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Amazon Turk and Inevitable Capitalism

Amazon’s most amoral move yet is just around the corner.

Amazon has been a household name for years and has long been a huge corporation, but in the last 12 months it has become synonymous with global capitalism in new ways. Criticisms of its tax ‘scandal’ are partly responsible, though these judgements were in fact slightly misplaced; it’s quite normal for globally trading companies to declare their profits where corporation tax is lower. John Lewis jumped at the chance to appear ethical by distancing themselves from the practice, but their claim had nothing to do with ethics and simply sought to advantage companies that only trade in the UK, such as themselves. Regardless of people’s growing suspicions and reservations, Amazon continues to take over the online world, with its share prices having doubled in the last two years. It’s now the 8th most visited website and has more traffic than Twitter. The general public are used to Amazon, so they may be surprised to hear that its biggest move is yet to come. Amazon Turk, currently online in BETA form, has the potential to take Amazon’s power to new levels and drastically affect the employment market.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a new part of Amazon’s 'marketplace’ (note the traditionalist language) except that instead of goods, the product is labour. The site calls itself 'crowdsourcing’, which means that businesses or individuals (known as Requesters) can post jobs and offer financial rewards for their completion. Workers (known as Turkers) can then complete the tasks listed for the reward offered, almost exclusively from their own computer. In only being paid the value of the task they have completed (or less) the individual becomes a resource whose only value is its direct use-value for the greater system (circumventing minimum wage and time-based valuations of labour). The average wage of a mechanical Turker, if they work quickly, is about one dollar per hour, with most tasks paid only a few cents. It follows typical outsourcing trends but seems oddly honest about doing so: Requesters have to be in the US, where Turkers can be from anywhere. The idea is to get small people doing tasks for big companies as cheaply as possible, with no workers’ rights and no ethical responsibility, as long as that benefits the right economy.
There are at least three major effects of this system. Firstly, it turns the individual into a resource or raw-material waiting to be harvested for the use of the bigger and more important system and order (see our previous analysis). If people are only its raw materials, the system appears to run without being under anyone’s control. Secondly, it centralizes the power and the appearance of power, reducing the scope for alternative systems to develop by increasing dependency on the central system as the provider of work (in this case quite specifically the dependency of the rest of the world on the US). Thirdly, it moves the Amazon Corporation from the secondary (selling goods) to the tertiary (selling services) sector, potentially meaning that all people in the wage market (not just the buying/selling goods industry of Amazon proper) no longer have to see or speak to each other. This feeds back into the first point; if no one has to see the people involved the system appears not run by people; people are only used by a system which proceeds in its own direction.
All these effects are ideological as well as economic, they control the way we perceive the economic market. They contribute to the way media language posits 'the economy’ as the root of all other social issues, the way that the economy appears a ‘driving force’ taking us in a direction that we can do nothing about. Thus, all three effects connect up – we are left with a centralized system which appears to run itself in which people are taken up and put down by its power but are powerless to change this. This centre is made invisible so that those in control can pretend not to be, making out that they share a powerlessness with those the system abuses. The name Turk comes from the chess-set trick conducted by Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen which convinced people that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence when in fact it contained a chess master. In other words, Amazon knows exactly what it’s doing; tricking people into believing that capitalism runs itself to avoid responsibility for their part it in.
This is how it will justify itself to criticism, as it did more legitimately with the tax scandal, by saying that these things are happening elsewhere anyway, that they are part of modernity and not Amazon’s responsibility. What we are left with is an inevitability of capitalism and an obscured and invisible system in which it appears that there is nowhere to lay to blame.
The language used in our media to discuss capitalism is divided between speaking about impending collapse and inevitable continuation. What goes unnoticed here is the removal of a third language that has been in use, referring to capitalism’s own future. Žižek has famously said that ‘it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.’ With Amazon Turk this could really be realized, talk about what we can do to affect capitalism’s future will disappear because a trick has been played in which the system appears to be something that happens regardless of human actions. It is this trick, embodied perfectly by Amazon Turk, which allows those implementing these practices to exacerbate class divide and prevent resistance without admitting that they are doing so.
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