themselves often wake up at 2:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. to fight for the highest-paying tasks. The reason why people are finding it increasingly hard to earn money through MTurk? It’s because the numbers of MTurkers is growing. It’s because, based on a Pew Research estimation by 2027 nearly one in three Americans might transition to online platforms to support themselves with on demand gig work.

MTurk is the perfect model for keeping the world of researchers separated from that of the workers. Broadly put, it is the perfect model for separating the educated and the uneducated, through the power of technology.

The bubble of indifference in which tech companies are wrapping themselves? It's a bubble that helps them set their eyes on the future, to the detriment of the present. People working in the technology world are investing money into creating benevolent Artificial Intelligence, fearing that future AI might get out of hand. People working in the technology world are paying their employees so little that they are forcing them to rely on food stamps. They are scared about the possibility of a future where AI will take over our jobs, while forgetting that the way we are building these AI technologies is by taking advantage of people desperate to make a few cents.

As a student, I try to understand this world of competing needs. Where the clear negative impact big technology companies can have and my carefully tailored resume to these companies have to coexist. In a similar manner, tech companies have to start caring about both building the future generation of benevolent AI technologies and their employees and gig-workers. The answer to these two conundrums? That is something that neither Amazon or I have figured out yet.

Anamaria Cuza can be reached at anacuza@umich.edu