James Coupe’s Chilling, Tender General Intellect Brings the Microeconomy to Your Art Collection
by JEN GRAVES
The Stranger, Sept 23, 2015
Amazon Mechanical Turk, or mTurk, is a website started in 2005 by Amazon. On mTurk, workers do micro-tasks online for micro-pay. More than 500,000 workers in 190 countries are registered. They’re invisible and unregulated, typing away at half a million individual screens across the world.
A Seattle artist thought he’d bring these unseen workers to light, and now they’re on heartbreaking, mesmerizing display in an art exhibition four blocks from Amazon headquarters.
First, about mTurk: To become a worker, you just click. You can do the work anytime, anywhere. “Human Intelligence Tasks,” or “HITs,” are posted by “requesters,” including a description of the HIT, time allotted, and “reward.” The reward is often below 10 cents, and the time is in minute increments. Amazon takes a 20 percent cut per HIT, or 40 percent if the HITs are more involved.
There is no minimum wage and no legal authority to enforce payments, which are commonly reported missing. The workers have begun to organize, setting up Yelp-like monitoring sites, joining with academics to create ethical guidelines for a digital commons, and appealing directly to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in a Christmas letter-writing campaign last year.
There’s an interesting twist to this digital workplace: It requires the labor of flesh-and-blood humans. Workers do all kinds of things, like take research surveys, transcribe audio, and tag photos. Which leads to a twist on the twist: Much of the work trains artificial intelligence systems. Amazon’s slogan for mTurk, “Artificial Artificial Intelligence,” reflects its mythology—that this may be a faceless workplace, but real humans are still its bread and butter. Yet the Christmas letter campaign to Bezos begins by having to insist, “I am a human being, not an algorithm.”
mTurk workers range from full-time professionals to people left out of the mainstream economy: stay-at-home mothers, felons, people in poor countries. Workers don’t know what their work is used for, don’t meet their employers, and have no coworkers.
Seattle artist James Coupe says his work is concerned with “the shifting conditions of exploitation, and the new forms of social alienation.” But to create General Intellect, he didn’t resist or protest mTurk, he complied with and harnessed it. The results can be upsetting, and intentionally so.
“Record videos of what you happen to be doing at a time,” is how Coupe described the HIT he posted to mTurk seeking workers.
He proposed to pay each worker $3 for eight videos, one video per hour every hour of a working day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The response was huge. Coupe received more than 3,000 videos, and he combined those into a database that could be broken down demographically or according to subject matter—because along with the videos, he’d required workers to provide their age, race, and geographical location, and to write their own short captions describing each one-minute broadcast.
The instructions didn’t say the workers had to speak or appear on camera. But many of the workers—if not most—overshared anyway. Watching them in these fragmentary, intimate glimpses is ultimately entertaining, and sometimes it’s painful because it’s entertaining.
The workers don’t know they’re the subjects of a work of art displayed publicly. For $3 a day and with no questions asked, they’ve granted access to their homes, habits, children, prescription bottles, and in at least one case, a computer screen showing financial data. They have taken us with them to the doctor, to grab their favorite fast food, to bed. Some just set the camera to the side in a cafe where they were working on something else. Others appear to be in bleak and lonely situations, and for them, the camera is company, then after 60 seconds, the screen goes dark.
General Intellect’s database of 3,000 videos is set up to feed into 18 separate monitors. These monitors sit directly on the cold floors of deserted classrooms in a former school that a developer will demolish to build luxury apartments near Amazon’s headquarters. Until it’s time for construction, the developer is permitting the classrooms to be used for art exhibitions, and in those classrooms that have windows, General Intellect is set up so that the monitors face the streets. Non-anonymous Amazon employees walk by dangling their name tags, fleetingly sharing an office with mTurk workers through layers of glass and electronics.
There’s a handout at the entrance to General Intellect that lists 13 “queries.” Each classroom is assigned a feed determined by one of those queries, like “All workers who caption keyword ‘medication,’ ‘prescription,’ ‘doctor,’ or ‘meds,'” or “Most popular keyword per hour,” or “Workers of the same demographic (age, gender, race, region).”
To purchase the art of General Intellect, you buy a query of your choice. (You also receive the hardware and software.) What plays on your home screen are the video results that apply to your query. But that’s not all. You also receive a one-year subscription to the feed, and your money goes to put out more HITs every week for workers to make more videos. Those new videos are fed into the database that feeds your home program.
So as the collector, you are not just the audience—you are the virtual employer. How will that feel? It’s a clever and meaningfully creepy art sales model, like a shadow version of Caleb Larsen’s sculpture that sells itself on eBay, which premiered in Seattle in 2010 (and is still, to this day, selling itself on eBay). Workers aren’t the only ones hoping to harness the digital commons for their purposes—so are artists. And the purpose here is drawing attention to the conditions of the digital commons.
The original Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing robot that toured Europe starting in 1770. Smoke would rise from the turban of a life-size mannequin sitting at a chess table. At each performance, the owner would fling open the doors beneath the table—See, no human! Only clockwork in here!—and play would begin.
The machine caught fire in 1854. Many of its secrets went up in flames. But years later, it was finally revealed that different master players, who also had to be very small people, had been hiding inside, winning not only chess games but the age-old competition between human and machine.
That story reinforces the unmatched value of real people. mTurk, despite its lighthearted slogan, can seem more like The Matrix. General Intellect is an alternately chilling and tender combination of the two.
Amazon CEO Bezos probably doesn’t stroll the streets outside his headquarters, where he might happen upon his creations, and that’s okay. He could still buy the first query, install it in his office, and let it talk to him along with whatever Christmas letters he gets this year.