Human Element Inc.

Crowdwork Services for Everyday Life

Millions of crowdworkers are helping the digital world run smoothly by solving the problems that computers can’t solve just yet. Among many other tasks they categorize images, transcribe texts and filter out explicit content. Ironically, by doing so they also train the algorithms which will replace them eventually.

How would everyday life be affected if this digital piecework was woven into it? The Bachelor thesis project Human Element Inc. explores this question through three speculative crowdwork services.

The project is set in a near future scenario. It is based on research of present problems and future projections that experts in the field are discussing today.1

Workwall: complete task to continue

Human Element Inc. Workwall Screenshot
Photo of a newspaper website that uses the Human Element Inc. Workwall service

By means of direct creation of value crowdwork becomes a payment method for small payments. There are numerous applications for this. For example, online content providers owners today struggle with adblockers and advertising revenues. The concept ‘Workwall’ proposes an alternative:

These services work by having readers solve a series of simple tasks for all kinds of clients. Each one is worth a few cents that go to the newspaper. In return, you get access to the full article – no fees, no ads, no piracy. It's direct creation of value.
— From a digital labour news show

Spare-Cycle Workstation: make money while you wait

A worker working on a Human Element Spare-Cycle Workstation
Worker completing a sentiment analysis task at the main bus station.

Crowdworkers used to work from desktop computers, but Human Element Inc. is taking digital labour into public spaces. The company puts up workstations that let anyone monetize unused cognitive abilities — for example during their daily commute, in the doctor’s waiting room or in the time after work.

Workstations can be equipped with sensors or controls tailored to specific types of tasks. As crowdwork taps into more and more aspects of being human, well-paid tasks might require the measurement of body chemistry or detection of eye movement, for example.

Employing Scanner: tap to outsource

Closeup of an employing scanner
Employing scanner during task processing. The diagram on the display visualizes what people are working on.

While anyone can become a worker, it used to be much harder to become a requester and enjoy the benefits of putting people to work for you. Employing Scanner is an example for a radical simplification of a requester interface, so that anyone can make use of the crowd. With the tap of a button you can hire people to make your life easier.2 Don't forget to use the 'Good Job' button to say thanks.

You take a document, highlight a section, add a command and scan. It will summarize, spell-check, transcribe, trace, email, … everything you wished somebody else would do for you.
— From a digital labour news show

Putting people to work also means having to deal with ethical questions like labour conditions or fair wages. In this sense, the device also touches on how smart services and devices actually employ people under the hood, treating humans solely like ever available computing power.3

Bachelor Thesis Interaction Design
Philipp Schmitt & Stephan Bogner
Hochschule für Gestaltung Schwäbisch Gmünd, July 2016

Download Thesis Documentation [German, 197 pages, 43.5mb]


Discourse in the crowdwork field mainly revolves around ethical themes like exploitation of workers vs. efficiency of the method; or whether anonymity of workers is democratizing vs. provoking fraud. Amazon Mechanical Turk: The Digital Sweatshop gives a good (but lengthy) overview. Jonathan Zittrain, Ubiquitous Human Computing (2008) is another good read. See Jonathan Zittrain's talk 'Minds for Sale' at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society for lots of connected thoughts. In Replacing Middle Management with APIs, Peter Reinhardt writes about how humans are becoming parts of APIs by taking orders from machines.


Concept & Development: Philipp Schmitt & Stephan Bogner
Consulting: Prof. Dr. habil. Georg Kneer and Prof. David Oswald
Movie Credits: See closing credits
Special Thanks: Jochen Maria Weber, Jonas Loh and Benedikt Groß