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Bookmark: The Ladies Vanish

The Ladies Vanish by Shawn Wen:

Andrew Norman Wilson was fired from his contracting job at Google for interacting with what he called a different “class of workers.” He had been watching them for months as they exited the office building adjacent to his. Everyday they left at 2 PM (he later learned that their shifts began at 4 AM). “They were purposefully kept separate. They carried yellow badges that restricted access everywhere besides their own building,” Wilson said.

They were mostly black and Latino—a rare sight on Google’s predominantly white campus. They worked for ScanOps, the team that did the painstaking work of scanning texts that make up Google Books. Intrigued, Wilson attempted to interview some of them. He managed to get a few minutes of tape before he was caught by Google security. He was fired shortly thereafter.

Of course books don’t digitize themselves. Human hands have to individually scan the books, to open the covers and flip the pages. But when Google promotes its project—a database of “millions of books from libraries and publishers worldwide”—they put the technology, the search function and the expansive virtual library in the forefront. The laborers are erased from the narrative, even as we experience their work firsthand when we look at Google Books.


It’s very hard to get accurate statistics on the contingent workforce in the tech industry, as tech companies are less than forthcoming. But researching the demographics of mechanical turkers is even harder, as they are decentralized and anonymous. In 2010, New York University professor Panos Ipeirotis conducted a rare study to assess Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workforce. Ipeirotis discovered that almost half of the work force is American. (In fact, the percentage of Americans on the site has significantly increased since Ipeirotis’ study. Amazon changed its terms of service, requiring identity verification of its turkers, which ruled out many Indian workers who could not provide proper forms.) This upends a common argument used by the company’s defenders, who claim that $0.10 a task or $1.20 an hour goes a long way in countries like Pakistan and India.

But would workers be better off without the site? This was the question Ipeirotis leveled to me when I asked him about the mechanical turkers’ low wages and lack of power. People were on the site “voluntarily”—as much as capitalism allows anyone to work “voluntarily.” Workers on the site were free to leave. Workers on the site tended to be American. They tended to be young. Many were caregivers of young children or the elderly and so it benefited them to work from home. And they tended to be women.

Ipeirotis found that almost 70% of mechanical turkers were women. How shocking: the low prestige, invisible, poorly paid jobs on the internet are filled by women. Women provide the behind the scenes labor that is mystified as the work of computers, unglamorous work transformed into apparent algorithmic perfection.


Female mechanical turkers meet their parallel in the female computers before them. Before the word “computer” came to describe a machine, it was a job title. David Skinner wrote in The New Atlantis, “computing was thought of as women’s work and computers were assumed to be female.” Female mathematicians embraced computing jobs as an alternative to teaching, and they were often hired in place of men because they commanded a fraction of the wages of a man with a similar education.

Though Ada Lovelace is finally getting some notice almost two hundred years after she wrote the first ever computer algorithm, the women who have advanced math and computer science have largely been ignored. When male scientists from University of Pennsylvania invented the Electronic and Numerical Integrator and Computer, the first electronic computer (which would eventually replace female computers), women debugged the machine and programmed it. When these early female computer programmers unveiled the machine to the military, they were mistaken for models hired to stand attractively next to the new invention.

As computing machines gradually took over, mathematicians often measured its computing time in “girl-hours” and computing power in “kilo-girls.” The computer itself is a feminized item. The history of the computer is the history of unappreciated female labor hidden behind “technology,” a screen (a literal screen) erected by boy geniuses.

Silicon Valley really is a man’s world. Men have great ideas. Men code. Men attract money. Men fund start-ups. Men generate jobs. Men hire other men. Men are the next Steve Jobses, the innovators, the inventors, the disruptors. But women complete the tasks that men have not yet programmed computers to do, the tasks that make their “genius” and their “innovation” possible. And they do it for pennies.

ETA: A friend sent me another link: Sweating Out the Words from 2000:

" A generation ago such work was done within the country that generated the paperwork. Women in the United States did most of the keyboarding then, and many still do, for $7-$10 an hour. But in the late eighties, their jobs began emigrating as employers discovered satellites and other telecommunications technology. Before these innovations, a company interested in cheap Third World labor would have had to ship hard copy abroad at great expense in transport and turnaround time. Now, paper is optically scanned and the images zapped to computer screens thousands of miles away, where the relevant information is keyed in by foreign workers and the digitized material speedily returned to the home office.


( 1 comment — Add your .02 )
Nov. 17th, 2014 05:36 am (UTC)
*makes a note of this*
( 1 comment — Add your .02 )

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