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.