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Culture and technology
20 July 2012

Why the Mechanical Turk cannot replace our organic institutions

In the late 18th century a strange machine, called the Mechanical Turk, toured the courts of Europe. It took the form of an automaton dressed in sultan-like garb, sitting at desk. To the amazement of all who saw it, the automaton was capable of not only playing, but also winning a game of chess. The Mechanical Turk was, of course, a fake. Though it did contain some fairly impressive machinery, it also contained a human operator concealed within the desk.

Now, in the 21st century, there is a new Mechanical Turk – a website of that name created by the online retailer Amazon. What it does is enable people to undertake various online tasks, however brief in duration, and be paid for them. They need never actually meet their temporary employers or ever work for them again, the whole transaction is completed via the website.

It is a form of employment known as ‘microtasking’ and, according to Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, it has revolutionary potential: 

  • "It’s worth appreciating the breadth of the change microtasking represents. It breaks up jobs into astonishingly small tasks—a job might take a minute, an hour, or a day. Imagine an assembly line that can be de-constructed and dispersed so that, instead of having to clock in for an eight-hour shift, workers can be paid by the piece. They show up to the line and do as much, or as little, work as they like. Yet because the line is decentralized over a large network of potential employees, it always runs smoothly." 

However, Last also sees a serious downside. Severing the link between employment and geography may remove all kinds of constraints – especially those of time and distance, but it also undoes the relationship that businesses build up with the places in which they operate: 

  • "America provides business with an enormous basket of essential goods. There’s the physical capital—roads and sewers. Then there’s the human capital—a literate, educated workforce with a reasonably benign cultural disposition. All of which, you could argue, businesses pay for with their taxes. But infinitely more valuable is America’s social capital… Property rights are generally secure and respected. The criminal code is explicit and routinely enforced. Corruption—a deadly poison for economic life—is rare and the political order is stable enough to be disregarded as a cause for concern… 
  • "Americans have loved commerce since the Founding and they give these wondrous gifts to business freely. In return, they have traditionally asked only one thing: that business owners participate in the life of their communities." 

Though conservatives believe in free enterprise, we also believe in society as the medium for just about all human activity. Take away that context – the sense of place, the face-to-face relationships, the human experience that accumulates into tradition – and what do we have left? If the connection between employee and employer is reduced to a computer screen, then does the economy become a completely separate thing from our society?

Jonathan Last urges us to take care:

  • "Conservatives… have long had a natural sympathy for business. But they have also cultivated an appreciation for the unintended consequences of systemic disruptions. This is why conservatives have been wary of epochal social changes, especially those flying the flag of liberation."


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