November 03, 2019

The Slaves of the Puppets, a Parable; or, Borges among the turkers

Beware of the place where the mind seemingly exists outside of your body, and yet in no other form.

This essay begins with a warning, but should not be taken as an immediate call to action. These words could, against all odds, be read on the other side of the sixth mass extinction by a new intelligent life form. Hopefully it has already learned all it can from the demise of human civilization.

A parable can be found in the darkness of the basement belonging to Carlos Argentino Danieri, cousin to the deceased Beatriz Viterbo, whom the narrator mourns in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “El Aleph” from 1945. Carlos’ house on calle Garay in Buenos Aires is the only remaining connection to Beatriz that the narrator identifying himself as Borges seems to have. The narrator descends the staircase of the house, into a basement that is like a well, in part because Carlos has promised to show him the Aleph, but also to escape Carlos’ pseudo-poetical chatter. There is a lot of “pseudoísmo” occurring in this story. From Borges casting himself as a Dante with a Beatrice, to the drinking of pseudo-cognac (Argentinian?) before the descent towards the Aleph that Carlos promises to be multum in parvo; much in little, or much in the simple.

In Andrew Hurley’s translation the Aleph is described as “all the places in the world” or “one of the points in space that contains all points”. Carlos is trying to enlist the help of the narrator in the fight to preserve his house, which alongside its Aleph, is in danger of being demolished. The poetry Carlos is writing with the evident assistance of the Aleph is described by Borges as a combination of “application, resignation and chance”. The verses referred to in the story are about some acres in Queensland; more than a kilometre of the river Ob; a gasworks in Veracruz; one of the most important “commercial establishments” in Concepción, and so on, in an attempt to cover the entire content of the world. It is first after freeing himself from the Aleph (giving up the house and moving to the country as Borges encourages him to do), that Carlos poetry is able to have any success.

I have an Aleph in my pocket. I have another one on my desk. As in the case of the one on calle Garay, I too suspect them to be false. But they are insistent. They enclose me with their light and make darkness fall all around. I work, or live, with the Aleph. We all do, these days. The Alephs are soliciting our dull poetry, our mindless and soulless hours in front of the flickering screens. They seem to feed upon attention, jealously. But they are mostly focused on the mind and less interested in choreography. Sometimes, but rarely, mine take over my body. Mostly when I am jogging with an application on my smart phone registering and suggesting my path through the landscape. A voice speaks lap times and distances directly to my muscles, and as when browsing I no longer need to think.

The first step in discussing a new lumpenproletariat who services digital infrastructures in crowdsourced platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) is to ask how much they differ from the normal Internet user. And if one were in doubt there are various examples to illustrate the similarity between both groups. The artist James Coupe paid turkers (as the freelance workers on mTurk are called) to record a one-minute long film every hour between 9 and 5. He showed the films in the exhibition General Intellect in Seattle 2015. He shows that turkers are just normal people that for a myriad reason want to, or have no other choice but to, work from home. A December 2017 study estimated their median income to $3 per hour. They sit hunched, immobile, in front of their computers like I do. The account “mturkpoems” on Twitter and Instagram pay turkers 5 cents for a poem, like “I spend days training / Robots and fancy machines / How to think like me”.

The turkers do not know who their “employers” are, and their work can be rejected without explanation.

Amazon tongue-in-cheek calls its turkers “artificial artificial intelligence”, but do not disclose how many they are. They get paid for what others do while surfing: teaching the machine to identify signs, as well as other menial digital work (like surveys). The jobs, called HITs or Human Intelligence Tasks, can include assignments such as analysing and tagging photos, both for commercial use (pornographic websites) or as part of censorship mechanisms (keeping pornography off social media). The turkers do not know who their “employers” (officially known as “requesters”) are, and their work can be rejected without explanation (in which case no remuneration is given). When turkers get a batch of photos to sort into categories, they have no way of knowing if it will contain beheadings, pornography, or kittens. When in 2014, activists of the nascent campaign ’We are Dynamo’ tried to encourage turkers to send Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (the richest man in the world) unironic supplications like feudal subjects, praising mTurk while asking for more pay, the company allegedly engaged in cyber-union-busting.

It is unclear how far it is possible to progress in understanding digital work with Marxian categories (even the “lumpenproletariat” I used above is admittedly crass). James Coupe’s work invokes Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” (allgemeines Wissen) from the Grundrisse. By this notoriously difficult idea Marx seems to describe how human labour and the social knowledge that goes into machines (fixed capital) in turn conditions social life. The problem is that this general intellect only seems relevant from a position where it is possible to separate human labour from fixed capital in the first place. Only then can humans be abstracted mechanically. But turkers perform a pseudo-work for which they are, contrast to non-turkers, rewarded with a kind of pseudo-pay. Non-turkers work digitally for free in their time off, but are paid for work that can include these kind of tasks (often inadvertently, as in Google searches or connecting people in a Facebook events) performed for a third party during the time spent on their salaried jobs. The mere ability of being able to understand even the smallest difference between labour and fixed capital has now become a class marker (but it would be hard to argue that it had anything to do with class consciousness in Marxian terms).

Participants have been recorded expressing gratitude for a chance to get away from the computer and use their bodies for a few minutes.

The Aleph appears to contain no points of subversion and it is difficult to locate any revolutionary potential in a possible class awakening of the digital lumpenproletariat. Contemporary art approaches the matter with an uncomfortable hesitation as though suspecting (rightly so, it seems) that it is a topic that makes everything dull – also in a political sense. Xtine Burrough’s near decade-long artwork ”Mechanical Olympics” pays turkers $3.50 to film and re-enact Olympic sports featured at the time Olympic Games with whatever means at hand.Participants have been recorded expressing gratitude for a chance to get away from the computer and use their bodies for a few minutes.

mTurk derives its name from the automaton built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770 (later bought and exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel). This chess playing mechanical turk made a name for itself in Europe and the US before it perished in a fire in 1854. The particularity of this automaton was that it was a fake. An ingenious sliding chair made it possible for a chess master to sit in the “machinery” part of the puppet on which the chess board rested, hidden from the audience and the opponent. A number or prominent masters operated the turk during the years of its use.

Walter Benjamin, in his cryptic “Theses on the Philosophy of History” from 1940, likens the “expert chess player” to theology, controlling the puppet of “historical materialism”. This becomes an image by which Benjamin can forward his late messianism. It is a strange model, and not only for that it is difficult to know what Benjamin means with historical materialism (or historicism). But he also leaves out one important possessive case, grammatically and ideologically speaking. Benjamin speaks of the puppet and the man inside it, not about the man for whom the first two work. This is a telling omission. Most other accounts of the turk indicate the possessive case already in the title: Edgar Allen Poe’s story about it from 1836 is entitled “Maelzel's Chess Player”, and a story on a similar subject by Ambrose Bierce from 1899 "Moxon's Master". The ur-image here being ”Frankenstein's monster” after Mary Shellys’ 1818 creation.

Benjamin’s theoretical machine seems to belong to no one. He even seems to imply that the true mover could be the puppetmaster hidden in the dark. But why does she or he hide there? Who arranges the game? Can the expert chees player in the machine dare to hope to reap the full reward of her or his labours? The questions assemble to destabilise Benjamin’s image. Heinz Dieter Kittsteiner suggested in a famous article in New German Critique from 1986 that “Marxian theory is today in the enviable position Benjamin had reserved for theology in the first thesis: it is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight”. But such clever castling does not solve the larger issue at stake. The absence of the operator’s operator produces a situation when all appears to be a game between only the puppet and the puppeteer. This is a symptomatic impasse.

The central (and impossible) digital question concerns the difference between requester, operator and owner. This is something that both crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding platforms inquire, along with the entire “gig-economy”. We are undergoing a process of re-distribution in a neutral sense of the word. The requester can be anyone, as can the operator; even both in the same vessel: everything like in the Aleph itself. We are all Amazon. And a striking element of this economy (or culture, or nature, or everything) is that the positions are dominated precisely by an idea of plurality. This figure was previously often revolutionary (or one belonging to what can be called a “general theology”): from Jesus claiming to be “Legion” in Mark 5:9 to the “revolutionary masses” of modernity to the hackers of Anonymous and the Wikipedia-utopians. But now it has become a totalitarian multiplicity. And what solidarity with the oppressed turkers is possible today when we are both marginally less oppressed and the ones fuelling the system of oppression?

mTurk seems to exist on the other side of the horizon of work and capital, and of the contemporary intellect. Jorge Luis Borges, who died 1986 and never saw his cybernetic universe fully materialised, would have asked us to meditate over the monster resulting from “application, resignation and chance”, if possible away from the keyboard. Maybe he would have even asked us to retreat to the country like Carlos Argentino Danieri. There we could be alone, moving in one place through finitude, on the other side of a tragedy that falsely pretends to contain all times and all places.