Return of the Crowds
Fragmentation is a crucial aspect of crowdsourcing platforms, preventing the access of the cognitive worker to the final intelectual work. These work relationships are task-based and ephemeral, not allowing for any connection between the parties involved and further removing the worker from the products of his/her labor.
The Amazon Mechanical Turk is a system in which workers around the world browse HIT's (Human Intelligence Tasks) and choose which ones to complete. These tasks can be set both by individual or corporate contractors. It is the neoliberal reincarnation of the dream behind the automatization of human tasks (chess-playing automaton), setting the coordinates of a cognitive capitalist relationship between task-based, fragmented cognitive labor under low-wages and automatized control and computing structures. Its workforce can be defined as Artificial Artificial Intelligence, and these work relations appear there were the legislation allows for gray areas - the digital networks - creating a system of exception where a private contractor relies on somebody else's basic needs to get their work done for little compensation. This labor performance is an instrumental element for the functioning of the disciplinary structure connected to this particular socioeconomic apparatus, training the human mind for industrial production through division of cognitive work.
Kempelen's chess-player authomaton (1770) is constituted by a Turk mannequin, whose mechanical mind is controlled by a hidden assistant. This automata is used by Foucault as a model for human body and social power in a double register:
1. Cartesian mind/body duality
2. State-disciplined body operations
The cultural and anthropological context of the Enlightement is crucial in understanding the choice of the Turk as an interface, and is set upon two main assumptions:
- The Turks's liminal quality, quieting the distrust provoked by the heretic associations of a body without a soul and conveying surveillance and discipline by representing the Other and setting, therefore, the limits of normality.
- The Turk's perceived docility, connected with the assumption that Muslims follow the code strictly. A docile and disciplined body is a productive body. On a deeper reading, we can speak of the intellectual labor performed by the hidden assistant on behalf of the automata.
Both liminality and docility are instrumental in understanding the model of power behind the social order in a context of mechanization of labor in Europe. The Turk represents the role of this model of power through multiple layers, being one of them the association of knowledge with power and status, that is, the knowledge of the secret behind this mechanism was only shared by the "guardians of knowledge and power", thus setting the difference between them and the general public. The borders between machines and living creatures slowly started to dissolve, considering the former as the latter and vice versa, exploring the now open ontological liminalities.
"Can the mind work without a body?", Kempelen's machine asks. Not yet, because it is still controlled by an assistent and yes, as it was proved by later technological improvements. The mechanical Turk conveyed the sense of a self-regulating system, as opposed to clockwork, the idea of which largely influenced the Enlightement ideas of liberal subjects and democracy, where every subject would rationally self-regulate his conduct according to their economic aspirations. One of the conflict free social systems behind this idea was formulated by Leibniz, who proposed a universal language based on the calculation of the predetermined laws which operate the spiritual automata that is our mind (calculus raciocinator). Chess helps us understand the functioning within a symbolic system, thus providing the connection to computer languages, operating under certain rules and limitations. In this case, Chess is stated by Deleuze to be a game of state, its pieces and their relations with each other coded according to a specific socioeconomic structure, representing the ideals of Enlightenment: subjects and actions coded by society's power structure. The chess playing Turk thus combined the self-regulating liberal subject and the docility of the oriental within the coded socioeconomic universe of chess.
Charles Babbage considered the division of mental labor would eventually transfer the human cognitive tasks to a machine. This, of course, would shake the foundations of the "irreplaceability" of intellectual labor, representing a decline in its exchange value. The industrial capitalist mindset would consider it possible for anyone in a given regulated industrial organization to play any part, meaning everybody's replaceable. This appropriation of human thinking by computational organizations and apparatuses, such as the state, illustrates well the tendency of the encoding of human thought into numerical representations brought about by Enlightenment ideals. The socioeconomic context in which the apparatuses emerge should never be ignored for they determine how the human both controls and he's controlled by them. But what is the apparatus? Briefly put, the apparatus is a machine which forms subjectivity (example: the Foucauldian prison). This concept is key in understying how the disciplinary formation of the cognitive worker acts by mechanizing the human mind through labor division within a given economic infrastructure. Within the neoliberal apparatuses, the prototype of the Enlightement is realized in a large scale computable system which transfers the role of the privileged cognitive labor by fragmentation, thus requiring less qualification and further alienating the cognitive worker from the cultural, geographical and temporal aspects of her/his work.
Crowdsourcing is a term which describes the relationship, whithin the neoliberal apparatus, of the outsourcing paradigm and the crowds of the digital networks, the breaking down of barriers between amateurs and profissionals brought about by the massified access to communication commodities, this being seen as one of the factors for pushing down labor costs. Mazarella distinguishes between the crowds, which belong in a society of discipline, and the multitude, which moves within the context of a control society whose efforts are directed more towards the managing of differences than the imposing of a social frame. The immaterial labor, which characterises the multitude, is possible due to the commodification of communication, there where "social" becomes "economical". Lazzarato sustains that subjectivity is now the "raw material" of immaterial labor, directly producting a social relation. However, this assumes the equality of conditions between digital actors, assumption which crowdsourcing disturbs. The information production cycles impact differently on subjectivity due to the immediate and direct effect on the domain where they are produced. But what if the communicatior is no longer the consumer? The crowdsurfing apparatus blurs the distinctions between industrial and postindustrial labor and rejects assumptions of the indepencence from capital of the subjectivity formation brought about by cognitive work. The division of labor, however, impacts differently on the perceived Other by making use of the the legislative gray areas designed by the neoliberal apparatus to take advantage of regional labor costs in what Ong calls the "system of exception".
Neoliberalism is, thus, a "system of exception" playing with the state of liminality carefully outside of juridical order so as to expand profits by driving down labor costs. This assigning the part of the Other, by the neoliberal apparatus, relies on two key strategies:
- Labor arbitrage, a strategy for disciplining and governing through the expoliation of the civil rights of the work as a citizen, deterritorializing labor. This strategy goes hand in hand with cognitive labor due to the former's capacity for task computorized fragmentation. It heavily relies on the differences between regional labor costs, and is only possible due to an exploitation of the basic needs of the Other through a deeply unregulated market. Simply put, this despoiling of the workers of their civil rights is brought about by the creation of states of exception in which they move (for example, immigrants), carefully explored so as to push down wages and expand profits.
- Time arbitrage, a strategy with a double scale, so that it can refer both to the difference between the time zones and consequent possibilites of achieving 24h production cycles and the extension of work hours/the acceleration of the work process. This digital "timeless time" is of course defined by a privileged social actor, and seeks to crash down all time barriers. The anthropolical Western tradition of allochronic temporality (casting the Other outside the historical time) is thus brought about by this strategy, setting these cognitive workers in a perpetual state of machine connectivity - contributing for the maintenance of clear domination structures. Through their immaterial labor, cognitive workers sustain Western living standards and ideals.
This state of exception furthermore contributes to the cultural detachment of the cognitive worker, who sees the access to the cultural dimension of the commodity he/she produces completely denied, for it informs social relations somewhere else in the world and ends up not affecting their own.
In conclusion, the Mechanical Turk provides the model apparatus for the digital network as the assembly line of cognitive labor, embodying the paradigm shift between discipline and control societies, where the control is transferred from the body to the mind. Our western cultural commodities are produced by workers within a state of exception which, due to geographical, temporal and cultural fragmentation are prevented from cooperating with each other, thus negating their autonomy from the forces of capital. Contributing to the completion of the cultural algorithm, they are both producers and produced subjects of its disciplining structures, which ultimately influences their efficiency and way of living. The paradox of the system consists in the unifying multitude, reducing the differences which define information's economic value.