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

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  • Workshop Statement

    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.