Tag-Archive for » ethics «

a modest proposal

I’m new here on Difference Engines—you can think of me as a 12th century physician of Constantinople, if you like— so first I’d like to say hello to everyone before plunging in.

I’ve been increasingly horrorified at all that is being done to persecute women of child-bearing age in the United States, and I’m just sick  of reading stories like this one. Reducing access to contraception, chipping away at the right to abortion: the list goes on and on, a relentless rollback of women’s rights. I will leave aside questions of the soul or the viability of a fetus;  I consider these red herrings. Whether the discussion pertains to fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, the arguments around limiting women’s choices ultimately turn on a single point: the devaluation of the actual woman in favor of her potential offspring. I do not see a sound ethical argument for such a position. A woman may choose to risk herself for a potential child, but such a sacrifice should not be forced on her.

The risks of child-bearing vary from person to person but in all cases there is at least some chance of long-term disability or death for the woman.§ To refuse a woman full autonomy in deciding, with her physician, whether to carry forward a pregnancy and how to terminate an unwanted or problematic pregnancy is to force her to undergo this risk (as well as the risk of serious complications). I do not think it is right for 40% of all U.S. citizens‡ to be legally required to risk death in quite this way, through denial of simple, relatively inexpensive options that we know can greatly reduce her health risks.

For these and other reasons, I believe we must make a stand against all forms of reproductive coercion enshrined in law, and to this end I make the following proposal. It is time for women of child-bearing age to go out on strike. Literally. Together, we should refuse to bear any more children until all the laws standing between us and our child-bearing decisions are struck down. We should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we do not get pregnant. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t be pretty, but we could collectively crash the national birth rate overnight if we put our minds to it. True, it would be an enormous sacrifice for an entire generation of women to give up children altogether. But between the frustrations it will create at the family level and the likely economic consequences at the national level, it may be the surest way to get results. (Remember Lysistrata?) There are many people who urgently need to be reminded that there are no children without the bodies and labor of women, and that women are citizens, not chattel. We cannot continue to allow real women to be trumped by phantom children in the framing of our laws. A strike by today’s potential child-bearers would be in line with a long American tradition of organizing in the name of fair treatment, from the labor strikes of the early 20th century through the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights era.

Women of child-bearing age, withhold your labor. Both kinds.

 


§ The U.S. maternal mortality rate, at 12.7 per 100,000 births in 2010, is double what it was a quarter-century ago and puts the U.S. in a disgraceful 50th position among all countries.

‡Women make up just over half the U.S. population, and about 80% of women now bear children, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

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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.

Geospatial Information Design or Journalism?

I’m at a Microsoft Research event called Social Computing Symposium that brings together researchers, designers, writers, and strategist types for what amounts to a two day mutual teaching session. One of the focuses of today was locative media and the mood among the audience was optimistic and excited about all the things that can be possible in social computing if we show the right data and don’t violate people’s privacy.

O’Reilly’s Brady Forrest gave a presentation on the future of locative media. In general, the talks were optimistic and inspirational, but there was this strong sense that the brainstorming was coming from very specific locations — tech-enthusiast, Western professionals.

The location struck me at two points during the presentation. The first was when Brady claimed that we’d be doing less of looking up profiles on the web and more of seeing World of Warcraft and military video game-style overlays of information over people. We’d see information about the places we’re occupying on our mobile device. Throughout the talk, the information focused on focused on the consumption and peer sociality. All good, well, and fun for people like me.

But it did get me wondering what kinds of blind spots recur in our imaginings of locative media. When a mobile device tells me about the place I’m occupying, why can’t it show me labor complaints and relations in the area? Pollution in the air above? Traces of pedestrians at different times of day? Voter participation rates?

We ended up having a discussion of critical geography at lunch where designers and researchers hashed out some of what’s at stake in curating particular kinds of “data” and placing them in an information display. Designer Matt Webb had worked on several London maps projects, including crime maps and consumer map startups, and faced these sorts of decisions first hand — what kinds of information about a crime ought to be accessible off of a map? Anthropologist Thomas Malaby pointed out how in the 1970s, London police had created a category of “street crime” to encompass both muggings and protests, effectively cordoning off particular parts of the city as dangerous and improper for the average Londoner, giving a compelling example of categories can be intensely consequential for and shaped by social interests. Ubicomp designer Mike Kuniavsky asked what might happen if certain geospatial information is only visible to those who occupy the “represented” space with their bodies, pointing to an experience of map reading that hadn’t occured to me and that seems to force contextualization.

One of my big takeaways from the breakout was the importance of language in shaping our design imaginations in this space. When discussants talked about information and data, they talked about it as if it was out there, in the environment, as a matter of fact, and that people generally had a right to have it available to them. Here, the rhetoric is of information design and visualization — putting it out there for indeterminate uses. In reflecting on his experiences in mapmaking, Matt reframed the work as journalism, describing the work of designing data maps as one of telling a story with data. Describing the work as journalism and storytelling invokes a reader, framing, and a professional code of ethics that, while imperfect, is more than engineers and information designers have.

What happens if we reframe design as storytelling and choreography? What happens if data is described as a story, with values and messages encouraged and discouraged, if not determined? (Interestingly, James Clifford describes how anthropologists have done much to separate their practices from those of journalists.) While professionalism certainly has connotations of classed and, in some cases, gendered behavior, it certainly seems a step ahead of a free-market “vote with your dollars” mechanism of design that might end up having the effect of narrative or policy.