[iDC] Exploitation...

Lilly Irani lirani at cs.stanford.edu
Mon Jul 6 08:18:32 UTC 2009

Thanks for posting this, Trebor. Txteagle gave me a bit of a start when I
read about it. I'eve never read anything about it that talks about the
laborers and their economic contexts in specific terms. As with many of
these development-at-mega-scale "innovations," supposed beneficiaries are
painted in broad, "third world" brush strokes.

Are those marginal dollars useful? Maybe in the short term, but do we expect
long term usefulness. I've found James Ferguson's term "socially thin," a
concept he uses to describe extraction in 1990s Africa, as one way of
thinking about exploitation specifically when thinking about MTurk in
development projects, such as in txteagle.

Extraction as a pattern of business practice is what Ferguson calls
“socially thin” (2006). Socially thin practices are those that invest little
in the society that hosts the business. Such businesses, for example, build
highly specific infrastructures that serve business needs and little else.
These businesses also rely on highly specialized employees, often brought in
from other countries, to work with the specific technologies of that
business. The result is that extractive businesses tend to deplete a
nation’s resources while offering nothing to the surrounding communities in
excess of the bare minimum required to do profitable business. Once an
extractive business leaves, the remnants of infrastructure and skill base
are of little use to those left behind.

Socially thin businesses stand in contrast to what Ferguson calls socially
thick businesses. Ferguson offers the example of colonial-era Zambian
coppermine businesses. The coppermines employed workers from the local
communities and trained them in the work of mining. Companies set up company
towns with schools, hospitals, and even social workers. The mining business
could still certainly be characterized as exploitative – many of these
social programs existed for the purpose of maintaining a disciplined
workforce, often tinged with Western paternalism. Nonetheless, these
socially thick businesses represented a deeper and broader engagement with
those whose resources were being capitalized. These engagements may generate
an excess that can be appropriated in support of alternate livelihoods.

In thinking about MTurk and doing some surveys on it, the one form of
appropriable excess I've come across is that a lot of the people doing it
right now in India are doing it to practice and sharpen their english
skills. Reading and writing english is certainly a marketable skill in
India, the preferred pidgin / contact language (as far as I know) in the
Hindi-averse southern states. But otherwise, turking seems to utilize a
fairly specific set of skills and talents that don't seem well transferable
-- and even if they were transferable, there is no such thing as a turk
resume, or any claims turkers can make to the works they have helped author
since they usually don't even see the final product they contribute to.


On Mon, Jul 6, 2009 at 12:36 AM, Trebor Scholz <scholzt at newschool.edu>wrote:

> Txteagle (http://txteagle.com/)
> "For users: In many parts of the world there is an abundance of idle
> time. txteagle makes it possible for anyone to earn small amounts of
> money while completing tasks that just take a few seconds, whether while
> waiting in line or resting at home."
> "There are over 2 billion literate, mobile phone subscribers in the
> developing world, many living on less than $5 a day.
> Corporations pay people to accomplish millions of simple text-based
> tasks.
> txteagle enables these tasks to be completed via text message by
> ordinary people around the globe."
> =======================================
> New service is all in a day's SMS by Alka Marwaha
> BBC World Service
> 11 February 2009
> http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7881931.stm
> A new scheme that distributes simple tasks via text messages is being
> used to target a potential untapped work force in developing countries.
> Txteagle is making it possible for many people in countries like Kenya
> to earn small amounts of money by completing simple tasks like
> translations or transcriptions.
> Amazon's "Mechanical Turk" similarly divides up tasks but Txteagle
> differs in that it distributes them via text messages over mobile
> phones, which have a higher penetration rate - particularly in the
> developing world.
> Software localisation
> The service was founded by Nathan Eagle, a researcher at the Santa Fe
> Institute in New Mexico.
> "What we typically focus on is words and phrases, and at the moment most
> of our clients are interested in software localisation," Dr Eagle told
> BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.
> "They approach us and say look, we have this whole slew of text-based
> tasks, things like translations and transcriptions."
> According to Txteagle, the total amount of idle time that literate,
> English-speaking mobile phone subscribers have within the developing
> world is estimated to be more than 250 million hours every day.
> He feels that texting tasks like simple translations to participants in
> developing countries is economical not only in a business sense but also
> provides participants with an additional source of income.
> "In Kenya there are 60 different unique languages, and companies -
> whether they are Microsoft, Google or Nokia - would love to put their
> software in each of these languages.
> "But they really have no idea what these particular words would
> translate to," said Dr Eagle.
> “ Not only can we affect the lives of a lot of people, we can impact the
> GDP of the nation ”
> Nathan Eagle
> "For example, the word 'address book' is very common on almost all Nokia
> handsets and where I was living in this small village called Kilifi in
> Kenya, the mother tongue is a language called Giriama.
> "An individual in Kilifi receives the text message saying, please
> translate the word 'address book'.
> "They type in that particular word and it gets sent back to our server,
> which is collecting a lot of responses from that same task until we are
> confident we have the right answer.
> "Once we get the right answer we push it back to - in this case - Nokia.
> "This system enables companies like Nokia to build-up a corpus of these
> translations, so that they can do software localisation," he said.
> Exploitation or globalisation
> Although the concept seems like an ideal way of helping the developing
> world, Txteagle could also be seen as a means of profiteering.
> Dr Eagle disagrees and feels that given the high rates of unemployment
> and marginal income sources, much of this population would greatly
> benefit from even an extra dollar per day.
> "One of the things that we would like to see happen is to have lots and
> lots of tasks and have individuals potentially doing this full-time," he
> said.
> "For the moment this is something that would be a system that enables
> people to augment their existing income stream and not for them to quit
> their job and do this full time.
> "If you just look at the business of outsourcing industry, we're talking
> about hundreds of billions of dollars a yeagoing into rural villages in
> Africa, not only can we affect the lives of
> a lot of people, we can impact the GDP of the nation," he added.
> All payments for completed tasks are received by mobile phones, using
> M-PESA, a popular mobile banking service.
> "I would love to be able to come up with a way that we can do much
> larger scale translations, but remember we are constrained by this 160
> character text message limit," said Dr Eagle.
> He is hoping to expand the service to enable a single phone to have
> multiple user accounts, so that family members could each use a shared
> phone to create their own individual savings accounts.
> Txteagle is set to be rolled out in the Dominican Republic and South
> America later this year.
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Lilly Irani
University of California, Irvine
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