Phones but no Papers

This originally appeared in Points, in a series of other great pieces responding to a Pew Research report on Gig Work, Online Selling, and Home Sharing.

Phones, but No Papers

New Vulnerabilities in On-demand Work

Emerging forms of on-demand low-wage work done through online labor platforms like Uber, Postmates, and Amazon Mechanical Turk have raised questions about new kinds of risks faced by low-wage workers in the US. However, while we focus on these emerging forms of contingent work and what they bode for the future, for many workers the characteristics of the gig economy — flexibility, precarity, instability — have been central to their experiences of work for generations. Contingent work has always been prevalent in communities where workers have been historically excluded from secure jobs, from union membership, and even from wider public forms of social welfare through systemic forms of discrimination. For these workers, there was no “golden era” of plentiful stable work and a strong social safety net.

Despite these long-standing trends, emerging forms of on-demand labor, and the data-driven technologies that workers interact with, can deepen the vulnerabilities of certain populations of workers.

What kinds of risks, for example, is an undocumented immigrant taking by giving up their data to a gig economy platform in exchange for work opportunities? What avenues for visibility into these populations are potentially being opened up for companies, government, or law enforcement?

Image by Alexandra Mateescu

Image by Alexandra Mateescu

A new Pew Report that examines workers in the “gig” or “on-demand” economy has found that Hispanic workers are overrepresented by 6 percentage points within the population of workers who earn income through online gig labor platforms like Uber. While this report doesn’t disaggregate this population based on their immigration status, given that this population tends to share other demographic similarities with other segments of on-demand laborers that are also overrepresented in other groups — for example, those without high school educations, and who make less than $30,000 a year — undocumented workers could potentially be overrepresented within the on-demand workforce. If this is indeed the case, it shouldn’t be too surprising. While undocumented immigrants only make up 5% of the total US workforce, foreign-born workers are overall more likely than native-born workers to be working in service occupations across the economy.

Given the number of undocumented workers that could be doing this work, this may seem to be a small issue. However, focusing on the vulnerabilities of this small population of on-demand workers isn’t only important to understand in order to get a better idea of who’s doing this work. It also has serious implications for the ways the companies they work for gather data about them. The ways that companies across the on-demand labor economy collect, use, and even share the data generated about these workers has the potential to exacerbate vulnerabilities of undocumented workers. Outside of the context of work, these issues are usually thought of under the rubric of privacy. For example, when Google uses your browsing data to show you creepily accurate advertisements or show women fewer ads for high paying jobs than they show men — we start to worry about the rules that govern how Google can share the data generated by our normal daily activities. The same is true for workers — except unlike you and your internet browser, workers don’t have a choice to simply use a different search engine, or mess around with their privacy settings to protect themselves. In order to find and coordinate the work that’s increasingly central to their livelihood (56% of gig economy workers say the money they make is “essential” or “important” to their overall finances), they must use platforms that they can’t tinker with to control the ways their data are collected and shared.

But, what are the stakes of companies having data like this about their workers? One way we can anticipate some of the consequences of this for undocumented workers is to look for other instances within the on-demand economy where rules about sharing data have come under pressure. As current disputes between Airbnb and the cities of San Francisco and NYC illustrate, the rules about how companies share data about the people who use their platforms are subject to change based on the political climate. Airbnb hosts in these cities have relied upon a certain level of invisibility and slack in the overlapping systems between their landlords, local housing regulations and law enforcement, and Airbnb’s data about them in order to rent their extra rooms and avoid fines. However, in the face of legislation in NYC that would impose steep fines on Airbnb hosts, the company has shown a willingness to share their data about hosts with the government to make enforcement more efficient, and to close the gaps in information between these powerful institutions.

Undocumented workers could face a similar (albeit more life-altering) set of risks when they engage in work through on-demand labor platforms. If the information these companies gather on their workers — from personal information, like photos of their faces, to information generated in the process of their work, ranging from GPS–tracking data to payroll information –is collected and shared, it could make them visible to institutions that pose huge risks to their safety and livelihoods.

These emerging forms of work, with their data-intensive forms of tracking and surveillance, raise new questions for workers who’ve traditionally relied on a level of obscurity and invisibility in order to navigate the daily insecurities they face as undocumented residents and workers. In our current political climate, with rising anxieties surrounding the future of immigration enforcement in the U.S., the data that these companies have may be of increasing interest to powerful government institutions, and they may soon face difficult choices about their obligations to their workers.


Markets & Morals: Conversations on Meaning in Economic Life

If you happen to be in Charlottesville, Virginia next Friday (4/15) & Saturday (4/16), come check out this event I'm putting on along with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Featuring feminist economist Julie Nelson on how economic theory damages our moral imagination, and sociologist of culture and social class Jennifer Silva on solidarity in the wake of the Great Recession. We'll be talking about the theory and methods of understanding meaning in economic life from the perspectives of sociology, history, anthropology, philosophy, and ethics. 

Apps for low-income workers

I just wrote about Jornalero, and a few other apps for low income workers for Future Tense - a collaboration between Slate Magazine, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. Here's an excerpt, check out the full article here


New Apps Like Jornalero Aim to Protect Low-Income Workers. Here’s How They Could Backfire.

Smartphones like the iPhone 5C have been developed for and marketed to upwardly mobile professionals, but increasingly, low-income consumers are using them too.  Sean Gallup/Getty Im  ages

Smartphones like the iPhone 5C have been developed for and marketed to upwardly mobile professionals, but increasingly, low-income consumers are using them too. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Since Steve Jobs announced the very first iPhone in 2007, smartphones have been largely developed for and marketed to upwardly mobile professionals. These little devices, and the flood of applications for them, transformed the way many of us think about computing and communication. However, in the shadow of this attention-grabbing change for elites, a quieter revolution has also been taking place...see the rest over at Future Tense.

The Future (& Present) of Technologies of Emotional Labor

It was a lot of fun to think about the ethics of outsourcing emotional labor to technology for Christine Rosen's excellent piece for Slate this week. Check out the full article here

Furthermore, despite the hype that often accompanies their release, these technologies can reinforce existing inequalities and stereotypes about caregiving, for example. Julia Ticona, a doctoral fellow in sociology at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia who studies the social impact of technology, told me, “I think it’s important to ask questions about how these technologies may reinforce or perhaps change our ideas about care and who’s ‘naturally’ more inclined to do it. Which patients will receive human care, and who will be tended to by robots? For me, thinking about devices that are designed to save humans emotional labor in the future is a really interesting place to look at the politics of care in the present—who gives it, who gets it, and how much we value it both emotionally and in dollars and cents.”

The Digital Hustle: The Future of Work & Workers

I'm thrilled to be a part of The Pacific Standard's series on The Future of Work and Workers. If you're interested in other smart people writing about technology and workers, also check out the excellent contributions from Mary L. Gray, Gina Neff, Karen Levy, and Judy Wajcman.

When I spot her outside the Dunkin' Donuts in Washington where we agreed to meet for our interview, Tiana is glaring at her phone with furrowed brow. When she notices me, her face softens. “Sorry,” she says. “They just changed my hours for tomorrow and now I have to figure out who’s going to watch my son.” She makes a quick call to her sister, and they compare their shifting schedules to figure out how to hand off her son between shifts.

After a quick post online to check on the possibility of switching shifts, Tiana turns back to me and explains that through Craigslist she recently found a part-time seasonal job to supplement her hours stocking shelves at a big box retailer. While excited for the extra cash, coordinating care for her son and an hour-long commute on unreliable public transportation are proving complicated. When I ask her if she ever shuts off her phone, she shakes her head and says: “I never turn it off, unless it’s about to die. I use my phone so much it dies at least once a day!”

In the cross-hairs of increasingly precarious low-wage work, and ubiquitous personal technologies, workers like Tiana (a pseudonym) use their phones to cobble together their livelihoods. In interviews with more than 40 workers in low-status service, retail and manual jobs in three cities I found these workers relied on their smartphones—and sometimes free Wi-Fi at restaurants and libraries—as essential tools in their digital hustle. They used their phones to find and coordinate work and care, and to alleviate stress in emotionally draining jobs. For many, making ends meet means constantly checking and participating in online networks and message boards to find work, as well as phone calls and text messages to coordinate their gigs. So why do some people still see smartphones as a luxury for the poor?

Many have marveled at the “leapfrog” adoption of mobile phones in the developing world that has allowed households to skip landline phones. Households in Africa and developing countries elsewhere are reaping the benefits of mobile phone money transferson-demand crop prices, and “micro-enterprises” that let rural residents buy airtime, and even charge their phones in villages without electricity. These advances have been celebrated as giving citizens the power to work around corrupt and slow-moving governments, and to pursue development that’s not dependent on chronically underfunded public infrastructure. But just how different is this from developments in the United States?

Indeed, many in America’s working class are leapfrogging over expensive home computers and taking up smartphones. However, this adoption hasn’t been driven only by the simple convenience of these devices. As hours become less reliable, as workers rely more on contingent employment in the “gig’’ and “sharing’’ economies, and as more single moms like Tiana need to coordinate “patchworks” of care in the absence of affordable professional child care, smartphones act as a Band-Aid. It’s no coincidence that these devices have become more popular among low-wage workers as their lives get more complicated to manage. In the absence of safety nets provided to the working poor by public institutions, workers use their phones to “do security” for themselves.

Tiana’s phone is an important tool, yet throughout our interview she blamed herself for “being an addict.” During her breaks at her job, she uses an alarm to remind herself to put her phone away and get back to work because, “I’ll just sit there texting my sister about my son, checking my bank accounts, and totally lose track of time.” Employers are also worried about their employees’ phone use at work. Most of the workers I talked to reported restrictions on using and even carrying their phones while they’re working—although many found ingenious ways to subvert these rules. While some trendy high-status workplaces encourage their employees to nap and exercise throughout the day, low-status workers face increasing amounts of employer surveillance and tight restrictions on their activities at work. Efforts to strictly control workers’ use of their devices at work ignore the important role these devices play, and fail to recognize the conditions driving this behavior.

The challenge for activists and policymakers interested in supporting low-wage workers is to acknowledge the importance of smartphones as tools that help manage the demands of everyday life at a time when society holds many people solely responsible for weaving their own safety nets. It’s imperative that we support efforts by the federal government to help with the high costs of maintaining service, and organizations seeking to broaden access in vulnerable populations, while resisting the fiction that smartphones alone can fix these important issues.

Media are Elemental: Protection from the Elements

Crossposted to The Infernal Machine - After John Durham Peters came to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture to talk about his new book The Marvelous Clouds, the editors at the Infernal Machine invited me to comment on some of the themes in his book. 

Etching from La clef de la science, explication des phénomènes de tous les jours par Brewer et Moigno (1889). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Media are elemental. And like the elements, they’re essential to our everyday practices, so much so that we often take them for granted. But sometimes, like when there’s a drought or a flood, the elements take on a charge and something makes us sit up and take notice of them. When there’s a dangerous lack of an element or an overabundance, we’re forced to take stock of the element’s essential qualities, its importance to our own lives, and the resources needed to cope with changing conditions.

We seem to be in the midst of a flood of media meant to foster intimacy and social connection. Social networking sites and free text messaging services are providing more ways to meet, “poke,” stalk, and stay in touch with people from all the different stages of our lives. These practices are even embedded in the ways many of us find love. In a recent Pew study, more than half of American teenagers reported “digitally flirting” with someone to communicate their romantic intentions. The widespread adoption of these technologies by teenagers have led some scholars, such as Sherry Turkle, to worry that “superficial” forms of intimacy will degrade their capacities for empathy and understanding. In the midst of this flood, critics such as Turkle are raising concerns about the quality of the water.

Peters provides an explanation of why teenagers might be drawn to this kind of interaction in the first place:

People prefer being telepresent via Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging not because the software provides the ‘feeling’ of ‘sitting the face to face,’ but rather because it doesn’t provide it at all. Text-only communication lightens social anxieties.

In a stage of life when it often seems that their own bodies are working against us, telepresence is an attractive solution for some teenagers. The bodily (dis)functions that often undermined our best efforts at confident and cool comportment are eliminated in text-only communication. But teenagers’ use of these technologies can’t only be explained by their individual strategies to reduce the anxieties of teenager-hood. As Peters suggests, digital media invite us to consider the roles they play in our “habitats,” meaning the wider contexts in which we struggle and form relationships.

Over the past several decades, the habitats of American teenagers have been characterized, as psychologist Cindi Katz and media scholar danah boyd have noted, by the individualization of risks surrounding their failures or successes in increasingly competitive markets for higher education and jobs, and shrinking amounts of time and space for them to interact with one another outside of adult supervision. As their anxieties about their futures mount, teenagers have decreasing amounts of private spaces to sort through those issues with their friends.

Of course, some teenagers have the resources to withstand the floodwaters. Their lives are like well-appointed gardens, studded with carefully selected plants, and drainage systems that allow them to be resilient in the face of changing conditions. Meanwhile, low-income teens on the economic margins of society, who often face intensified levels of surveillance by both state institutions and police, as well as their parents and teachers, scramble to stem the damage caused by the run-off, without the resources or support to survive the storm.

Understanding the elemental nature of media forces us to consider not only the quality of the “water” that we swim in, but the resources available to deal with its negative consequences. Some teenagers will be prepared to absorb the risks of swimming. Others will be left to sink or swim.







Co-written with An Xiao Mina - originally posted at Civicist

Just a coffee shop for some; a lifeline for others. (Anthony92931, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Just a coffee shop for some; a lifeline for others. (Anthony92931, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Mike was 15 minutes late for an interview and not answering texts or phone calls. Julia was just about ready to write him off when he burst through the door of the Dunkin Donuts where they had agreed to meet, full of apologies. He sat down and as he put his phone on the table it began beeping and vibrating. Mike said that after spending over $100—the equivalent of 10 hours’ pay—on a new phone that had ended up in a snowbank, he was forced to purchase yet another phone. Because of the extra cost, however, he wasn’t able to keep up with payments to the phone company. Julia was confused. If his phone service was disconnected, why was it buzzing with notifications? Mike explained that he was using a free app to make and receive calls with the free wifi he accessed at fast food joints around the city, including this Dunkin Donuts.

Mike has two part-time jobs, one in a medical supplies warehouse, and another as a day laborer for a home repairs business, both of which require him to commute for over an hour from where he lives in Maryland. For both jobs, his bosses call to check his availability, often only a few hours in advance. With his lack of consistent phone service this poses a logistical challenge and has led to his habit of spending days off hanging out at local restaurants with free wifi. He’ll head to the McDonald’s down the street from his house to make calls and check Craigslist to find work. The patchwork of part-time work and low-paid gigs that Mike relies on for his income is increasingly common for high school-educated minorities.

Every day, Mike engages in what Julia calls the “digital hustle”: finding and securing this work requires participation in online networks and the ability to make and receive phone calls. His inability to maintain enough income to foot the bill for cell phone service every month has created a constraint that required him to find other resources.

By many measures, someone like Mike might be considered unconnected to the internet. He has no internet or computer at home, and though he has a smartphone, he has no data or phone plan. And yet his very ability to sustain his livelihood depends on his ability to find and maintain connectivity, using apps and free wifi networks that create the phone connection he needs.


New policies aiming to bring greater connectivity to people in low-income urban and rural areas have garnered political support as more public attention is drawn to closing the digital divide in the United States. This includes ConnectHome, a recently-announced White House initiative that plans to connect 275,000 homes with free or low-cost broadband access, with the goal of complementing ConnectEd, which brings universal broadband to schools. In addition, the FCC is advocating an expansion of the Lifeline program, which currently provides subsidies for landline and mobile phone access, to give recipients of this subsidy the opportunity to choose to spend their $9.25 per month to defray the costs of either broadband, landline, or mobile phone plans.

The digital divide, as explored in a recent White House report, often correlates with existing inequalities:

The benefits of this technological revolution, however, have not been evenly distributed. Millions of Americans still do not regularly use a computer, and research shows that there remain substantial disparities in both internet use and the quality of access. This “digital divide” is concentrated among older, less educated, and less affluent populations, as well as in rural parts of the country that tend to have fewer choices and slower connections.

The paper notes that the digital divide can be measured along a number of axes—ability to access broadband internet at home (whether landline or wireless), quality of said access, and diversity of broadband offerings. And due to the technological and infrastructural requirements of providing broadband vis-à-vis a lack of alternative options, rural areas often experience especially pronounced effects.

Unfortunately, however, due to the enormous logistical costs, there are 55 million people in the United States without broadband access; expanding broadband to 275,000 of them will “barely put a dent,” as Micah Sifry wrote recently. Neither ConnectHome nor the new Lifeline program address the considerable costs of ensuring sustainable maintenance, which may be a larger barrier to low-income people fully engaging online. The enormous logistical efforts of providing such access means that that goal may be many years off. Importantly, these efforts also assume a largely stable, singular primary residence, which isn’t the reality for many low-income families, who face rising rates of housing insecurity.

The implicit logic behind these plans, and much rhetoric surrounding the digital divide, is a basicconnectivity binary: between an urban, middle-class vision of always-on broadband access in a stable home and, by contrast, a complete lack of connectivity. Even accounting for the nuance of the White House report, which measures the digital divide in a number of different ways, popular thinking largely focuses on one mode: broadband at home. Many other forms for access such as Mike’s, above, are rendered invisible.

While the goal to connect all citizens via broadband is a critical one, limiting ourselves to binary thinking about connectivity can have unintended consequences. Policy and outreach efforts run the risk of ignoring the many vital ways people already access the web and its products in the United States, while civic-oriented websites and apps may not be optimized for modes of access that are more diverse than simply always-on mobile and desktop. As the federal government and corporations work steadily to open up broadband access to all, other modes of access may be readily available at lower cost and faster implementation, with a potentially high impact in the short term.


What can more diversified thinking about connectivity look like? Our goal here is not to argue for specific policy changes and technological methods, but instead to argue for a seeing connectivity as more of a spectrum than a binary.

Consider an extreme example outside the United States: in recent years, Cubans have had little to no access to the internet, with an elite 5 percent of the country’s 11 million people having private internet connections. Nevertheless, many Cubans have found different ways to access popular internet content thanks to distributed USB sticks in a sneakernet-based system. El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), a popular sneakernet magazine, directly services 10-20 people per day, and those people in turn make copies for friends and family. As An has written previously, this sort of access extends to North Korea and northern Uganda, and almost certainly to other parts of the world where the infrastructure for any form of wired or wireless internet access is almost nonexistent.

In the United States, we might consider looking at Connect 4 Life’s project to give smartphones to homeless LGBTQ teens. These teens are overrepresented among the homeless youth population in the U.S. and programs like this aim to give them access to the tools necessary to contact caseworkers, find friendly shelters and meal programs, and look for work. These teens, for whom connectivity is essential to avoiding involvement with criminal activities, finding help, and eventually getting into more stable housing, would be untouched by efforts to expand home-based broadband access.

These examples point at different ways to broaden our thinking about infrastructure, but software developers can also play an important role in ensure websites and apps can support individuals with a variety of different types of connectivity. Take, for instance, the simple affordances of Instapaper and Pocket, apps that allow for offline reading of popular articles. How else can we provide queued, offline access for those who might only have intermittent access at libraries, cafes, and fast food restaurants? Can content be more readily downloadable, El Paquete-style, to USB sticks and mobile phones, for consumption at home?

Consider as well that many civic technology sites are oriented to web access and/or phone services. The Lifeline program in the United States currently offers phone plan subsidies, and while voicemail-based services can be important, SMS in certain contexts may be more cost effective and preferred. The most popular example of SMS-based systems in this country are probably for telling bus arrival times, but could developers learn from SMS-based systems such as those explored by Twitter,Google, and UNICEF in the developing world?


To be clear, the initiatives we’ve described above cannot and should not be seen as replacements for full broadband, networked access at home and on the go. As President Obama is quoted in the White House paper, “Today high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” Advocating for the expansion of Lifeline to support broadband, Van Jones noted the same:

What about a life without broadband Internet?

It would mean: no emails; no ability to quickly look up health information for managing your diabetes or helping your sick child; no way to pay bills, search for jobs, or take classes online.

When you stop to think about it, one thing becomes clear: access to fast and reliable broadband is just as essential now as electricity was during the last century.

As we’ve seen in recent years, the internet has played a major role in a broad range of major social and political changes, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the digitization of our healthcare system. Home and mobile broadband access has allowed the authors of this article to collaborate remotely, share research and disseminate this article efficiently and effectively. What is currently a mark of privilege should be available to all U.S. residents.

Broadening how we think about access can mean assembling a more diverse toolkit of connectivity that is more cost effective and quicker to implement in the short term. Whether that’s through sneakernet-driven networks, citywide wifi, distributed smartphones, SMS-based communications or many other modes and methods of connectivity, we should aim to provide a wider range of individuals access to the internet, an absolute necessity for 21st century livelihoods and citizenship.

Canaries in the Privacy Coal Mine

“Does this picture make me look unprofessional?” “Who might see this post about my ex?” “What will my boss think if I tweet about who I voted for?” - questions like these worried many of the people I interviewed for my research on the problems they had with their personal technologies. For some, the vigilance necessary to participate in social media spaces while maintaining control over their how they present themselves is a new frustration of contemporary social life. However for others, constant self-monitoring and awareness of other’s prejudices and assumptions has long been a feature of everyday life. Erving Goffman (1963) pointed out that people who belong to groups with stigmatized identities (like members of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities) and those who are physically stigmatized (like the disabled) are often burdened with the work of self-monitoring and vigilance in ways that may seem foreign and unimaginable to members of more powerful groups. So, while concerns about privacy and control over one’s personal information are now spread across demographic categories in the U.S.[1], to many members of minority groups, these worries are old news.

The need to craft and tailor our self-presentations to different audiences is a constant feature of social life. However, social media spaces complicate this process by “collapsing multiple contexts and bringing together commonly distinct audiences”.[2] This feature of mainstream social media platforms makes them environments where missteps, mistakes, and social blunders are all too easy to make. On the other side of the screen, these same features make these environments productive spaces for surveillance by colleges, employers, advertisers, and other powerful gatekeepers of opportunity.

However easy it is for anyone to make mistakes in these environments, the consequences of these missteps aren’t the same for everyone. boyd found that people who face high stakes surveillance of their social media presence develop creative strategies for taking control over the information others can find out about them, including daily de-activation and re-activation of their profiles, and deleting evidence of all interactions.[3] Research has shown that due to the perception of high stakes surveillance, racial minorities also may have different practices of sharing and disclosing personal information in face-to-face social situations[4]. The experience of increased scrutiny and surveillance in both face-to-face and online context is a burden that falls heavier on the shoulders of stigmatized groups, and in turn, affects the ways they think about sharing and controlling information about themselves.

The combination of increased self-monitoring and vigilance that members of minority groups have to do in their everyday face-to-face social interactions and the increased surveillance they (and increasingly many of us) face in online contexts creates a crucible in which attitudes and practices of privacy are formed.  Do members of these groups develop a “taste for privacy” (Lewis, Kaufman, Christakis 2008) in different ways then members of more privileged groups? What can we learn about the effects of constant surveillance from the groups that bear the unequal burden of it?

The Pew Internet & American Life project found that people with incomes in the lowest category (under $30,000) were less trusting of the security of their phone conversations and e-mail than people with higher incomes; and they were particularly untrusting of advertisers to protect their information. This group was also less likely to say that the content of their calls, e-mails, and shopping histories were “highly sensitive” information when compared to people at higher incomes.[5] So, even though they didn’t see the content of their activities as very sensitive, they were still less trusting of existing policies and authorities to protect their information and have their best interests at heart. While this study did not focus on racial and ethnic differences within these categories, African-American households are over-represented in this income bracket.[6]

However, perceptions of privacy and security of information don’t only affect the ways that people think about their online banking and shopping, it also affects the ways they think about their interactions with friends and family and the risks of intimacy in a connected age. Lacey, a 37-year-old, African-American administrative assistant in Washington, D.C. illustrates these risks when she explained to me why she refuses to participate in any kind of social media:

“I guess it ties into it, the like Ray Rice thing, or the Beyoncé on the elevator. Somebody sold that footage to somebody. Where I'm thinking I'm just minding my business and someone comes along, whose motives aren’t the purest, they want money, so they want to sell their soul and sell mine for $100,000.00 That I have an issue with. I just don’t want to give anyone access to me. I don’t want to be on somebody’s Instagram, and tweeting and all that, I don’t know you and I don’t trust you. You got to get with the people that you do know. I just like to be able to control the access that someone has to me… I just try to put myself in a situation where certain things don’t happen. Certain things maybe, I'm on an elevator, I can’t avoid what happens. But there are some situations; I think 95% of things you can control. ”

Lacey does a kind of “risk calculus” that weighs the benefits of participating in social media against the risks of engaging in this kind of intimacy in a networked public. Her mistrust of others getting “access” to her through her interactions with friends and family members on social media outweighs the emotional benefits she may get from tweeting and Instagramming, and lead her to withdraw from social media. For her, being able to protect herself from dangerous others is contingent on her ability to control what people know about her, and the surest way to do that is to avoid using these services all together. The outcome of Lacey’s calculus is similar to many low-income, urban-dwelling interviewees for my research, especially those who’re members of racial and ethnic minority groups. While only a few decided to completely withdraw from social media as a result, many detailed their uneasiness and the vigilance necessary to participate in social media, but also “keep people out of my business”[7]. While many more privileged interviewees detailed their excitement about the ways participating in social media expanded their social networks and allowed them to maintain friendships with distant friends and family, this same aspect of these environments made less privileged interviewees feel vulnerable to others in ways that just weren’t worth the risk.[8]

While these problems are experienced by many as new, unheralded changes in our social lives, these are not new burdens to all. As recipients of more than their fair share of monitoring, surveillance, and uninformed assumptions about their character, and worthiness, low-status workers, racial minorities[9], and other stigmatized peoples have been inculcated with the kind of vigilance that is increasingly required of everyone who lives their lives online. The problems that these groups face are worthy of understanding and action on their own merits. However, they also offer some insight into the ways that the dynamics of social media are likely to shape behavior and interactions across categories. 

[1] Madden, Mary. 2014.“Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era”, The Pew Internet and American Life project, 

[2] Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. 2010. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media and Society 13(1):114–33, P.115.

[3] boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Phillips, Katherine, Nancy Rothbard, and Tracy Dumas. 2009. “To Disclose or Not to Disclose? Status Distance and Self-Disclosure in Diverse Environments.” Academy of Management Review 34(4):710–32.

[5] Madden, 2014.

[6] 20% of households that make under $30,000 a year are African-American, while African-Americans make up only 13% of the population. 74% are white households.

[7] Quoted from interview with Michael, a 31-year-old, African-American warehouse stocker in Washington, D.C.

[8] 50% (11/22) of African-American and Hispanic interviewees brought up social media leaving them vulnerable to others as a negative aspect of their personal technology use, while 13% (8/58) of white respondents did. The white respondents who mentioned this as a concern were either in sexual minority groups, and/or had jobs characterized by lots of surveillance (both low-status & high status jobs).

[9] This is not to suggest that members of stigmatized groups, especially African-Americans, do not face unique challenges when expressing themselves or otherwise engaging in online forums. The undue pressure to represent the perspective of one’s entire group, anonymous and brutal trolling, and many other hurdles stand in the way of these groups’ equal participation in online spaces.

The Hand That Holds the Smartphone: A response to Alan Jacobs' 79 Theses

Cross posted at The Infernal Machine

Recently, Allan Jacobs came to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture to present his 79 Theses on Technology. Then, in an act of sheer intellectual bravery, he invited a group of us to publicly rip them to shreds. Here’s my contribution to what’s become a really excellent exchange between people grappling with questions of agency, desire, and tech. For more on this exchange, check out Jacobs’ responses to his interlocutors here, and also on the Infernal Machine.

Alan Jacobs poses a few questions to his readers: “What must I pay attention to?” “What may I pay attention to?” and “What must I refuse attention to?” These questions direct readers to understand their own positions in the world in terms of attention. They encourage reflection. Instead of directing the reader’s focus outward to ponder general, more abstract relations between “technology” and “society,” they return us to our own bodies even and suggest that the hand that swipes the iPhone, your hand, deserves attention.

Jacobs formulates only two other theses as questions  (#9, #60), and both are posed from a seemingly universal standpoint without a social location or even an implied interlocutor. However, some of Jacobs’s concerns about the current unhappy union with our attention-demanding devices seem to emerge from a specific social location. While these concerns may ring true for a large segment of higher-income, well-educated adults, who do in fact own smartphones in greater numbers than the rest of the US population, they may fall short of describing the experiences of many other users.

For example, #70, “The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.” Who are the “always-connected”? The McDonald’s worker whose algorithmically determined shifts are apt to change with less than half day’s notice? Or one of the 10% of Americans who rely on their smartphones to access the Internet to do their banking, look for a job, and let their child do homework?

People who rely on their smartphones for Internet access are more likely to be young, low-income, and non-white, the same population with some of the highest levels of unemployment. With the migration of most job-seeking to online databases and applications, all members of the “always-connected” might not experience the “pleasures of disconnection” in the same way as the middle class knowledge worker with high-speed Internet access at home and at work. In reality, the “always-connected” is a large and diverse group, and is quickly becoming even larger and even more diverse.

Your hand isn’t the only hand that comes in contact with your phone, of course, but only the last set of hands in a long chain of designers, manufacturing workers, and marketing gurus. Jacobs points this out in the case of algorithms (Thesis #54, “The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.”), but it bears extending this line of thinking to other theses about the ideologies that run through contemporary discourse on technology.

Consider Thesis #41, “The agency that in the 1970s philosophers and theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology” and #44, “We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency”—who are the agents in these theses? Who is doing the ascribing? Who seeks absolution?

Kevin Kelly, the author Jacobs points to as a prime example of techno-enthusiasm, was a founding editor ofWired and has spent a lot of time talking to technology executives over the past several decades. Kelly’s ideas have often been translated into marketing strategies that soon enter into the public consciousness—like the sumptuously edited commercial for the Apple Watch in which the watch operates completely of its own agency, no human required!—where they shape our desires and understandings of our relationships with our devices.

It’s through the image of a series of hands grasping, texting, and swiping away that my attention is drawn to the people at other end of the technologies that shape our lives. As Jacobs points out, technology doesn’t want anything, “we want, with technology as our instrument,” but the question of who we are is isn’t just idle sociological speculation. It’s vital to imagining alternative arrangements of both people and technology, as well as more humane practices that may benefit us all.

Cell phone ownership in the U.S.

Today, I searched all over the interwebs to find data that tracked cell phone ownership over time in the U.S. - I found the amazing World Bank Data Bank and graph tool and made this:

Data from World Bank

Unfortunately, the "lower middle income" legend label is missing (see second line from bottom). Interestingly, you can see a slight decrease in the U.S. overall subscriptions per 100 people from 2013-2014, and a leveling off of subscriptions for lower middle income americans in this same period. You can also see what's probably the proliferation of the "work phone" beginning in 2007, when the number of subscriptions among high-income americans went above 1 per person so that in 2013 there are 121 cell phone subscriptions per 100 people in this category. 

Google used to be a human, she was a telephone operator

In 1994, Anne Landers printed a column from an exasperated "information operator" who wanted to clarify her job to the newspaper reading public:

DEAR ANN LANDERS: I work for the telephone company. Please don't print my name. I need my job.I am an information operator. My responsibility is to assist callers in finding telephone numbers. Period. Please inform the public I am not a physician, a veterinarian, a nutritionist, a lawyer, a horticultural specialist, a style consultant, a librarian or a family counselor. You would not believe the questions I am asked on a daily basis.

Recently, a woman wanted to know if it was OK to use 10 eggs in her angel food cake instead of 12, if the eggs were especially large. Another caller asked what Mayor Richard Daley's wife's real name was. "I know they call her Maggie," she said, "but her real name must be something else." The same caller wanted to know if she should have her bunions operated on.

Every day, I am asked, "What is the temperature?" and "Should I wear my heavy coat?" I am constantly asked which TV channels carry certain programs. Yesterday, a woman asked if you should starve a cold and feed a fever, or the other way 'round. This morning, a man asked what city he was in. He said, "I know this sounds goofy, but I'm a salesman, and I travel a lot."

If you print this letter, Ann, please add that it would be nice if people said "thank you" once in a while. Connected to the Public in Chicago

Dear Connected: Here's your letter. Maybe more people will say "thank you," but don't expect to get fewer weird questions. Meanwhile, remember that a sense of humor can be a valuable asset. I hope you have one.

Reading through this, I was struck by the continuities in our information seeking habits. Although nearly instantaneous access to information about our every day questions has undoubtedly changed a lot about the ways we ask and expect answers, it's fascinating that many people treated telephone operators in this same way before the advent of search engines. 

Strategies of Control & Uneasy Selves

I'm excited and grateful to post two new publications:

Strategies of Control: workers' use of ICTs (information & communication tech) to shape knowledge & service work - In Information, Communication, and Society. 

This paper examines the way that different types of workers deploy strategies of control in concert with and in resistance to information and communication technologies (ICTs). Existing research on the effects of ICTs for knowledge workers has illustrated the ways they can lead to practices of overwork and worklife spillover. However, the dearth of studies on service workers and ICT means that we have a limited understanding of their role across different segments of the workforce. Drawing on interviews with service workers and knowledge workers, I examine how they use ICTs to shape their experiences of work. The study finds the two groups deployed ICTs in different ways, and employed different ICT-centric strategies to control the temporal and emotional demands of their labor. The service workers deployed strategies of everyday resistance in concert with their ICTs to gain a feeling of autonomy within the power structures of their workplaces. The knowledge workers deployed strategies of inaccessibility to resist the work-extending affordances of their devices and decouple from work which threatened to colonize too much of their lives. Both service and knowledge workers deploy strategies that may obscure the institutional sources of their problems by overindividualizing risk and responsibility. The paper concludes by calling for a broader empirical research agenda and more comparative research oriented to understanding the ways that ICTs both enable and constrain workers confronting different work conditions and demands.

I was also honored to contribute to the latest issue of the Hedgehog Review - Too Much Information - with a co-authored piece with Prof. Chad Wellmon, Uneasy in Digital Zion.

From the editors: This article draws on original research to explore the sometimes-contradictory reactions of everyday Americans to their deepening engagement with information and communication technologies. “Even when interviewees were encouraged to discuss the ways in which the design of digital technologies might structure experiences or encourage certain behaviors,” observe Ticona and Wellmon, “they continued to frame their explanations in strictly individual terms that only reinforced the assumed divide between the lives they led on and offline.”


Safety...for GIRLS!

“Please be careful when you’re walking around on campus this week,” my husband said, looking up from his computer. He had just read Rolling Stone’s now infamous article about rape and sexual violence across the University of Virginia’s campus, and I was headed to Charlottesville the next day. I rolled my eyes, just like I did when he said almost the same thing after Hannah Graham went missing a month earlier. I told him if he was that worried, he could always see where I was on Find My Friends; an iPhone application that turns your phone into a kind of voluntary ankle bracelet, allowing you to share your current location with select friends. I had grudgingly agreed to use this app a few months prior when he pointed out that, for my dissertation, I was going all over Washington, D.C. interviewing strangers in cafes and restaurants I had never been to before.

At UVA the next day, I saw a group of students protesting and talking into news cameras and one of their signs caught my attention: “We live in a society that teaches: Don’t Get Raped instead of Don’t Rape”. First, the sad truth of the sign hit me. Its simply stated message rang true and I felt the slow heat of anger start building in my chest. But my second reaction was the one that really irritated me, why hadn’t I thought of that before? My mind raced around to the points in my biography when I had the opportunity to make this connection, but didn’t…

When I arrived on campus at my all-women’s college, on the first day of orientation we were handed blue plastic whistles (which we would forever call “rape whistles”). We were instructed to attach the whistles to the ubiquitous lanyards we all wore around our necks (until we got too cool for them) and to use them only in case of emergency. The campus police officer who was running the session then gave us all a chance to blow the whistles to “get it out of our systems” so that we could be sure to use them appropriately from then on. We joked about this among ourselves, about how over-protective it was to issue whistles to women on an all-women’s campus in a town with one of the lowest crime rates in Massachusetts in order to protect ourselves. At the time, we took the whistle warning in stride and got on with the more important business of registering for classes and making new friends.

While I was at school I also took an optional Rape Aggression Defense (or R.A.D for short) course that was a multi-week self-defense class that culminated in a nerve-wracking attack simulation. During this simulation, we we donned gloves, head protection, and knee pads, and were instructed to pantomime getting money out of an ATM, or being pinned underneath someone, and one of our instructors (wearing something like this) acted as the “aggressor” and attempted to restrain us. Our assailant’s face was obscured, and while I was reasonably sure it was one of our instructors, I couldn’t identify the behemoth lumbering toward me, pinning my arms to my sides and trying to wrestle me to the ground, and it scared me. We were instructed to use the techniques we had learned (and full force) against our imaginary assailant, and depending on our performance, we either received certification or not (this being Wellesley…we all received our certifications).

After this class, I felt strong. My adrenaline was pumping after my palm made contact with the attacker’s face mask and I stomped on its foot, running full speed out of the room and to safety. As I high-fived my fellow classmates afterwards, my voice was hoarse from screaming “No! Stop!” with a volume that had surprised me. We had all made light of it, joking about how silly it seemed, but during the simulations I was terrified, and afterwards I felt triumphant. This workshop reminded me of my physical vulnerability to strangers in public places, and also to friends and partners. We learned how to defend ourselves against an attacker who came at us from behind, taking us unawares, but also how to get out from underneath someone who had us pinned beneath them.

Was my feminist consciousness awakened to the outrage I should have felt that there were 3 assault survivors in my class of 10? Did I leave with a better critical awareness of male entitlement and cultural constructions of female vulnerability? Absolutely not. This was not the point of the class. But I did learn how to break a stranglehold around my neck.

Back at UVA, I continued my walk around campus and my thoughts continued to jump around, thinking about all the times I had received the message that I was the last (and often only) line of defense against sexual violence directed at me, and my thoughts finally settled on the phone in my pocket. As I continued my walk toward the library, I thought of the pulsing blue dot that was slowly making its own way across a map of Charlottesville. In Washington, if my partner was worried about me, he could open this map and see my serene little dot, gliding along its path around campus.

I now had another weapon at my disposal that didn’t require mouth guards and weeks of training…my smart phone. Services like Kitestring,bSafe, and Watch Over Me, offer to call or text a list of emergency contacts if a timer runs out, the phone is shaken, or a panic button is pushed. As a student of sociology & technology, I’m fascinated by the existence and variety of personal safety apps. Do women actually use them? Or do nervous students, parents and partners insist on them being downloaded only to languish on that 3rd home screen along with that running app you thought you’d use everyday? Do these applications make women safer? Or do they only make women feel safer as they take the risks that every single one of their male classmates take without a second thought? Or are they socializing women and men into accepting that it is every individual woman’s burden to keep herself safe from sexual violence?

The names and publicity for these services alone are enough to raise a feminist eyebrow – Kitestring’s founder says that he created the app “to keep my girlfriend safe” – bSafe’s motto is “the end of worry” and offers a “fake call” feature to “get you out of bad dates”. But, feminists like Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant celebrated the merging of biology and technology to herald women’s liberation and social progress. Are these defensive technologies the kind of technologies they meant? These thinkers imagined women using digital technologies to achieve social progress, to play with their identities and enable everyone to achieve social progress together – but what of defensive tech?

Judy Wajcman reminds us that there is a mutually shaping relationship between technology and gender, “in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations. In other words, gender relations can be thought of as materialized in technology, and masculinity and femininity in turn acquire their meaning and character through their enrollment and embeddedness in working machines”. It’s possible that in their advertising, these applications inscribe their users’ vulnerability, and need for protection, and de-emphasize the way most sexual violence happens, not outside at the hands of a stranger, but at the hands of someone you know. While at the same time, in practice they may enable women to take more risks in order to participate more equally within public spaces.

It’s shameful that so many women feel they need an app like this to feel safe in public space. But what are we supposed to do about it? Download the app and see it as an act of resistance against the risk of walking alone at night? Or don’t and protest the technologies that reinforce women’s vulnerability? I don’t have the answers, but if you want to know how to break a stranglehold, let me know.

A “Frictionless” Life

I’m sitting in Salena’s stylish office at a trendy California tech company interviewing her about her use of personal technology and she’s trying to articulate why she still spends time sending birthday cards to her friends. She explained that her job was to create and promote “frictionless” ways for people to exchange information, meaning that all impediments to efficient communication are eliminated. Even though she enjoyed her company’s products and thought they were indeed “adding value” to people’s lives, she still preferred to put pen to paper in order to wish her friends and family members a happy birthday. I asked her why and she paused, and said, “Sometimes the friction adds value.”

“Eliminating friction” in everyday processes is a common goal for app and software developers. This phrase not only permeates tech writing but also popped up in a few of my recent interviews with tech industry workers in Silicon Valley.

As someone who tries to eliminate friction for a living, Salena proudly explained the ways that her company was improving communication by designing “elegant user interfaces” and decreasing the “distance between thought and dissemination”. But, what exactly is friction in a digital world obsessed with avoiding it?

At the DMV, eliminating friction may mean an online system that allows you to schedule discrete appointments to avoid endless waits in line. At the grocery store it means shopping in a virtual store in your pajamas and picking up your groceries from a locker the next day. In these cases, friction means the time and effort expended accomplishing a mundane task.  But, what about other kinds of “tasks”?

Is the idea of efficiency the best metric to measure the success of our emotional interactions?

As Michael Sacassas, pointed out, the goal of reducing friction in our intimate relationships emanates from a misunderstanding of the difference between two different kinds of labor. He argues that we’ve gotten accustomed to “outsourcing” some our intellectual labor (e.g., remembering phone numbers, appointments) to our personal devices, and now we are developing ways to do the same with the labor of love. He argues that while outsourcing the intellectual labor of remembering a phone number doesn’t make a phone call less meaningful, the labor of writing your own thoughts into a greeting card shouldn’t be outsourced, because it’s essential to the meaning of the act. Salena’s emotional labor of handwriting birthday cards for her friends is essential to the expression of care communicated through a birthday card, if she outsources it (as in the movie Her) the meaning of the birthday card is diminished.

New apps (like BroAppRomantimatic) have made these kinds of labor commensurable. They compare two qualitatively different kinds of labor along a common metric of efficiency. But, I think it’s a mistake to assume that efficiency is the measure by which all kinds of labor should be measured and improved. Judged by this metric, emotional labor doesn’t seem worth the cost. But, few of us would want to live in a world without it.

Perhaps it would be wise to dismiss this phrase as yet another Silicon Valley trend, fated to burn away as quickly as it caught alight. But, the words we use to describe the problems of everyday life are consequential, not only for the ways people go about solving them, but also because they’re indicators of the kind of lives we hope to lead.

Salena’s comment suggests a resistance to the commensurability of intellectual and emotional labor.  Her critique of this logic is a reminder that technologies don’t determine practice, and it is always necessary to look for meanings that resist reduction. The question of how to resist the seduction of efficiency as an ultimate value in our emotional engagements is one that characterizes our lives with digital technologies. However, the answer doesn’t lie in ‘unplugging’ our phones and spending our days handwriting correspondences, but instead challenges us to find a way to develop practices that express, instead of flatten, our human relationships.

Tuned Out or "Connecting"? Ideal Users in Facebook Home Ads

In the Spring of 2013, Facebook announced a new piece of software designed to allow Facebook users with Android phones to transform their dull home and lock screens into spaces to view continuously updated Facebook content. This way, instead of having to dig through all your applications to launch Facebook, and then scroll through your friends’ latest pictures, you can “like” a friend’s update about their delicious lunch, or comment on the picture she posted of her salad directly from the lock screen.

While the software got mixed reviews, the T.V. ads that Facebook rolled out to accompany the launch were critiqued for normalizing the egocentric pursuit of self over and above our (often boring) responsibilities to others.  I have mixed feelings about the way these commercials depict the character of the users, but find the commercials impossible to stop thinking about.

Advertising is a form of explicitly available cultural “script” that illustrates a nexus where the meanings a company hopes to associate with a product meet the ideas and feelings potential consumers may already have about the product and where it may fit into their lives. In order to sell new technologies, companies usually attempt to make sense of them for consumers in a way that appeals to consumers’  existing ideas about technology, relationships, and themselves. To do so, advertisers often position their new devices in relation to consumers’ existing meaning systems (Pfaffenberger).

For these reasons, the Facebook Home ads provide an interesting place to explore the “ideal users” imagined by Facebook. The characteristics shared by the users in these ads are that they are young and bored by their current surroundings. The rest of what we learn about these users is gleaned from the content they peruse while using the advertised software. A young Facebook employee zones out on Mark Zuckerberg’s congratulatory announcement by looking at pictures of a competitive lawn-mower race that come to life and zing through the desks in the office where he’s sitting listening to his overly-earnest boss. A young woman bored by her Aunt’s uninteresting story at a family dinner passes the time by looking at pictures of ballerinas, who then dance their way across the dinner table. These young, bored people are defined (in the eyes of the viewers) by the content they consume as it scrolls by on the screens of their phones. The Facebook employee is quirky and irreverent, the woman is cultured and artistic. Their personalities are known (in the words of Nick Hornby) not by what they are like, but what they like.

These users are also depicted as being able to transcend the banal doldrums of everyday life and connect to the things that “really” interest them at the touch of a button. Even though their bodies may be confined to a particular physical space, they are free to direct their attention in ways that really interest them and Facebook Home is allowing them to do so faster then they ever did before. Evan Selinger wrote a thought-provoking (but perhaps slightly alarmist) piece for Wired addressing many of these issues. He argues that our “ethical effort in maintaining meaningful connections” with others is undermined by the ideology of the freely-choosing, obligation-free individual illustrated by the users in these ads, and that this kind of selfishness is spreading. While I mostly agree with his argument, I still think these ads are interesting from an empirical (if not ethical) perspective.

The empirical questions these commercials provoke are even more interesting when compared to the tone of the official video Facebook produced to introduce the software. This spot shows users in moments where they’re not participating in ongoing social interactions with co-present others (a break from work, riding a train, snuggling with a sleeping partner). In this video, they show their ideal user not as the physically-constrained-but-freely-choosing agent shown in the TV spots, but as socially engaged with those around them or having “a free moment” by themselves. In this video, the technology doesn’t bring the images on the users phone into their current physical surroundings, in fact, the user’s use of the device doesn’t cause any disruption whatsoever to the flow of events around them. It’s hard to imagine anyone writing a scathing critique of the software featured in this vision of the software!

By comparing these two depictions of users of the Facebook Home software, it’s apparent that the images of users we see in commercials matter to the ways we understand these devices and their place in our lives. The television spots were certainly intended to be slightly humorous tongue-in-cheek references to the changing social norms surrounding mobile use in different social settings, and the Facebook video is a more earnest attempt that plays off of our fond feelings for our friends and family. But, looking at these two ads together makes me think about the ways that some depictions of technology make critique more possible, while others make it more difficult to see any possible downsides of the product being advertised.  Does the style of advertising really affect the ways we receive new technologies? What do you think?

Not mere tools – A Response to Leon Botstein on Educational Technologies

Re-posted from The Fifth Floor

Two weeks ago, Dr. Leon Botstein (current president of Bard College and education reformer) gave an interesting and witty talk at UVa on the future of higher education. Much to my delight, he opened the speech with some candid opinions of the role of “technology” in higher education. There were a few points that I completely agreed with Botstein, but I was troubled by his underlying conception of technology and change.

While I’m always puzzled when people frame their opinions on the spread of massively open online courses (MOOCs), the “flipped classroom” model, and the general move away from an era of information scarcity into an age of information glut, as being about “technology” in general*, I’ll put aside this academic distinction and to my more general point…

Botstein advised that it was a waste of time and effort on the part of faculty to be against the above developments in teaching technologies and instead we should welcome their tendency to “put bad teaching out of business.” The “destructive competition” that MOOCS have thrown up to university faculty is our own fault. I agree! If educators can be scared by technologies that allow for video-taping and making those videos widely available, then we should re-consider the value of our professional contributions.

However, as much as much I agree with the need for educators to take responsibility for the changing demands of our profession, I felt like the underlying conception of technology that Botstein used to explain his position was lacking.  He put forward a layman’s theory of technological progress and social change stating that from a historical perspective “there’s no reason to be anxious about [technology]” because it’s a “net good, but one cannot make it a causal factor.” He likened the role of technology in learning to the role of technology in sex – it’s “enhancing, amusing, diversifying, but at the end of the day its not a replacement.”  In other words, tech might spice things up a bit, but it will never supplant the real deal.

This perspective, that technologies are tools for accomplishing our goals, is one that historians of technology are familiar with and have roundly de-bunked. Technologies are more than mere tools for accomplishing the things we’ve always done. Technology also shapes experience, and oftentimes encourages us to rethink previously settled questions.

Emerging educational technologies are interesting and exciting precisely because they’re encouraging educators at all stages of their careers, from the most staid lecturers to the newly minted Phd, to reconsider the learning experiences of their students. If something like electronic communications with students via e-mail and discussion boards were a mere tool, then faculty would be able to ignore them at will, without much consideration of their value.

Is the incredible diversity of information available to students online merely an amusing and diversifying side-bar to their educations? Absolutely not. It changes the way we’re (faculty and students) thinking about learning, the value of a college degree, and our role as facilitators of what’s supposed to be a transformative period in our students’ lives.

Botstein’s comments also seemed to minimize some very legitimate concerns about the free dissemination of lectures and course materials. Jaron Lanier, an early web evangelist turned web 2.0 skeptic, has critiqued the tendency of this kind of free dissemination to undercut the possibility of an intellectual middle-class. He points out that content-creators, whether they’re journalists, professors, or musicians, often get short-changed with innovations like MOOCs, while the companies proffering the software, or aggregating the search results, reap the benefits. The technology itself did not do this…we did, but it’s impossible to reduce tech’s effects to those of a mere “tool” in the face of such massive reorganizations of power and profit.

* when I hear people preface their opinions this way, a part of me hopes that they’ll start talking about how overhead projectors have ruined our ability to write on chalkboards, or how electric lights in large lecture halls impose impossible standards for beauty on faculty.


Nostalgia of the young? Or something else?

Re-posted from The Fifth Floor

Projects like the Sabbath Manifesto, which encourages people to dedicate an evening per week without technological tethers, have been interpreted by some as fetishizing unmediated experiences and as false nostalgia for a time that never was. Instead of decying them as unhelpful, I think these expressions of nostalgia are interesting; furthermore it’s even more fascinating that these feelings are shared, in part, with people who may have no personal recollection of a time when their lives weren’t pervaded with digital media technologies…teens! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Alone Together, recounts interviews with several young people who wax nostalgic about a time (before their own) in which people communicated more directly and had space to think. Turkle calls this, “the nostalgia of the young.” This turn of phrase got me thinking, not about whether or not these kids are right, but about the experience of longing for a time that they may have never personally experienced.  

As a kid growing up in the early 1990s, the computer was present in our home, not as a source of information, but for silly entertainment.  I may have been required to do online research for a school project, but this was accomplished in a school computer lab under the surveillance of an adult. I received a cell phone at age 16, which, along with my learner’s permit, was a symbol of my emerging maturity, and was also for communication with my parents only. Now, as someone interested in the diversity of experiences people have with their personal technologies, I’ve found myself coming across lots of voices (both academic and not) that explain this diversity away with “generational differences.” If “kids these days” just experience reality differently than adults, who can remember a time without digital info and communications tech, then Turkle wouldn’t have found sentiments like Brad’s – a teenager who worries that “digital life cheats people out of learning how to read a person’s face” and that “online life inhibits authenticity”. While Turkle makes no claims about Brad’s concerns being representative of a larger population of nostalgic teens, the existence of sentiments like these amongst these “digital natives” is reason for pause. 

Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday (1979) questions whether one can feel nostalgia for something they’ve never experienced. Instead of nostalgia, he calls this, “the antiquarian mood,” referring to those, like the main characters of Midnight in Paris, who say they’d rather live in what they see as a more authentic and romantic period before their own.  Davis says that this mood “grants greater existential license to the imagination and permits more pure self-fantasy than does the memory of events and places from our own lives. However profligate our constructions of the latter may be, in the end the memory of them is constrained by, at minimum, some nagging unspoken sense of the way things ‘actually were then’”(9). This would suggest that, because they’re untethered to actual memories of the past, the teen’s feelings about a lack of authenticity in online life may be only fantasy. Do adults then express more reasonable concerns when it comes to the “anxiety” that supposedly pervades our digital age? 

I would argue that nostalgia isn’t the best way to think about these expressions of longing for a time less saturated with personal technologies like cell phones, laptops, and the social networks they support. Instead of trying to lump all of the diverse ways these longings are expressed into one category, we would do better to think about the cultural resources at work in their expression. As Marshall Sahlins says, ”no object, no thing, has being or movement in human society except the significance men can give it” by way of illustration, he asks why Americans don’t eat dogs and horses, when they’re commonly eaten in other parts of the world. I think that the visceral revulsion toward the idea of eating dog meat that I experience as an American is comparable to the expressions of longing for an earlier, simpler, slower time in our communication with others…stay with me here…

Sahlins points out that even during times of economic hardship, when horse and dog meat were cheaper sources of protein than beef and pork, a cultural uneasiness still discouraged (in the case of horse) and forbid (in the case of dogs) their consumption. Sahlins concludes that this is because these animals participate in American society in the capacity of subjects; meaning that they’re given names, and we even speak to them! Edibility is inversely related to how close to humans we understand these animals to be. Thus, even under new conditions – like economic hardship – these cultural assumptions are somewhat rigid and “the object stands as a human concept outside itself, as man speaking to man through the medium of things” (287). In the same way, our ideas about intimate communication include things like an environment rich with social cues, embodied presence, and rapt attention without distractions. Even when conditions change – like the introduction of new, efficient means of communicating, and more mobile lifestyles that take us away from loved ones - our ideas about what communication with family and friends should look like remain relatively rigid. So, the “nostalgia of the young” (and of older people too) that Turkle found could be interpreted as the tension between mismatched cultural categories and new practices under new social conditions. 

Where are some other places, besides intimate kinds of communication (e.g., breaking off a romantic relationship, telling someone bad news, expressing love/affection) that we might be able to see this same kind of tension between what we think something SHOULD be and how it’s changed under new social conditions? MOOCs? Test-tube created organs? Robot care-givers? I’d love to hear what you all think!


kid with cell phone

kid with cell phone

The Machine in the White House

Originally posted on The Fifth Floor


* This post was originally published on 10-30-12 on my standalone blog The Off Button.Please disregard the out-of-date election references, I think the main argument still rings true to current events.

I’ve been noticing that, in the run-up to next month’s election, the candidates haven’t been talking about technology as much as they did during the last time around. While Obama kept up the rhetorical support for science and technology throughout his tenure, he’s been suffering attacks for his support of Solyndra (and other high-tech green start-ups), so ramping down the use of technology as a “keyword” for economic development might be a smart response to this policy failure. Personally, I’m a fan of a lot of what Obama stands for, but academically, I’m skeptical about much of his exuberant praise for technology and innovation as a magic bullet for economic growth.

Konstantin Kakaes recently reflected on the tendency of politicians to over-promise and under-deliver in their technology rhetoric on the fantastic Future Tense blog. Kakaes chalks this up to a lack of science and engineering training in our country’s political elites. This argument rings of C.P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures argument in 1959 (Kakaes quotes Snow in the article, and is undoubtedly aware of this similarity), where Snow critiqued the British education system for valorizing the study of the humanities and de-valuing science and engineering, creating a class of elites who were unprepared for a Post-WWII world where this kind of knowledge was becoming more and more important.

I think the lack of science/technology expertise is important, but not the most interesting thing at work in the invocation of “technology” in presidential rhetoric. Earlier on in Obama’s presidency, I noticed a striking convergence of opinion on the relationship between innovation in technology and economic growth.

In a recent nationwide poll, Americans ranked technology companies as having a more positive effect on the way “things are going today” than churches & religious organizations, colleges & universities, and (not surprisingly) Congress.  Even critics of Obama’s technology policy have affirmed the role of technology as an agent of change and a potential force for economic growth (Brooks 2011Thiel 2011Stephenson 2009). This convergence in opinion between the President, his critics, and the public signals shared underlying assumptions about the way technology works in society, and the power it has to propel us from the gloomy present into a much brighter future.

The current recession is not the only time that technology has become the subject of political discourse and policy prescriptions. At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration debated the merits of technology to encourage economic growth. F.D.R. and Obama were both facing down catastrophic economic crises during their presidencies, and they both expressed unbridled optimism for the role of technology in pulling us out of economic trouble. This similarity was too good to not dig a little deeper…so, my sociology instincts kicked in and I started sifting through some digital archives.

What I was hoping to find was evidence of what technology scholars call “technological determinism,” or the belief that technology automatically leads to social and economic progress. I was not disappointed…both Obama and F.D.R. put a lot of faith in technology to solve their respective financial problems. But, while each President made several direct references to “progress” in their discussion of technology and economic growth, the relationship between technology and society was more often framed by stories about our shared past and hopes for the future.

While each of the Presidents used the past and future to frame their explanations of technological policy in a way that emphasized a common past and pointed toward an optimistic view of the future, there were striking differences. Overall, Obama addressed technology more often than F.D.R. (in 50% of his total speeches, compared to F.D.R.’s 14.2%). Obama framed his policy in terms of the future much more often than the past (54.7% of the mentions of technology were connected with the future, while 32.1% of them involved the past). In contrast, F.D.R. was more likely to frame his technological policy in terms of the past than the future (46.7% of the references to technology involved the past, compared to 33.3% involving the future).

F.D.R was more likely to reference the past in explaining the necessity of his proposed policies, most often drawing a difference between the “good days” and the ways that the present situation had led the U.S. astray from long-held sacred values, like freedom. For example:

F.D.R’s 1936 speech at the DNC:

  •  In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy…it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought….Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

F.D.R. framed his policy as an adjustment to the largely external changes that technological development had imposed onto the economic landscape of the U.S. and also illustrates his understanding of the problems that these developments could bring.  Obama does not reference the ways in which technology has changed the U.S., but the ways in which it could improve our economy, if we are able to implement his proposed policies. For example:

Obama’s 2011 State of the Union:

  •  Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.

So – what’s the point? Why does it matter that F.D.R. talks about technology in terms of the past and Obama the future? This is a consequential difference. The difference between Obama and F.D.R.’s political rhetoric has an important effect on their policies to govern the relationship between technology and society, and furthermore, what that relationship should look like.

F.D.R.’s acknowledgement of the problems that come along with technological development is noticeably absent in Obama’s rhetoric. This is not surprising given their different ideas about how technological development happens. For F.D.R., technological development was something the government could only hope to control and perhaps mitigate some of its worst effects, so his rhetoric expressed the tension between the benefits and costs of this autonomous, external force. Obama’s view of technological development emphasizes the necessity of public investment in technology in order to reach the heights of past achievements, so the acknowledgment of technology’s possibly negative effects is largely moot, because it’s under human control.

These two Presidents are important because they represent different epochs of America’s relationship with technology. Those in F.D.R’s administration were old enough to remember the jarring and displacing experience of industrialization in the late 1800s, while few of those in Obama’s administration are old enough to remember the horrific consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Living through the consequences of technological change shapes the way we think about the relationship between technology and society. The brash and confident words of Presidents (and Presidential candidates) may decide the fate of elections, but Obama’s comparative arrogance is a dangerous precedent, especially in a time when Americans are hungry for economic recovery and the Oval Office is up for grabs.


obama and computers

obama and computers

Rogue Rolex Reviews & Social Trust

Reposted from The Fifth Floor

While snark is apparently the official language of the Internet, for better or for worse, it’s not very often that you come across random acts of sarcasm in places you don’t expect…like Amazon. In my husband’s aimless browsing, he recently found a treasure trove of sarcastic reviews of ridiculously expensive watches: a $34,000 Rolex, an $81,779 Zenith (has anyone heard of this brand before?), and another Rolex. Need to even out that table on your yacht? Don’t overlook the functionality of a Rolex.

Aside from providing some surprising laughs in an unexpected place, I thought these reviews raised some interesting questions about how we think about online reviews.

I’ve become a recent devotee of Airbnb – for anyone living under a rock for the past year – this site allows anyone to rent a spare room or their entire house or apartment out to travelers and tourists. The site relies on an elaborate system for verifying users “real” identities via social networking profiles as well as requires a “real” telephone number for hosts or potential renters to contact each other. But, the true beauty of this site is in the reviews. Hearing about a potential host’s hospitality, the complimentary bike borrowed to tour the city, the homemade iced tea on offer in the fridge, these are the touches that soothe my nerves when I’m considering shelling out hundreds of dollars to people I’ve never met in a city I’ve (usually) never visited. These kind of reviews are the norm on airbnb, where users seem to really take care to represent their experiences. As a renter, I rely heavily on these reviews and take their authenticity for granted.

Obviously we rely on online reviews for a lot these days…but for me, it’s only when faced with a significant financial investment that I start to realize how fragile this system is, and how much it relies on trusting absolute strangers. This kind of social trust is easier to swallow when picking a restaurant or learning about hiking trails in your new town. But, for many people, trusting one’s vacation plans (or luxury watch purchase) to the “wisdom of the crowd” is too much to ask.

The crowd wisdom theory is based on a statistical phenomenon that occurs when, in great numbers, individual biases cancel each other out and can end up accurately guessing an ox’s weight at a fair (according to Sir Francis Galton) or other more useful things. However, according to recent research, being informed about other’s choices when making your own choice actually screws up the statistical magic at work that underlies the “wisdom of crowds” hypothesis. So, obsessively reading through the reviews of a restaurant may bias my opinion of their marionberry pancakes*? Perhaps all of this sharing of our opinions online has more of an effect than we ever imagined…especially on our Rolex purchases.

*Portlandia reference…it’s streaming on Netflix, get watching!