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Title of Essay in Plain Type: synthesized voices from an unprecedented future, mustering a form of writing that is brutally present


Wershler, Darren. “Title of Essay in Plain Type: synthesized voices from an unprecedented future, mustering a form of writing that is brutally present.” Afterward to Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract, or, Principles of Poetic Right (2013): 1–12. Print. Also: http://www.alienated.net/academic-writing/title-essay-plain-type/

p.1-2: In this book’s opening image, what we see, from behind, are the ostensible inner workings of the Mechanical Turk, an infamous ‘automaton’ built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the late eighteenth century. This copper engraving was first published in 1783 in one of a stream of books, pamphlets and articles that claimed to have figured out how von Kempelen’s machine worked. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.2: We already know that the revelations this image claims to present are a sham. We already know that what lies behind those doors and compartments are not the various and sundry components of an actual clockwork mechanism capable of playing a match-winning game of chess, but what movie set designers call ‘gak’ – elaborate mechanical confections attached to the surface of a prop to give us the sense that something marvellous and technical is occurring within it – something, in this case, made more opaque by the puppet dressed like an Eastern mystic who faces the audience. We’re entertained by how impressive it all looks, even though we already know that what is really inside the cramped and stuffy confines of the box is at least one small, sweaty, poorly-paid human being. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.2: This worries us, because we also know that Amazon.com’s choice to adopt this icon to describe their low-rent Internet-based crowdsourced labour pool, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), is both wholly appropriate and eye-wateringly honest. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.3: From Panos Ipeirotis’ dataset we know that 54% of the people that work for AMT (‘Turkers’) are between 21 and 35 years old. We know that 70% of them are women. We know that 65% of them have a household income of less than $60,000 per year, and that 55% of them do not have children. We know that 46.80% of them are from the United States, another 34% are from India, and the remaining 19.20% are from everywhere else. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.3: The history of people using AMT to make art is almost as old as the history of the platform. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.3-4: Gregory Laynor, Stephen McLaughlin, Kaegan Sparks and Vladimir Zykov published a series of AMT pieces in 2008 on their FOR GODOT blog, under the title I WAS TOLD TO WRITE 50 WORDS, which was exactly the workshop exercise they had been set by their professor, Kenneth Goldsmith. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.4: Blogger user Ann conducted an exquisite corpse-style experiment on AMT, choosing a first line, having several AMT workers submit next lines and picking one winner, then resubmitting that line until the poem was completed. One example still appears on the Crowd Poet blog. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.4: In 2010, Markus Strohmaier produced In the daily life of a Mechanical Turk, a poem constructed around the acrostic phrase ‘infinite monkey’ and arranged in a series of rhyming couplets. The individual lines that filled this framework were composed by AMT workers. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.4: Ben Packer contributed this answer to the same question:

I had MTurkers write love letters to my wife.

I gave enough details for them to write something specific and personal (but not enough for them to find and stalk us – hopefully). I paid 25 cents with up to a 50 cent bonus for great ones. When I got them, I copied and pasted them in emails to my wife. She was very confused, particularly by the one that was signed ‘Frank’. I told her it was a typo.

-- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.5: Aaron Koblin and Daniel Masse’s Bicycle Built for 2,000 uses AMT on a larger scale. In this project, the workers listened to a short sound clip, then recorded themselves imitating what they heard. 2,088 such recordings were synced together to produce a choral version of ‘Daisy Bell’ (1892), the song used to create the first example of musical speech synthesis. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.5: Fred Benenson’s Kickstarter-funded Emoji Dick submitted each of the 10,000+ sentences in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to an AMT worker three times for translation into Japanese emoticons (emoji). -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.6: Of the Subcontract needs to be read as a critique of artists and poets who employ networked digital outsourcing as a production method. If this is institutional critique, the point is that art is now quite comfort- able inside the institution. There is no neutral place on which to stand. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.6: Paraphrasing the work of Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Žižek summarises contemporary ideology with the following aphorism: ‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it’. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.6: It wants to assert, at the same time, that the once-lauded cultural value of the work of poets is now so close to nothing as to be indistinguishable from it, and that the work of precarious labourers in a networked digital milieu, which is remunerated far below minimum wage, without benefits or the collective bargaining power of unionisation, is nevertheless dignified. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014

p.7: We use data to represent these changes to ourselves. The meanings that we abstract and extract from that data enforce and accelerate those changes. Data is the great leveller, reconfiguring both the most privileged and the least privileged kinds of writing as Human Intelligence Tasks. Poets and professors can point to this change, but so far, have not been able to move beyond it. As we are beginning to realise, our tasks, too, can be outsourced. -- Highlighted apr 28, 2014