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å Wednesday, October 28th, 2015


% Angeline Henriquez completed

Angeline Henriquez

October 27, 2015

Digital media and Society

Return of the Crowds

In chapter 5 “Return of the Crowds” Ayhan Aytes relates the mechanics of 18th  century automata, specifically Von Kemplen’s Chess Player, to the workings of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT).  The most prominent comparison Aytes makes is the hidden nature of the workers, which is concealed by the spectacle of the machine. In the case of the Turk Chess Player this translates literally, as the mechanical mind of the Turk was manipulated by a master chess player who remained hidden behind the internal mechanisms. In the case of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Aytes points to the fragmentation of cognitive labor, in which “workers from across the world and around the clock browse, choose, and complete human intelligence tasks (HITs) that are designed by corporate or individual contractors” (p.79). In this way, the connection between the workers and the end result is erased, and these complex tasks come across as automated. Both the Turk Chess Player and AMT prompt the idea that mechanisms can be living entities that instead of operating as clockwork, are in contrast self-regulated.

Furthermore, Aytes talks about how just like in a game of chess, in which each piece has a specific role that is to be performed in relation to the other pieces, so do AMTs cognitive workers. By organizing the roles and their functions, the cognitive labor market is able to fulfill these roles by anyone in what Aytes calls the “socioeconomic chessboard” (p.87).

Finally, Aytes relates the two in their role of “disciplining the human mind for industrial production” (p.81). She deems the Turk Chess Player as the precursor for today’s cognitive labor market, as it first imagined the automatization of the operations of the human mind. Amazon’s mechanical Turk reflects this in the way that it maximizes the profits of multinational corporations through the use of legislative gray zones surrounding cognitive labor. Aytes calls this the “neoliberal system of exception” facilitated by the digital networks, which allows requesters to escape employment regulations.


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Ayhan Aytes basically draws a connection between Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Chess Player Automaton and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system in order to create a historical base from which he can implicate AMT as carrying out neoliberalism via the shared commonality of this cloaked cognitive labor performed in both models of comparison. The Chess Player presents the illusion of artificial intelligence and is a metaphor for the illusory quality of AMT’s system, the fact that the cognitive labor being performed is alluded to by referring to those cognitive worker’s as “mechanized turks” or “turkers” is a sly and problematic ping back to the orientalist roots of the Chess Player Automaton. Ironic or perhaps not (as is the way Neoliberalism works) that AMT is in name a continuation of the “Oriental” automaton that of current employs the cognitive labor of people from the Global South, most notably, Indian workers. The work is piecemeal and is similar in comparison to the chess player automaton due to the micro and macro elements at play in both systems; as chess is an intellectual and strategic game (originally from India too) and reliant on individual moves in order to achieve capture of the other player’s pieces. AMT is a system that relies on singular tasks being completed and does not involve the same worker in a unified or ongoing relationship to the work – I mean to say, it’s almost like an assembly line (using a factory metaphor here even though that is not totally relative) in that the worker is performing one task that goes towards a whole but that is not aware or connected to that whole process. This system differs from our ideas of Chess, as that game infers a level of awareness of all the potential roles or ways a piece could potentially affect the desired outcome of the game on a large scale – that is why the “Mechanical Turk” of the Chess Player Automaton was so intriguing and romanticized, even after it was discovered to be a hoax. This idea of mechanized intelligence represented infinite possibilities to the West, to be able to reap all the benefits of human intelligence, without the human. But the bottom line is that, technologically speaking, we are not there yet, and there is still a reliance on the human and their human intelligence, there is a person inside both systems that make them function, this is the crux of the analogy and also important to consider when thinking about what this kind of reductive labor practice as a trope (vis a vis a major corporate entity, Amazon) has on the cognitive worker’s it employs.

By presenting this labor being performed as automatized, and emanating from a machine or machines somewhere (in the case of AMT many of it’s Turker’s are outsourced from far outside of the Western Sociocultural environment) the labor and the considerations towards workers performing it are made invisible. Not only does the cognitive labor take place outside of the mechanization, but also takes places outside of the society it usually serves (this is an estimation, as I imagine that the main target is the American West.) What does this mean for the cognitive workers within the AMT system? What does it mean for the actual pieces of work that they perform? Aytes does a great job of breaking down how these cognitive workers fall into a “state of exception” as disembodied laborers within a neoliberal framework.


% Yauheniya Chuyashova completed

The connection Ahyan Aytes are trying to make between Amazon.com’s new digital labot market Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) and chess-playing machine is a human brainpower.

Humans are the ones who created technology. Amazon Mechanical Turk was made after failure of the program of finding matching product pages on retail website. After that the project engineers turned “to humans to work behind computers within a streamlined web-based system”, later it was available for “privet contractors” in return for some profit.

Chess played automaton was created and presented in 1770 by Wolfgan von Kempelen at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. After the Automaton Chess Player was exhibited for 84 years in Europe and the Americas. The idea of chess-playing machine was completed by IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1997. In the beginning the idea was to give an expression that “the pipe-smoking Turk mannequin” can play a chess against human being by been controlled by a complicated mechanism. But in the reality it was a person (Kempelen’s chess master assistant) who was just hidden form everyone under the mechanism.

The connection between this two mechanist is very interwoven. When we are in process of doing something, we think that we are dialing with some programs, in Amazon Mechanical Turk example, but in the reality it is just a human who works behind the scene and helps us to accomplish our goal. And in chess playing machine it is the same technic, when we play we thing we are playing against “sophisticated mechanism”, when in reality we are playing against human being. At the end everything have been controlled my human’s power.

It its always a human behind all this, because at the of the day, human knowledge the one made all this happened. Human knowledge helped technology to develop.


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Ahyan Aytes takes us deep into the labyrinth of Enlightenment thinking to explain the symbology behind the meaning of the automaton in general and the automaton chess player conceived by Wolfgang von Kempelen. For Aytes the original mechanical turk was a tool for demonstrating the wondrous possibilities of industrialized objects to a credulous public and a system of enclosure for the assistant who secretly maneuvered its inner workings. The apparatus of the machine, enclosing a secret laborer was especially unique in that said laborer’s work was principally cognitive. Unlike other industrial objects that might be manipulated by men only to perform a mechanistic function, it was intelligence itself on display in the case of the mechanical turk. Aytes propounds that the enclosure of cognitive labor within the apparatus of industrial capital is a disturbing analogue to the modern day experience of Amazon’s Mechanical Turks.

Like von Kempelen’s assistant, Turks also function within an apparatus of digitized network enabled labor. They perform the equivalent of piecework in crowds, moving the pieces across the neoliberal chessboard at a depreciated wage, expected to perform their duties mechanistically (according to notions of the Protestant Work ethic that is so essential to capitalism), lest they face unspecified and arbitrary rejection of their work. This cultural labor apparatus reifies conceptions of racist Orientalist docility common in the Enlightenment era, particularly in that many of the Turkers hail from southern Asia.

What is most interesting is Aytes’ notion that the mechanical turk represented almost, but not quite. The ghost in the machine was human, yet anticipatory of future devices which would have their own capacities for semi-autonomous action (i.e. IBM’s Watson), though even those bear the mark of humans as they are programmed by human minds. The crowd which performs the functions of divided mental labor in the case of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program serves as a kind of circuitry of an integrated system of capitalism. What labor system the turks anticipate in late digital capitalism is anyone’s guess, but it seems reasonable to think it will include disquieting notions of self-regulation and disempowerment.


% Janelle Figueroa completed

In “Return of the Crowds,” Ahyan Aytes makes a comparison between the Mechanical Turk with an 18th-century Automaton Chess Player. The connection that Aytes wants to make between a chess-playing machine and Amazon’s new platform is the idea of the relationship between the mind and intelligence of a human being and the intelligence we put forth into machines/technology.
The Mechanical Turk is Amazon.com’s micropayment-based crowdsourcing platform. The idea of the Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) came about because of the lack of success of the artificial intelligence systems they used to find copies of product pages on the website. Later, engineers were able to come up with the idea of using bodies to work behind computers to be able to operate a more efficient web-based system. It employs the intelligence of the worker and the machine to act as one to perform different tasks. I view it as when the mind can’t figure something out we go to the machine and vice versa.
Automaton Chess Player, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, was made to give off a sense that a mannequin, that was being controlled, was able to play a great game of chess against any human player. It was all an illusion because there was an actual chess player that would hide inside and control the machine. It led to the idea that machines were also living beings, which I think further shows the connection that Aytes is trying to make.
Without human intelligence, technology would not exist. We, in some way, created this artificial intelligence. Technology needs the brainpower of humans in order to keep living on and advancing. However, there are certain things that we can’t do that technology can and certain things we can do that technology can’t. In the case of AMTs and the Automaton Chess Player, it is the human’s duty to take control when the technology isn’t intelligent enough to do so.


% Joyce Julio completed

In “Return of the Crowds,” Ahyan Aytes explains how the name/brand of Amazon.com’s micro-payment-based crowd sourcing platform, Mechanical Turk, was borrowed from one of the 18th century Automaton Chess Player’s name. Amazon established its Mechanical Turk in 2005 after it faced the problem of identifying and finding duplicate product pages on its retail websites, which its artificial intelligence program was supposed to do but failed to do so. This led Amazon.com to hire humans for the completion of this task (which is very easy for humans to do but difficult for machines/computers).

Ahyan Aytes’s connection between Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and the automaton chess player can be explained through the way the Kempelen’s chess player assistant hid under the cabinet as he manipulated the Turk mannequin, giving the impression that the Turk mannequin was actually the one playing chess and beating other players like Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. This is similar to how Amazon’s Mechanical Turk works. Employers/requesters post human intelligence tasks (HITs) that machines/computers cannot perform. The workers or “turkers” then can choose from the tasks posted, complete the tasks (which do not require a lot of time to do), and get paid (from free to several US dollars) when their work is accepted. Just like in the automaton chess player, it may appear like the computer or application is performing the tasks for the employers, when in fact, it’s humans behind their computer screens (who employers cannot see) actually completing the tasks.


% Yesenia Williams completed

The connection Aytes was trying to make between the chess playing machine from the 18th century also known as The Turk and Amazon’s new platform Mechanical Turk was the similarities in the motivations behind the creation as well as the function. In 2005, Amazon formed their application called Mechanical Turk (AMT) and a digital labor market was established. Human intelligence tasks (HIT) were presented and workers are paid anywhere from one cent to a few dollars to do tasks as Aytes mentions, “such as transcribing audio, answering surveys, translating text, and gathering information on products.” AMT uses real people instead of artificial intelligence systems to do the work and pays them less than 10,000 a year. 33% of the workers are from India, which makes a big part of their business conducted internationally.

Compared and named after the chess-playing machine from the 18th century, Mechanical Turk, it impressed many and served as a form of entertainment. The machine was a robot, an automaton that stood over a chessboard and made the audience believe it could play the best game of chess against humans. However it was all an elaborate lie with a human operator controlling the moves giving the illusion that the machine can predict the next move.

She calls Amazon’s Mechanical Turk a “reincarnation” of the chess-playing automaton. Chess-playing machine was a fraud and had someone controlling it from behind the “curtain”. This same concept is being applied to our computers today through Amazon’s mechanical Turk. Tasks and programming is being done through crowdsourcing from regular amateurs, not necessarily computer programmers. Requesters, the companies, are paying out different hourly wages for different tasks. People gravitate to these jobs, however it is difficult to make a living from this small monetary compensation. The labor performance of workers is important and controlled by the digital networks to make a profit for major companies. Multinational companies are using crowdsourcing to maximize on these profits.

Chess playing machine much like the computers we use today has made the audience believe it had power but in reality it all lies behind the scenes. This machine was theorizing the system of labor, almost grooming the mind for production while there are people conducting the work for miniscule compensation.




% Deborah Markewich completed

In Return of the Crowds, Aytes compares Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform, Mechanical Turk, to the Automaton Chess Player also known as “Mechanical Turk” or the “Turk,” that was constructed in the late eighteenth century by Wolfgang von Kempelen and was a popular attraction in Europe. It is easy to comprehend why Amazon chose to name its digital labor market after the chess-playing machine.

The “Turk” was a life-size model, dressed in traditional Turkish garb that appeared to be a formidable chess-playing machine. The presenters of the “Turk” toured Europe challenging opponents to try to beat the automaton that would often win matches against the (human) players. Like a magician, the presenter would make a point of showing the audience that the cabinet under the desk the ‘Turk” sat at was filled with only machinery, as he spun the cabinet around, opening doors. In fact it was all an illusion and there was a chess master hidden inside the desk controlling the chess pieces with the help of magnets and string.

In Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, humans are used to perform Human Intelligence Tasks (HITS) that computers cannot easily do. Amazon turned to humans when its attempt at using artificial intelligence failed at certain tasks. There were some things that the computer could not accomplish – they required human intelligence. But while human beings are performing these tasks, they are “hidden” in a sense, behind the machine, much like the chess player was hidden in the cabinet. The workers (known as “Turkers”) are paid ridiculously small amounts of money per task and they have no direct contact with the “requesters” for whom they are completing the tasks. Amazon promises its clients an online workforce that will make their companies appear brilliant, while the Turkers, like the chess master, stay virtually invisible as they are “pulling the strings.”

Besides the extremely low pay associated with each HIT, Turkers are not even guaranteed to be paid that .01 or .10 agreed upon fee after they complete the task. The requester can accept or reject the work and still keep the rejected work, profiting from it but not paying the worker. Besides not receiving payment, the Turker will receive a lower online rating, making it more difficult to get more work. So the Turker is invisible in more ways than one. The public is made to think that they are dealing with a sophisticated computerized program while the invisible Turkers are working for pennies behind the scenes to maintain the illusion for the companies that utilize Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.


% Giselle Lopez completed

In the reading of “Return to the Crowds”, by Ahyan Aytes, she makes a clear comparison on how things have shifted since that century, but somehow it still remains the same. The automaton Chess player exposes the ideal that artificial intelligence is not enough and is dependent; behind that magnificent player was always someone behind. Moreover, behind Amazon’s platform it is obvious that this systems would not operate if human nature, cognition were not involved. The power of knowledge from individuals is necessary, and the same way Automaton Chess Player operated many years ago still is adapted, “HIT”; meaning, that “ machine denoted a particular type of subjectivity because of the nature of the actors and their limited set of behaviors that are strictly defined within a set of rules in the game of chess”(85). “HIT”  is necessary  for many of this technological platforms. She explains how human intelligence is fundamental. Amazon’s turk, is a form of crowdsource where the work must follow few steps where “HIT” is necessary “human intelligence – humans behaving like machines behaving like humans” and both are combined and are able to create artificial artificial intelligence. In this form of crowdsourcing, things like transcribing audio, tagging videos or content, surveys and psychological evaluations, etc. Also, what I understand is that there are key pieces that are the ones that allow this platform to work and without them it would not be able to function. They are necessary and fundamental in order to work. “If the digital network is the assembly line of cognitive labor, then the Mechanical Turk is its model apparatus. As the network shifts the object of control from the bodies to the collective mind, the Mechanical Turk achieves this objective by foreclosing the mode of collective cultural production to cognitive workers and confining them within the legislative, temporal, and cultural states of exception”.


% Gilbert Woods completed

Gilbert Woods hybrid Assignment07

AMT’s business model works by getting large groups of people to perform  activities associated with traditionally non financial cultural production that eventually produce capital, while alienating the workers from the end product of those labors. The cooperation of people to do these activities is achieved by contrived methods. For example different attitudes toward the workers who perform cognitive tasks “turking”, exist the article points out. Some go along with the process because of, “the novelty of the experience”, perhaps being attracted to the ability to work from home or some other perk of the job. As compared to the original experiment, the Oriental Turk accomplished this novelty by using an Oriental figure from a culture whose exotic preoccupation with the idea of disembodied intelligence got the audience’s attention.  Driven by a simple interest in ideas from other cultures, in this case the alienated laborer doesn’t care about the end product of her labor.  But such is not always the case as some seek AMT as an income source.  In those cases cooperation is achieved by sourcing labor from countries in which wages paid for labor is substantially lower than in the United States. Workers in places with less robust economies like India may well know their work is undervalued but will do it for their interest in having an income.

When a need for information to support a project is identified, AMT breaks down the labor required to obtain such information into HITS.  Perhaps comparable to the reasoning required to reach each individual decision to make a move the human player hidden in the TURK apparatus made, Hits are actually short tasks given to individuals that will be aggregated later into an amount of labor that yields profitable results.  Although the original Turk’s cognitive work led to the consideration of the mechanization of cognitive function, the idea received more attention than the Human who had done the work.  And so it is now with AMT: once the fragmented work of thousands of individuals is aggregated on network platforms the hidden sources of cognitive labor do not receive proper credit for their contribution, nor may even know the end purpose thereof. This process is aided further by the operation of projects across time zones as well, which accelerates the labor process by creating 24-hour business cycles- a virtual labor force that, much like the wooden Turk mannequin in the illustration, never sleeps.  What we see modern-day is analogous to having untold millions of human beings hidden inside this giant Turk apparatus doing work behind the scenes for those who will eventually exploit it openly.