The Builders Association explores the world of turkers, workers performing thousands of weird, low-paying tasks for an online giant.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
A place where “information is free” and “money isn’t everything”: That’s how Stewart Brand, the longtime editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, foresaw the future of the internet in 1985.
That same year, the management guru Art Kleiner said that his “key impression” of the developing medium was “one of civilization.”
And in 1996, John Perry Barlow, in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” wrote that the online world was a place “where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
So how’s that going?
Cheap are the ironies of hindsight. Yet not as cheap as what happened to a new class of low-wage workers brought about by the internet age — in particular, a group of freelancers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform known as turkers. They are the subject of “I Agree to the Terms,” an online presentation from NYU Skirball that is less a play than an affable, informative lecture-demonstration on last-ditch labor — and an implicit criticism of it.
Because this is the brainchild of the Builders Association — written by James Gibbs, one of its “core collaborators,” and directed by Marianne Weems, its founder — the genre bleed is not unexpected. Previous Builders works, including “Alladeen” (a multimedia piece about Bangalore call centers) and “Elements of Oz” (a riff on the MGM movie musical involving smartphone filters you point at the stage), have often mined delight from novel combinations of technology and storytelling.
Even so, when I saw “I Agree to the Terms,” on Saturday, the novelty was causing problems. The 45-minute piece was delayed for 35 minutes by what were described vaguely as “back-end problems.”
Once the difficulties were resolved, “I Agree to the Terms” went smoothly if not quite compellingly. In the first part, set during the internet’s early days, recitations from those optimistic manifestoes are interspersed with brief recreations of bulletin board testimony about sexism and addiction. The third part, a glimpse at an online future that includes metaverse avatars, virtual reality and a cyberspace bazaar selling human hearts for NFTs, seems merely glib.
Only in between do we learn anything new, as our guides, Moe Angelos and David Pence, introduce the so-called MTurk world. Several hundred thousand workers, we learn, operate on that platform, performing menial online tasks for pennies, sometimes as a side hustle and sometimes as their sole source of income.
Semi-scripted interviews with four actual turkers personalize the information. Adah from Florida walks us through the MTurk dashboard, which lists HITs (human intelligence tasks) and how much they pay. Michelle, an actor living in the Bronx, performs HITs on the subway, monetizing time that would otherwise be wasted. Noel, who is quadriplegic, can now work from home in New Mexico — as can Sibyl, from Alabama, who tells us she became a turker when her husband’s death left her with $35 and no source of income.
“It was this or murdering chickens at the chicken plant,” Sibyl says, adding that the transportation costs for that minimum-wage work would have wiped out her earnings. At least by turking she can make, on a good day, $100, without leaving what appears to be her basement.
It is perhaps for that reason she will not brook any criticism of Amazon. “I know you aren’t all sitting there and judging my pimp,” she says, warningly.
That’s it for real-life drama, but there is at least some virtual excitement to come. A QR code leads you to an MTurk dashboard created especially for this production. You have 12 minutes to process as many tasks as possible, accumulating “Builders Coin” and approval ratings as you go. Some of the tasks I faced resembled Captcha challenges; others were short surveys, and a few were simply inscrutable. One, I felt sure, was an SAT reject: an analogous relations question with no satisfactory answer.
In any case, I completed 14 tasks, earning $7.17, a 93 percent approval rating and a headache.
If the Builders were hoping to expose another Amazonian hellhole of capitalism, I’m not sure they succeeded; the experience, being pleasant enough, was at odds with the message. While turking, I felt no more exploited than while solving the daily Wordle.
A more telling exercise might have been drawn from the original Mechanical Turk, an 18th-century scam for which the enterprise is named. That was a chess-playing “machine” operated secretly by a person pretzled into its cabinetry. Talk about back-end problems!
I Agree to the Terms
Through April 3; nyuskirball.org. Running time: 45 minutes.
Review: In ‘I Agree to the Terms,’ It’s Raining Pennies From Amazon – The New York Times