Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Eulogy For CAPTCHA

Abigail Rowe, the Awl:

So this is how we prove our humanity, by TYPEing-IN the dirty-sock arithmetic on a Tide-branded CAPTCHA. “Prove you’re human.” It’s so blah, so crass — not even a please. And the worst part: CAPTCHA was supposed to be a good thing! Reducing spam? Good! Halting the internet bot takeover? Good! Improving AI technology? Good, hopefully! Stopping one bot from buying up all the whatever and reselling it 500%? Yes! Good again! But CAPTCHA isn’t so straightforward. And through it’s question, and our often incorrect answers, a darker, more dysfunctional portrait of the internet and the economy behind it seems to tip its hand.

The death of the CAPTCHA is encouraging partly because typing an incoherent string of characters is deeply irritating, but also because of some of the unethical economic byproducts that it has created, as Rowe mentions. I doubt very many of the people working on CAPTCHAs considered that the product they were building would create an industry of human beings expected to behave like robots. Similarly, the popularity of mobile app markets and their dependency on top lists created a demand for schemes to manipulate store rankings, resulting in unverified photos of poor working conditions for people manually and repetitively downloading apps.

I’m a designer; you may be a designer, too, or work in some capacity on features intended to prevent automated usage. It’s an ethical responsibility of our industry to recognize if there is a potential for manual abuse, too, by exploiting underpaid workers in places with more lax labour laws.