Matrix Algebra: how to be human in a digital economy

By Sara C. Kingsley and Dr. Mary L. Gray (cross-posted at CultureDigitally and the Center for Popular Economics 

 ExhibitionMathamatica

Ray and Charles Working on a Conceptual Model for the Exhibition Mathematica, 1960, photograph. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (A-22a) http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/eames/images/uc9616.jpg

 

“Certainly the cost of living has increased, but the cost of everything else has likewise increased,”[1] H.G. Burt, the President of the Union Pacific Railroad, asserted to railroad company machinists and boilermakers.  For Burt, the “cost of everything else” included the cost of labor. His remedy: place “each workman on his [own] merit.”  In 1902, “workman merit” to a tycoon like H.G. Burt squarely meant equating the value of labor, or the worth of a person, to the amount of output each individual produced.  Union Pacific Railroad eventually made use of this logic by replacing the hourly wages of workers with a piece rate system.  Employers switched to piecework systems around the turn of the 19th century largely to reduce labor costs by weeding out lower skilled workers, and cutting the wages of workers unable to keep apace with the “speeding up” of factory production.

Employers historically leveraged piecework as a managerial tool, reconfiguring labor markets to the employers’ advantage by allowing production rates, rather than time on the job, to measure productivity.  Whatever a person produced that was not quantifiable as a commodity, in other words, did not constitute work.  We’ve seen other examples of discounted labor in spaces outside the factory.  Feminist economists fight to this day, for example, for the work of caregivers and housewives, largely ignored by mainstream economic theory, to gain recognition as “real” forms of labor.  Real benefits and income are lost to those whose work goes unaccounted.

As the historical record shows, workers do not typically accept arbitrary changes to their terms of employment handed down by management.  In fact, the Union Pacific Railroad machinists protested Burt’s decision to set their wages through a piecework system.  H.G. Burt met their resistance with this question: is it “right for any man to ask for more money than he is actually worth or can earn?”

But what is a person truly worth in terms of earning power?  And what societal, cultural, and economic factors limit a person from earning more?

In 2014, the question of a person’s worth in relation to their work, or the value of labor itself, is no less prescient.  The rhetoric surrounding workers’ rights compared to those of business differs little whether one browses the archives of a twentieth century newspaper or scrolls Facebook posts.  Ironically enough though, in the age of social media and citizen reporting, the utter lack of visibility and adequate representation of today’s workers stands in stark contrast to the piece rate workers of H.G. Burt’s day.  Few soundbites or talking points, let alone byline articles, focus on the invisible labor foundational to today’s information economies.  Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than with crowdwork.

Legal scholar Alek L. Felstiner’s defines crowdworking as, “the process of taking tasks that would normally be delegated to an employee and distributing them to a large pool of online workers, the ‘crowd’” (2011).  Hundreds of thousands of people regularly do piecework tasks online for commercial, crowdsourcing sites like Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk (“AMT”).

Over the last year, we’ve worked with Dr. Siddharth Suri and an international team of researchers, to uncover the invisible forms of labor online, and people who rely upon digital piecework for a significant portion of their income.  Crowdwork is, arguably, the most economically valuable, yet invisible, form of labor that the Internet has ever produced.  Take Google’s search engine for instance.  Each time you search for an image online (to create the next most hilarious meme, or find a infograph for a conference presentation) you’re benefitting from the labor of thousands of crowdworkers who have identified or ranked the image your search populates. While this service may be valuable to you, the workers doing it, only receive a few cents for their contributions to your meme or slideshow presentation.  Additionally, a typical crowdworker living in the United States makes, on average, 2 to 3 dollars an hour.  We need to ask ourselves: what is fair compensation for the value that workers bring to our lives?  How would you feel if tomorrow, all your favorite, seemingly free, online services that depend on these digital pieceworkers, disappeared?

Last fall, we spent four months in South India talking with crowdworkers and learning about their motivations for doing this type of work.  In the process we met people with far ranging life experiences, but a common story to tell – perhaps familiar to all of us who’ve earned a wage for our keep: work is not all we are, but most of what we do is work.  And increasingly, the capacity to maintain a living above the poverty line is elusive, and complicated by what “being poor” means in a global economy. Our hopes for finding more satisfying work, a life valued for what it is rather than what it is not — is no less, even as we confront the realities of today.

Moshe Marvit spoke to the complexities of crowdwork as a form of viable employment in a compelling account of U.S. workers’ experience with Amazon Mechanical Turk. He describes this popular crowdsourcing platform as “one of the most exploited workforces no one has ever seen.” Marvit emphasizes how crowdwork remains a thing universally unacknowledged, in that more and more tasks, from researchers’ web-based surveys and to Twitter’s real-time deciphering of trending topics, depend on crowdwork.  However, most people still don’t know that behind their screen is an army of click workers.  Anyone, who has ever browsed an online catalogue or searched the web for a restaurant’s physical address, has benefited from a person completing small, crowdworked task online.  Pointedly, our web experience is better because of the thousands of unknown workers who labor to optimize the online spaces we employ.

As Marvit points out, and our research also notes, people only earn pennies at a time for doing the small crowd tasks not yet fully automatable by computer algorithms. These crowd tasks, however, add up to global systems whose monetary worth sometimes trumps that of small nations.  Yet, when we ask our peers and colleagues, “do you know who the thousands of low income workers are behind your web browser?”  We receive mystified stares, and many reply “I don’t know.”

The hundreds of thousands of people who regularly work in your web browser are not the youth of Silicon Valley’s tech industry.  They likely cannot afford Google glass, or ride to work in corporate buses.  Some are college educated, but, like people today – they are stuck in careers that undervalue their real worth, in addition to discounting the investments they’ve already made in their education, skills, and the unique set of values they’ve gained from their own life experiences.

Yet, the more our research team learns about crowdworkers’ lives, the more we realized how little we know about the economic value of crowdwork and the makeup of the crowdworking labor force. And as Marvit notes, we still don’t have a good grasp of what someone is doing, legally speaking, when they do crowdwork. Should we categorize crowdwork as freelance work? Contract labor? Temporary or part-time work?

In the absence of answers to these questions, some have called for policy solutions to mitigate the noted and sometimes glaring inequities in power distributed between those posting tasks (or, jobs) to crowdwork platforms, and those seeking to do crowdwork online.  But, we argue, good labor policy that makes sense of crowdwork, from a legal or technical point of view, can’t be adequately drafted until we understand what people expect and experience doing task-based work online. Who does crowdwork? Where, how, and why do they do it? And how does crowdworking fit into the rest of their lives, not to mention our global workflows? When we can answer these questions, we’ll be ready to talk about how to define crowdwork in more meaningful ways. Until then, we resist dubbing crowdwork “exploitative” or “ideal,” because doing so is meaningless to the millions of people who crowdwork, and ignores the builders and programmers out there trying to improve these technologies.

We are all implicated in the environments we rely on and utilize in our daily lives, including the Internet.  Those who request and outsource tasks to the crowd without regard to crowdworkers’ rights, are perhaps, no more at fault than the rest of us who expect instant, high quality web services every time we search or do other activities online.  An important lesson from Union Pacific Railroad still holds true: workers are not expendable.



[1]Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]), 01 July 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1902-07-01/ed-1/seq-1/>

How to think about ringing in your ears as something bigger than you

I’ve been feeling the need to freshen up the Blog-ish. What better way to do that than to post a link to a new blog post by another researcher I really love to read:

Check out Mack Hagood’s new piece on tinnitus and the prospects of an applied sound studies:

http://soundstudiesblog.com/2012/07/16/listening-to-tinnitus-roles-of-media-when-hearing-breaks-down/

A Message to the “First Responders” in Gay Kids’ Lives: Why We Need to Ditch the Politics of Blame, Stop Talking About “Cyberbullying,” and Move Toward Sharing Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi

Mary L. Gray

Senior Researcher Microsoft Research New England, Cambridge, MA

Versions of this post will be cross-posted to socialqueery; the Huffington Post; SocialMediaCollective; and Cultural Digitally

Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, Indiana University

Tyler Clementi’s death on 22 September 2010 was one of the first in a wave of highly publicized youth suicides that fall. In several cases, media coverage and political discourse connected these tragedies to cases of on and offline harassment saturated in homophobic sentiment. Research among students suggests that these hostilely charged environments are the norm rather than the exception. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth contemplating suicide, parents, peers, educators, faith leaders, and LGBTQ community advocates are key “first responders”—caring individuals on the scene, providing support—in the wake of this ubiquitous animus. Rallying to punish Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student standing trial for 15 criminal counts, including tampering with witnesses and evidence, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation of Tyler Clementi, does not do justice to Clementi’s life nor does it move us one step closer to preventing another young person, like him, from turning to suicide.

Yet, for the past 2 years, anti-bullying advocates have had their collective frustration and political clout harnessed to further criminalize bullying rather than bolster the roles and resources of invaluable LGBTQ youth “first responders” on the ground. States and school districts rushed to crack down on bullies, prompted, in some cases, by their own convictions but, surely in others, by a political desire to appease constituencies without having to take an explicit stand on anything (who could be for bullying, after all). As a result, a record number of anti-bullying policies are now on the books. However, we have no concrete evidence that such top-down policies prevent or counteract bullying, particularly so-called “cyberbullying”—harassment carried out through texting and online social networks. Worse yet, some research on violent harassment among youth suggests that framing the problem as “bullying” actually works against youth reporting violence or identifying themselves as targets of it (Marwick and boyd 2011).

As we move forward, we need to shift from a dead-end politics of blame to build out the sources of support and ethos of shared responsibility that could make a difference, literally, between life and death for LGBTQ young people.

Rethinking homophobia. Tracing a causal link between Ravi’s homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi’s suicide dangerously oversimplifies homophobia. This formula suggests that homophobia is something “individuals have” rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate. Rather than presume homophobia vents an individual’s fear of homosexuality, researchers, such as sociologist CJ Pasco (2009), have persuasively argued that it is a portable (I would argue concealable) weapon for policing sexuality and shoring up the fragile gender identities emblematic of tween and teen life. Young people, like Clementi, searching for communities to reflect who they are must constantly weigh if talking about how they feel, whether it’s with parents, close friends, or complete strangers, will work for or against them. If we are serious about preventing bullying and suicide, we need a calculus that always works in a young person’s favor.

The homophobia expressed in Ravi’s disgust for Clementi’s intimacy with another man, as much as the racism conveyed in Clementi’s joking suggestions that Ravi’s South Asian parents owned aDunkin’ Donuts, signal our limited capacity to celebrate difference. We need to stop telling young people what they shouldn’t say or do and start teaching them—and ourselves—the social and emotional literacies they need to challenge the way they see themselves and each other. It’s time to start having direct conversations with students (beyond the platitude that such name calling “isn’t nice)” about the power that words like “fag,” “no homo,” “bitch,” and others circulate, not only through the person targeted by the slur, but also the person hurling it. Only then can we hope to turn homophobia from an easy insult to a powerful analytic tool for mining our own fears, insecurities, and discomforts with difference.

Expanding parental support/holding parents accountable. One of the few things we know for sure is that parents, guardians, and adult mentors make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. A young person, for example, who lives in fear of a parent’s condemnation is more likely to hurt themselves than a young person who feels supported and accepted at home (Ryan 2009). This is not surprising. But by not explicitly recognizing parents’ roles, we undermine their importance as a strategy for combating LGBTQ youth bullying and suicide. Parents and guardians provide a measure of incomparable respite when they celebrate, rather than stand neutral or second-guess a young person’s decision to question what it means to be straight. A modest expression of acceptance makes a measureable difference. But even that can be a tall order. Adults must negotiate and account for their own doubts and anxieties when a child asks such questions before they can effectively offer first responder support. Parents shouldn’t have to go it alone and, realistically, can’t do it all. They need allies, from family, faith communities, and other positive social networks, to counter the violence and hostility rampant in school environments and circulating online. We will know we’ve reached our goal when every young adult imagines they’d celebrate, rather than endure or suffer through, having an LGBTQ-identifying child of their own.

Focusing on basic research. Educators, researchers, and policy makers need to acknowledge that we know next to nothing about the quality of young LGBTQ people’s lives before we can even begin to contribute to meaningful strategies for supporting them. The data we arm ourselves with, even the universally cited statistics on higher suicide rates among lesbian and gay youth perpetuate a rudimentary, generic picture (Waidzunas 2011). But we have no idea what daily life is like for the average LGBTQ-identifying teen. Right now, there is no national instrument for measuring young people’s positive experiences around sexuality and gender. Most states don’t ask a single question about LGBTQ youth on their annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, effectively erasing them from the discussion at the state and district level. Indeed, Massachusetts remains the only state with a standing Commission on GLBT Youth that funds support programs in its public schools through its department of education that gather data on the effectiveness of LGBTQ-specific outreach and education. What we need is a nationally funded, coordinated effort that links programming, outreach, and research on behalf of LGBTQ youth. Harvard University’s Born This Way Foundation, launching February 29, and the Massachusetts GLBT Youth Commission’s Research Consortium are 2 good examples of what needs to be done.

Where to go from here. Focusing our collective outrage on prosecuting an individual, whether seeking the harshest punishment we can wring out of Ravi’s case or lobbying for so called “zero-tolerance” policies that automatically expel any student implicated in bullying, implies that homophobia can be rooted out, one bad apple at a time. Turning this into a case of one individual driving Clementi over the edge moves us no closer to seeing the journey that brought Clementi to that edge. When it comes to understanding and preventing youth suicide, our research, educational policies, and legal actions can’t stop at weeding out the presence of homophobic individuals but must demand systems of accountability that address how we individually and collectively perpetuate homophobia in everyday ways. That is why the “first responders” fighting for young people’s federal rights to an equal education and the human right to free expression must call on us to more broadly share responsibility in making those rights universal over narrowly seeking the right bully to blame and lock up.

Citations:

Alice Marwick and danah boyd. (2011). “The Drama! Teen Conflict in Networked Publics.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1926349

CJ Pascoe. (2007). Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael M. Diaz, and Jorge Sanchez. (2009). “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults.” Pediatrics January 2009; 123:1 346-352; doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3524

Tom Waidzunas. (2011). “Young, Gay, and Suicidal: Dynamic Nominalism and the Process of Defining a Social Problem with Statistics.” Science, Technology & Human Values, 0162243911402363-. doi:10.1177/0162243911402363

BIO

Mary L. Gray is Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University. She draws on an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and critical media studies to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press, 2009) examined how youth in rural parts of the United States fashioned “queer” senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media—particularly internet access—played in their lives and political work.

2 big things happened 1/12/12…

Thursday’s the start of my last grad seminar, at least for the next few years. And it’s also the day word goes out that I’ve officially joined Microsoft Research New England (@MSNewEngland), in Cambridge, MA, as a Senior Researcher. Nancy Baym (@nancybaym) and Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) will be joining the team as well (!!!!!). And, of course, danah boyd (@zephoria) is already on the scene doing amazing work, building bridges between social media research done with a critical, qualitative twist and the phenomenal mathematics, physics, and computer science research that distinguishes MSR. danah boyd’s posted the details here.

And the grad seminar: I’ve got a batch of stellar young scholars here at Indiana University. Together, we’re tackling the thicket of ethnographic approaches to digital media studies to think through what makes ethnographic work different from other approaches to the everyday experiences of media that shape our worlds.

Pretty exciting day.
: )

big day

Tomorrow’s the big day. What makes it so big, you might ask?

Wait for it. Wait for it…