“Return to the Crowds,” the title of Ahyan Aytes’s essay about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, already gives us some clues about the relationship between Amazon.com’s micropayment-based crowdsourcing platform and the 18th-century Automaton Chess Player from which its name is derived. If we can begin to understand the mechanical function Aytes affiliates with the crowd for the 18th-century chess player, I believe we will come closer to understanding the argument he is making.
Kempelen himself admits that the automatic function of the chess player is just a “happy deception” (Aytes 2013:105; Cook 1995). The general public or “crowd” is made aware of their status and privilege through their knowledge that the chess master assistant is the one who actually operates the automaton. But Aytes’s interest is not just in the automaton. He suggests aspects of “immaterial labor” pertinent to our contemporary political economic conditions can be understood as deriving from the game of chess itself, as it is connected to conceptualizations of subjectivity during the Enlightenment era. He argues that the game of chess is a representation of all that is possible for subjects in the Enlightenment universe, and suggests therefore that the actions of subjects are already coded by regulations, of the power and structure of the game (Aytes 2013:107).
Aytes views subjectivity in the era of Enlightenment as already limited by a power that is inherent to the way society is conceptualized and structured. But how then should we understand the relationship Aytes describes between the subject of enlightenment and the docility he attributes to the Oriental? As he (2013:107) writes, “the chess-playing Turk embodied an integration of the self-regulating liberal subject with the mechanical docility of the Oriental, performed within the coded socioeconomic universe of the game of chess.” Aytes proposes that the self-regulating liberal subject and the mechanical docility of the Oriental are functioning in tandem in this game.
Pointing to the work of Aihwa Ong (2006), Aytes argues that neoliberalism is a global system of exception. The mechanical function Aytes attributes to cognitive labor is described in relationship to crowdsourcing, but for this work there is “labor arbitrage” as well. Labor arbitrage “breaks apart the traditional relationship between the national labor legislations and the worker as citizen” (Aytes 2013:114). So we have a crowdsourcing system operating in a global market where the experience of exploitation depends primarily on whether interest in Mechanical Turk is motivated by the novelty of the experience, as it is in the U.S., or as a primary source of income, as Aytes suggests it is viewed by workers in India and China.