The Cotton-Picking Game: It Takes All Day and You Can't Really Win

There are two buttons. Both say pick cotton. Ready, set, go.
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cottonpicking.jpg

There is no shortage of articles about the brutal work that the world's poor do to supply the companies that make consumer products. Occasionally, a horrific tragedy like the factory fire and collapse in Bangladesh will stir sympathies, but the day-to-day toughness of scratching out a living on the margins of society is hard to understand by reading statistics or hearing a couple of anecdotes.

Take this example. Uzbekistan is the world's third-largest cotton exporter. Their cotton goes into shirts everywhere. And to pick this cotton, the country's government has pressed schoolchildren into labor, according to human rights groups. Depending on the time of year and age of a worker, a cotton picker could have a daily quota of 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of raw cotton.

What's that mean? Is it possible to simulate the drudgery of the work? The designers at GameTheNews tried and, at least partially, succeeded. They created a simple game. There are two buttons. Both say pick cotton. And as you do, a bit of cotton -- between one and two grams -- goes into your pack. You can press the buttons quickly, but there is a short pause as your hand reaches into the pack. The fastest strategy is to switch from left to right button as fast as possible.

But once you've figured out the optimal strategy for speed, you realize: You will have to hit these buttons 30,000 times or something in order to fulfill your quota! It would take, the designers estimate, eight straight hours of hitting the buttons to "win" the game.

But there is no winning of course. No amount of speed or skill, no lifehacking or positive thinking could make the work more fun. It's just the 50 kilograms of cotton and the hours of work required to pick it for export.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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