Reversing Globalisation: A movie on the Mechanical Turk, played by Mechanical Turk workers

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During this workshop in Istanbul, we will question the “Mechanical Turk”, the strange online service offered by Amazon since 2005. It is the most famous of the online labour markets, which are often described as “virtual sweatshops”.
Friday, 16 September, 2011 - 12:00 - 18:00
Saturday, 17 September, 2011 - 12:00 - 18:00
Stéphane Degoutin
Gwenola Wagon

Workshop Leader: Prof. Stephane Degoutin, stephane [at]
2nd Leader: Prof. Gwenola Wagon, gwenola.wagon [at]

During this workshop in Istanbul, we will question the “Mechanical Turk”, the strange online service offered by Amazon since 2005.

If the history of the Mechanical Turk goes back to the 18th century, it has for the moment nothing to do with Turkey. The name comes from a chess player automaton dressed in an oriental costume. The Turk could play, and even beat his human opponents. It was only after a few decades that the trick was revealed: a human chess player, hidden in the false bottom of the table, was moving the pieces.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk takes up this idea, metaphorically, with the concept of “artificial artificial intelligence”. An online interface allocates the tasks to anonymous human beings, known as “Turks”, who complete “HITs” (Human Intelligence Tasks). Under the guise of an experiment on the intelligence of crowds, the Mechanical Turk democratizes the tools of ultralberalism. It is the most famous of the online labour markets, known as “webshoring” systems. These are often described as “virtual sweatshops”, since they allow anyone the possibility of having work done for a trivial sum, shifting the site of employment without any regard for regulation or social rights. This used to be possible only for the multinational companies.

By choosing the name “Mechanical Turk”, Amazon clearly indicates where they see the employee: hidden and huddled up inside the machine. This phony human-powered AI represents the cutting-edge of a globalised lumpenproletariat, a world in which more and more useless human beings hide inside machines that exploit their intelligence. The Mechanical Turk turns the workforce into a dystopian science-fiction.

During the workshop, we will use the Mechanical Turk backwards, to produce its own political critique: a film played by modern slaves. We will ask Turks to film themselves, using their webcam. They will act and read texts on relocation and outsourcing, the virtualization of work, and multitasking.
Participants to the workshop will cast and direct the actors. They will help choose the texts and question this new form of globalisation.

To paraphrase Jean Cocteau: Seeing as these things are beyond us, let's pretend to organise them.

The script will be written by Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon, based on a selection of excerpts taken from various sources, including the Mechanical Turk worker’s “union”, newspaper articles, texts by classic economists, stories of Mechanical Turk workers blogs, but also texts by Amazon AI researchers etc.

Bios of the Presenters

Stephane Degoutin

Artist and researcher. Born in 1973 in Toronto, Canada. Lives and works in Paris. Stéphane Degoutin conceives spaces, artistic installations, theoretical texts. His principal research interests are the contemporary city, public space, and the architecture of pleasure. He is the author of the Propositions / spéculations blog. He co-founded the Terrorism Museum, the collective Nogo Voyages. He is the author of Prisonniers volontaires du rêve américain (Volontary Prisoners of the American Dream), as well as the photoblog Lost in Créteil. He created the online installations Googlehouse and What Are You?, and a temporary massage structure. He teaches at the Ensad (Paris).

Gwenola Wagon

Artist, professor and researcher. Born in 1975.
Currently Assitant Professor at the University of Paris at St. Denis (Paris 8), where she completed her thesis entitled Utopias of an Interactve Cinema and the Accessibility of Moving Images. She has a diploma from the Video Department of Interactive Research Studio at the National School of Decorative Arts, Paris. She also collaborates with the Cela Etant collective with whom she has coauthored a number of video, sound, and interactive installations in France and abroad. Her interests are centered around the impact of new technology on cinema. She has taught digital video in the Art department of the University of Paris (8) since 2001.