Archive for » January, 2009 «

Tweaking Technocapitalism: Turkopticon

I’ve posted about Turkopticon here before. Well, it’s up, it has undergone a rev, and it has some users we don’t know who seem to like us. I wanted to talk a little bit about what is at stake in it.

For a long time, I’ve been thining about infrastructure and technology design and, in particular, how certain designs (in certain contexts) end up giving certain people the crap end of the stick. As of late, my friend Six and I have been spending our spare nerd cycles on a particular case of this: Amazon Mechanical Turk, which lets workers do cognitive piecework usually averaging a dollar or two an hour. The low wages, the lack of health protections in a “work environment” (the computer) that has caused my arms and wrists much pain over the years, and the exuberant excitement many have for getting the faceless “crowd” to do work so cheaply were my initial cause for concern. As I started to survey Turk workers about their experiences, workers reported little protection from employers who don’t pay and low wages as big problems. I heard from workers who did Turk after their main jobs to make food and rent when gas prices were high. While I don’t have the power to regulate AMT or radically shift market dynamics at the moment, Six and I put our heads to the first problem of employers who take people’s work and then don’t pay.

So we made Turkopticon, a Firefox extension workers can use to access ratings and commentary of employers/requesters as they browse for HITs (“human intelligence tasks” and an unfortunate acronym). Turkopticon isn’t revolution — it’s not going to fix the fact that jobs are increasingly contingent, that health care costs are insane, and people have fewer good choices about how to make their livelihoods. But it’s a start at drawing attention to an information imbalance that has been letting some requesters abuse people. It’s something that can make us ask why Amazon didn’t design these informational safeguards in to begin with. And lest we think the traditional lines of employer v worker are simply drawn, Dolores Labs provided critical support and feedback. We started off as an empty database asking workers to install our extension, but there wasn’t much for workers to see. Dolores Labs put up a survey for us and got a hundred or so reviews of requesters that formed the seed of the database, motivated in part by their desire to resist Turk being spoiled by crappy employers. (I’ll probably post most about this in future posts.)

Is it just about Mechanical Turk for me? Not really. I see AMT as an dystopian extreme case of a the increasingly contingent, low paid labor I’ve been seeing creeping up for years.

Jobs aren’t a great way to make a living these days. A few trends that disturb me. The practice of hiring temp workers on a mostly permanent basis so that they can be denied health benefits and other perks took Microsoft to court and even got its own neologism: permatemps. The largest employer in 2/3 of US states, Walmart, pays barely enough for a full-timer to make ends meet, claiming to only provide “supplemental income.” About half of a those filing for bankruptcy in a 2005 study cited medical debts as a main cause [pdf source]. Livelihoods are precarious for a lot of hard working people.

People frequently argue that those working for these low wages have a choice. As one person I corresponded with explained, “I realize I have a choice to work or not work on AMT, but that means I would also not need to make the choice to eat or not eat, pay bills or not pay bills, etc.” The thing we need to worry about is not only what choices people make, but what choices people have. Not all jobs are available everywhere. Not all people are equally able to move. Not everyone can afford a solid educational foundation. Not everyone even gets their knowledge and wisdom equally recognized and respected. People do have choices, but some have more choices than others.

Turkopticon is just a little Firefox extension, but for Six and I, it’s also forcing us to think about a lot of issues in labor and politics that we just don’t know enough about, but which have consequences around us every day.

Thanks to Dolores Labs, the 67 turkers who shared their experiences, and those who have been using Turkopticon and reviewing already.

Interesting conferences coming up

FEMMSS3 is the University of South Carolina Women’s and Gender Studies Conference being held in conjunction with the Association of
Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies at University of SC on March 19-21, 2009.

National Womens Studies Association’s Annual Conference is also looking to encourage STS and science studies contributions and has a Feb 15 submission deadline:

Our goal is to increase the number of feminist science and technology studies scholars who will attend and present at the conference. We
encourage you to send individual papers or, better yet, involve some of your colleagues to create a panel around your area of specialization. We also encourage you to plan discussion-based roundtables around topics of your interest. Virginia Eubanks and Jane Lehr, two of the taskforce co-chairs, have offered to propose and chair one roundtable discussion at the conference on the theme of
“Difficult Dialogues in Feminist Science & Technology Studies:
Continuing Challenges and New Directions.”
Anyone who is interested in
working with them on that proposal should contact them directly at
veubanks@albany.edu or jlehr@calpoly.edu.

And, of course, 4S’ Annual Meeting is in Washington DC this year with a March 1 submission deadline.

Who is going to what? Tell in the comments. Meet up!

OpenGender Wiki: Gender and Hypercapitalism?

My friend Lilly N from UCLA showed me <a href=”http://www.opengender.org/”>OpenGender’s open access wiki on gender in cyberspace</a>. In particular, I’m intrigued by the section on <a href=”http://www.opengender.org.uk/node/77″>Gender and Hypercapitalism</a> because I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get critiques of power and structure back in with the valuing of diversity postmodernism helped us get to.

Unfortunately, the wiki seems to be somewhat dead. Many of the pages seem to have been started and not updated so I feel, as I rummage, that I’m going through a cool, old, but mostly empty house that I’ve found on the net.

QOTD: Cornel West on Political Correctness

“Political correctness was coined by a slice of intelligensia known to trivialize other people’s injuries.”
- Cornel West in an awesome 2004 Stanford Aurora Forum Talk

It’s a long talk, but worth it during a long walk, day in, or traffic hell. Lyrical delivery, reflections on the limitations of academic discourse in the pursuit of social justice, and much more. Video, transcript, and mp3 link available at the bottom of Stanford Aurora Forum: Cornel West

Collaboration 2.0 forum at HASTAC January 14

A forum over at HASTAC next week will be discussing what they see as new trends in collaboration and distribution of thought work. Seems like a place where discussions about <a href=”http://www.differenceengines.com/?p=115″>accountabilities of crowds</a> could be usefully taken up. The post seems pretty excited about collaboration over all, though. It’s the new!
Does anyone know of interesting studies or histories of distributed, massive “collaboration” a long time ago? What is new about “collaboration 2.0″ and what is not new about it?
Collaboration 2.0
A HASTAC Scholars Discussion Forum, starting January 14, 2009 at www.hastac.org

What makes for successful collaborations, and how can the Web facilitate these?

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky argues that any group undertaking (online or offline) can be considered in terms of a three-rung ladder. Each rung requires more and more coordination, and Shirky uses these rungs to help us understand Web collaboration. The first rung is sharing, in which users knowingly or unknowingly share information  with no specific plan for the end result. The second rung is cooperation, which requires more energy and coordination than sharing.  The third rung is collective action, which “requires a group of people to commit themselves to undertaking a particular effort together, and to do so in a way that makes the decision of the group binding on the individual members.” As we move up Shirky’s ladder, we are presented with situations that require more and more control and coordination. But collaboration does not always require such conscious coordination, and the Web provides a particularly poignant example of this. In a space that allows for collaboration across space and time and that allows Web denizens to share information knowingly or unknowingly, how does collaboration happen? Given that texts circulate to different audiences in ways that we cannot always control, does our definition of collaboration have to account for both the intended and unintended? Who is responsible for such “unknowing” collaborations? What are the challenges and promises of collaboration on the Web? How can Web collaboration help us rethink our collaborative efforts offline?

This forum will address these questions and many more in hopes of opening up a discussion about how the Web presents new opportunities and challenges for collaboration.  This HASTAC Scholars Discussion Forum will be hosted by University of Texas at Austin graduate student Jim Brown and will feature winners of the 2007-2008 HASTAC/Mac Arthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning Competition.  We hope you will join the discussion starting January 14!