Art Here and Now
Daring creativity happening now around the world
Mechanical Turk, Mechanical Art, Mechanical People

I used to flip through the Artist’s Market when I was in middle school. Back then, the prices paid for illustrations from books and magazines seemed extravagant. I didn’t understand until later how little artists get paid for their time and skill.

How about $.69 per hour?

Mechanical Turk is an Amazon project which hands out low-effort, repeatable, internet-based work units to people who sign up to take them on. The task units can be created by any organization or business who’s approved to offer them. The work is along the lines of “look at each of these images and click a box if there’s something red in the image.” The pay is based on supply and demand (of workers and tasks), but overall task completion is paid at very low amounts. This is not covered by minimum wage law because the workers can do the work in their own manner, when and where they want to. This means all workers, in the eyes of the law, are independent businesses, and can accept bids and make proposals of any amount they wish.

At the end of last year, artist Aaron Koblin put a set of tasks up on Mechanical Turk. Anyone accepting the tasks would create a drawing of a sheep facing left for $.02 per drawing. Each person could make a maximum of five sheep, for a total of $.10. Average time to create a drawing was 105 seconds. That works out to $.69 per hour.
The artist had 10,000 sheep created this way, and then flipped them on a new site at the rate of $20 for 20 sheep. The artists were up in arms, but the terms of Mechanical Turk clearly state all work becomes the property of the person requesting the task (like many work for hire agreements).

The larger artwork, The Sheep Market, in using this process showed the effects of outsourcing, the state of worker’s rights in the digital era, and the value art and artists are given in modern society.

Why would a company pay minimum wage if they can pay $.69/hour? Why would a stock photo agency pay a professional photographer for their work if they can get it for $1 per photo? How will artists make a living in a sea of cheaper online creativity?

More:
Salon – “I make $1.45 a week and I love it”;
Wired – The Rise of Crowdsourcing
Isabel Wang’s Blog – The User Generated Sheep Controversy

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posted by Trout Monfalco

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