Magic web's tawdry truth

Amazing what you can do on the web these days. For instance, you can upload a bunch of photos to and get them all back accurately tagged with keywords like "beach", "rain", "nightclub" and "Aunt Emma".


Amazing what you can do on the web these days. For instance, you can upload a bunch of photos to and get them all back accurately tagged with keywords like "beach", "rain", "nightclub" and "Aunt Emma".


A miracle of modern computer image recognition? Nope. Tagcow employs an old contrivance of showmanship that first made its sensational appearance on the world stage in the late 18th century.


The Turk was a chess-playing mechanical device that toured the globe for over 80 years, famously beating illustrious opponents such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. After a long career its secret was eventually exposed as a cunning hoax.


The life-sized bearded and turbanned human figure appeared to be operated by a system of gears and levers, visible beneath the chess table where it sat. But the mechanism was misdirection: concealed inside the device was a human chess player.


Tagcow’s How It Works web page says simply: "Your photos are sent through the Tagcow ‘tag factory’ where descriptive tags are added to your digital photos."

A fuller explanation of the tag factory isn’t provided. But web journalists have unmasked the secret: Tagcow employs the services of casual labour — thousands of web-connected individuals who are doing it all manually.


The central agency for this and other similar work is run by Amazon. The Mechanical Turk at advertises and co-ordinates several thousand jobs in the field of what Amazon wittily describes as "artificial artificial intelligence".


Companies offering these jobs — which range from checking out satellite photos to map out trees on golf courses to reading technical articles and writing cogent summaries — are reaching out to workers anywhere in the world.


It’s my guess, judging by the sums involved, that most of these jobs — and Tagcow’s in particular — are aimed at the third world. Photo tagging, for instance, pays four cents for each set of five pictures. I’m wondering if this even covers the grunt worker’s bandwidth and electricity costs.


OK, so there are some sinister sweatshop implications, and casting an eye over Amazon’s 5,000-word terms and conditions for the Mechanical Turk doesn’t make me feel any less queasy. It’s full of disclaimers: tax, minimum wage laws, copyright, worker-employer disputes — nothing to do with us, guv.


But sweeping all that to one side (which is what Amazon’s T&Cs effectively do), I can’t help seeing an exciting free-market upside to all this.


Rich kids — the kind who expect a Ferrari for their 16th birthday — shoot off millions of digital photos. They’ve got no time to sort and catalogue them. But if there’s an easy, frictionless way of farming out that work to the time-rich, cash-poor (but somehow internet-connected) masses across the globe, surely that seepage of wealth has be some kind of win.


We need to think positively about this. If only because, the way the UK economy seems to be headed, we could all be clamouring to sign up at Tagcow’s tag factory as Amazon Mechanical Turkeys some time in the very near future.

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