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Whose right is it anyway?

This is more of a knee jerk reaction/revelation that occurred to me after I attended a colleague’s dissertation talk about Mechanical Turk, crowd work, digital labour and the future of work. What they essentially spoke about was a deeply intimate account of their encounter with Mechanical Turk (the crowdwork platform run by Amazon), their intervention to build Turkopticon (a platform from which ‘Turkers’ talk back) and finally, their thoughts on alternatives to top-down economies such as MTurk, Uber and others where workers are relegated to independent contractor positions without benefits or redressal rights and work for extremely low wages (10 cents an hour on MTurk). What troubled me, I guess, is the falling back on the imagination of co-operative models and unions as well as the evocation of the term solidarity, assuming that the publics constructed around such economies have any commonalities or larger affinities to the collective identity of being a Turker or an Uber driver.

Across my research on Uber and readings on taxi drivers (as done by Sarah Sharma, Biju Mathew and others), the questions of immaterial labour, emotional and risk labours associated with taxi driving are very much highlighted. As I go through realms of academic material on taxis and yellow cabs before ridesharing disrupted the market, it’s a striking realization that the issues haven’t changed at all! In that sense, they make my research on ridesharing slightly less exciting for novelty purposes but very sobering because they point to continuities, something that theorists of technology are not often thrilled to reckon with.

Coming back to the crowd work talk, a member of the audience asked a question about the publics of crowd work at large – the recruiters, workers, mediating companies. The speaker also briefly addressed the variety of workers on Mechanical Turk (Americans but also many Indians) and then moved on to say that not all conversations in the Turker community are positive or solely dedicated to knowledge building about Turking. To me, it seemed like they conflated ‘crowds’, ‘publics’ and ‘community’ – which all have different connotations for me. While crowds maybe incidental and accidental, publics may unsuspectingly form around patterns of consumption and conditions of production, communities definitely carry a more deliberate, aware and empowered meaning.

My question (echoed by the responses that I have been getting from Uber work) was that how do we start talking about assembled publics – those assembled by conditions of production and capital accumulation, not as innocently and naturally in alignment or solidarity as citizen subjects of different physical socio-economic contexts ? Surely, the Indian Turkers or the Indian call center employees (as Winifred Poster’s work shows) are being exploited because their wage expectations (as determined by their physical/national lifestyle and salary structures) are lower. But it is also the truth that 1) having lower wage expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing (because it depends on what you define as good wage and the particular configuration of social support within which it is framed) and 2) platforms like MTurk and Uber are havens for those who do not fit within or have lapsed out of ideal citizen-making projects of different countries (as Sarah Sharma shows with immigrant taxi driver troubles and something that I am grappling to address in Uber work). For instance, Sharma narrates the story of an immigrant driver who came to the United States to become a doctor and started driving in a bid to settle down before starting education but never managed to return to education because he always had some bills to pay, visits to make back to his homeland and finally, no time left after driving. Mathew highlights the fact that in order to get a TLC (Transport and Limousine Company) hack license, which is a necessity apart from the regular commercial license, drivers would have to undergo compulsory 80 hours of driving, language and etiquette training, making their initial investments too big to just move on. An Uber driver I spoke to had migrated from Libya a few years ago before the 2011 Civil war because he was simply lucky to get a refugee visa but upon arrival, since he had to start afresh, get certifications that could allow him to be absorbed into regular full-time jobs, he has been driving for a while till he can get back in. What many other interviewees said is that they loved ridesharing because you don’t need a degree or expertise to drive and there was always space for more drivers.

They are not just in-between jobs or transient employment because economic demands change but also because as a trickle down of who has the right to be employed in an economy in crisis, immigrants, those with foreign diplomas, those without the language skills and cultural knowledge to stake claims to jobs will definitely start preparing to blend into the citizen/worker crowd.

Conversations about legality, rights and payment are anchored to physical geographies for good reasons and when unanchored, what can a universal discussion mostly emerging from the First World do for those who are inextricably employed and oppressed by the platform they work for? For example, if we start talking about minimum wages for hundreds of independent contractors that form the backbones of such economies, we cannot simply rally for minimum wage or some sort of a right for universal recognition because the seamless ‘digital’ nature of these enterprises fundamentally changes how we can talk about the right to be employed or paid.

Starting a conversation, then, about worker unions, solidarity and economic protections from within First World geographies, then,  may not really change the terms of work and employment for the real underbelly in the Global South. I think the argument can be extended to the (legitimate yet problematic poverty porn of) sweatshop discussions. Indeed, sweatshops are terrible because they function on uneven financial geographies but we must simultaneously interrogate those who think they are horrible. I guess what I am broadly trying to signal at is that in conversations on ‘minimum wage’, and what constitutes respectable thresholds of worker treatments, unless we find ways to include those who are employed by MTurk, Uber etc without having to uncritically fall back on the ideas of unions and cooperatives as universally good, we might find ourselves (as academics and activists) working against those who we seek to speak for.

To elaborate, Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent Boston lawyer has filed a class action lawsuit for independent rideshare contractors in the U.S. to be recognized as employees – a move that is widely being criticized and feared in driver communities because salaried employment status will land them in conflict with their existing and potential full time jobs, business enterprises or the windows of leisure that they have flexibly created by driving for Uber. Even further, the wage conversation appeared irrelevant to some of the Uber driver and passengers I spoke to in India because they had no conception of minimum wage with regard to taxi driving. What they wanted is to break even and get better returns. They reminded me of pirate modernities, subaltern urban forms and informal arrangements outside the legal structure; basically telling us that the State/Market-citizen/worker relationship is not either the German (pro-welfare) or the American binary (free market) but a lot of in-betweens. In which case, what citizen/workers expect from work itself needs longer and wider engagement.

In both cases, a blanket critique of the existing work configuration (and a work present/future) because it does not sync with how “we” imagine fair work and welfare is dangerous as it seeks to erase the work public (bound by temporal and financial needs) in search of the work community unicorn. What is also at play is that such theorization flattens the otherwise uneven landscapes of digitally enabled work because when it starts to locate the entire MTurk public or Uber public as a digital public, we gloss over the race, class, gender and citizenship etchings on bodies and at the same time, we also turn unions (or any other alternative to current crowdwork systems) into universally understood categories, which they are not.


Lilly pointed me to a bunch of readings that might benefit everyone:

Life Support by Vora and Cultures of Servitude by Ray and Qayum. Priti Ramamurthy’s work on feminist commodity chains: “Why Is Buying a” Madras” Cotton Shirt a Political Act? A Feminist Commodity Chain Analysis.”

I would love to hear more thoughts on this and if any writing has already been done 🙂


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Laura Portwood-Stacer on the Stakes of Media Refusal

This is one of the best things I’ve read on social media refusal. Lisa Nakamura made similar points informally many years ago, but Portwood-Stacer has gone a long distance in theorizing the stakes of refusal for those invested in care work, for identity, community, or wages.

To resist what we might identify as an exploitative labor relation by walking off the job—by refusing social media participation—would mean giving up at least two sources of value that settle on the workers themselves…Professional and Social Payoffs

Read Care Work and the Stakes of Social Media Refusal at The New Criticals

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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When Colbert names it, it is a thing – makers not takers

“As a #maker, I’m sick of the low income takers out there always asking for more.” – Stephen Colbert

With a good laugh, this Colbert marks a trend we noted here at Difference Engines back in 2012 in “Mitt Romney or Silicon Valley Designer?”. There, we quoted Pinterest founder Matt Sharp as saying: “Work with really nice people whose goal it is to make things and not to take things. Because there are people out there who just want to take things.”

The Colbert Report
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Making is more than the proverbial putting labor into nature that supposedly creates value in classical political economy. This particular era’s American predilection for making marks some labor as more interesting, creative, and unalienated as the labors of those many manufacturing people in places like China. Creativity has become more than just a privileged name for everyday ingenuities. Creativity marks certain kinds of ingenuity as intellectual property and authorial attributions. Chinese hackerspace elites know this, as Silvia Lindtner’s work shows us; with the government, they work to evolve their country’s image from “made in China” to “created in China.” Creativity seems to have a race, and the sort of making that Colbert celebrates (and lampoons) is raced as well. What’s the difference between these makers and the makers who labor to create widgets? Makers doesn’t mean workers. Makers in these innovation discourses marks those who “build” whole new markets — or at least commandeer them by getting the intellectual property and commandeering the labor forces. Makers of markets — the blue ocean strategists and Schumpeterian creative destroyers — are are makers of the biggest rocks of all.

Minimal machines and status differentials

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with letterpress extension.

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with (in foreground) letterpress extension.

Recently I was up at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (of which I am a longtime Associate), where I discovered that the ICI has acquired one of the tabletop die-cutters that have become popular in the last few years. This particular model comes with an insert that turns the die-cutter into a small letterpress printer. As one can tell both from the machines themselves—usually plastic and often cast in ‘feminine’ colors like pink and aqua—and the blogs where one finds information about their use (Not Another Craft Blog, Paper Pile Kitten), they are associated almost entirely with those activities that are currently designated as crafting. That is to say, the unimportant, largely unpaid leisure activities of women; the modern descendants of Victorian flower-pressing and hair jewelry. As Lilly observed in an earlier post on DIY, crafting is often cast as the opposite of design, and it’s also often cast as the opposite of technology and skilled work generally (never mind the facts).

What I wanted to talk about here, though, is not so much the problematic social status of crafting itself, but two specific aspects of the circulation of these kinds of small machines. The first might be thought of as a variation on the network effect. Traditionally, letterpress printing and die-cutting have been highly skilled occupations, and their products—hand-printed wedding invitations, small-run artist’s books, high-end PR materials with elaborate cutouts—have largely been luxuries for the well-to-do. The limited market has, in turn, helped to keep the industry small and operating under an almost guildlike mentality. So what happens when thousands of these machines get into the hands of untrained or semi-skilled individuals? Quality of output will initially go down in many cases—at least until the process of education-by-internet takes off—but public appreciation of letterpress printing and die-cutting goes way, way up. Two niche trades rather suddenly become part of a much larger arsenal of broadly practiced design-and-making techniques such as papermaking, woodworking, photography. And as Julia Lupton pointed out in a dialogue with Lilly, you never know what can come of “having access to tools that will help you shape your outlook in dialogue with other people, in ways that might not be predicted.” As with other downsized or simplified technologies—small cameras, for example—it is easy to view these small machines primarily as technological downgrades. But when I think of all those people out there experimenting with their tabletop presses and diecutters, what I see is a field of cultural potentials.

The second aspect of these machines that strikes me is how clearly they reflect the strict partitioning of the larger internet conversations about ‘new’ technology. The sites most associated with geekery, like boingboing or slashdot (not to mention all those ad-supported geek blogger-reviewers), are quick to parse every tiny iteration of the iPhone operating system or the latest inkjet printers. Many of these changes are really minuscule in their practical effects on users and form part of a larger pattern of hyping anything in the computational sphere. DIY technologies get some mention, but almost exclusively in their male-centric forms (think robots and 3D printing of nerdish objects). The development of small, hand-cranked die-cutter/presses whose early adopters include a lot of scrapbookers? Not interested.



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We are all workers

I spotted this Levi’s ad on Market Street downtown in SF, right in the heart of the shopping and financial district.

All this on the tail of a huge financial meltdown in our information/service/immaterial economy, rising unemployment, and sustainability crises that point their finger at us as a nation of consumers. And here, we have a consumer brand getting ahead of our anxieties by offering us the opportunity to consume worker-ness.

A press release gestures to “the history of laborers and artisans who shaped the cultural landscape of America.”

Levi’s is complementing their ad campaign by opening up workshops in SF and New York that double as community and retail spaces. The SF workshop will feature letterpresses, silk screen equipment, and photocopiers. New York will feature photography equipment.

At the very moment they pay homage to manual labor, they frame it as a temple to the embodiment in the information economy. The shops offer us ways to rediscover craft-y versions of our bits and pixels. Forgotten are the laborers — many Japanese and Chinese — who built American railroads at the turn of the century (or the racism they faced in forms such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). No hint of the giant factories where Costa Rican woman churn out masses of Levi’s jeans or the thousands of laborers in San Antonio, TX Levi’s left behind with 24-hours notice when they moved their shop overseas.

Even as Levi’s valorizes “workers,” it romanticizes an unaliented manual laborer of the past, evacuated of all the racism, sweat, and toil that characterized their actual work conditions. At once, it taps into an elite maker ethos to tap into anxieties of a country whose jobs always seem on the cusp of being done cheaper by someone abroad.

Jeep taps into the same sentiment with their ad telling Americans “This is a country of makers. And it is again.”

Tellingly, the railroad spike pounded in the ads first frame is pounded by a handless, raceless hammer. This is a nation of makers. But a lot of the makers were overseason labor — non-citizens — on “American” land.

This is just scratching the surface of analysis of these ads. I know other blog contributors, especially zinc and Lisa, know a lot about histories of racism, exploitation, and making. The connections between these ads, economic anxieties, labor class formations, DIY culture, and race/ethnicity could probably be a whole book.

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.

What is the haiku author? Adventures with Mechanical Turk

I’ve been making some excursions into the land of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where many thousands of anonymous workers with IDs like A30K1ZD4E07JX do cognitive piecework (“Human Intelligence Tasks”) for several cents a “HIT,” making what amounts to a dollar or two an hour. Mechanical Turk once instance of crowdsourcing, getting things done by employing the often low-paid enthusiasms of large crowds.

I’ll write more about the labor politics of Mechanical Turk later. I’m still exploring that. But one of my explorations in qualitative engagement with people I can’t meet has been documented on a blog I created Haiku Turk. I put up calls for a penny, ten cents, and fifty cents and asked people for a haiku. I wanted a parsimonious, fun way to make a human connection through the anonymizing web interface. In the last batch, I decided to intervene in the anonymity by offering people the opportunity to list their IDs and pick a nom d’plume.

Some of the strangely delightful haikus submitted include:

McCain picked Palin
Palin is not good for us
McCain, do not die [permalink]

graveyard shift provides
rare opportunities for
paid masturbation [permalink]

To learn more about the conditions of working in Mechanical Turk, you can check out my other engagement, Turk Work: Bills of Rights. It’s not very synthesized, but it’s there to wander through to hear different workers’ ambivalences. Unscrupulous work requesters who won’t pay up are a huge complaint, as is the very low pay. But some also value the flexibility of at-home, variable time labor they can do as a form of play or extra cash whenever they have the time.

I am plotting an intervention. More news on that later.