tisdagen den 22:e april 2014

Articles I've read (May last year)

Last year, I read a whole lot of articles during the first half of the year (Jan-June). I recently wrote about the articles I read back in April last year and below are the articles I read back in May 2013. Now only June remains before I can jump to 2014 as I hardly have time to read articles in the autumns due to my teaching load.

While I've harboured some remorse over the delay, I have however come to realise that to a you, dear reader, it doesn't much matter if I read the articles below a year ago or if I read them last week...!

Batch/week 1 - contributions to the CHI "Post-Sustainability" workshop
Comment: I attended the CHI Sustainability community full-day workshop on "Post-Sustainability" before the CHI conference last year. I read all the position papers in advance - each paper is only a few pages long (4-5 pages at the most). The quality varies a lot. Some try to write something substantial in a "small package", but others just submit something canned and pretty stale just to express an interest in participating in the workshop and/or show of their credentials. I will for the most part not annotate/review these contributions. All position papers are available in the online workshop "archive". Here's the blog post about the workshop itself.
  • Avram, G.; A. Boden, I. Posch, and G. Stevens (2013). Do-It-Yourself Sustainable Living: Opportunities and challenges for DIY communities. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Shabajee, P. (2013). HCI 4 Adaptation: A position paper. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Massung, E. (2013). The future of crowdsourcing: Supporting advocacy, creating awareness, and altering norms. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Kobayashi, H. H. (2013). Human-Computer-Biosphere Interaction: Beyond Human-Centric Interaction. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Borning, A. (2013). UrbanSim, ConsiderIt, and OneBusAway: Reflections on three projects and post-sustainability. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Knowles, B. (2013). Deep interventions to change how we think and act. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013. */ This position paper was very good /*
  • Heitlinger, S., Bryan-Kinns, N. & Jefferies, J. (2013). Moving beyond the individual consumer in sustainable CHI. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Dillahunt, T. (2013). Creating resilient communities for post-sustainable times. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013. */ This position paper was good /*
  • Haynes, S. R. (2013). Design rationale as seed bank: Knowledge waste and second-order sustainability. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Hauser, S, Desjardines, A. & Wakkary, R. (2013). Rethinking and envisioning Sustainable HCI and the role of interaction design. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Pargman, D., Walldius, Å. & Eriksson, E. (2013). HCI in a world of limitations: Addressing the social resilience of computing. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013. */ We actually tried to say something substantial and I think we were successful. /*
  • Ilstedt, S, Wangel, J., Höjer, M. & Bendt, O. (2013). Prototyping futures. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Rossitto, C. & Cerratto-Pargman, T. (2013). Sustainability in education: Challenges and open issues. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013, Paris, France, 2013.

Batch/week 2 - texts from the CHI 2013 conference
Comment: I spent the subsequent weeks after the CHI conference reading papers that for one or another reason had caught my attention at the conference. It for the most part went like this: I listened to the presentation, thought it was good and decided to read the paper afterwards. Here's the blog post about the conference itself.
  • Kirman, B., Linehan, C., Lawson, S., & O'Hara, D. (2013, April). CHI and the future robot enslavement of humankind: a retrospective. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2199-2208). ACM. */ This paper is hilarious but is also makes you think. "As robots from the future, we are compelled to present this important historical document which discusses how the systematic investigation of interactiv technology facilitated and hastened the enslavement of mankind by robots during the 21st Century [...] We conclude by congratulating the CHI community for your tireless work in promoting and supporting our evil robot agenda". Recommended! */
  • Wyche, S. P., Forte, A., & Yardi Schoenebeck, S. (2013, April). Hustling online: understanding consolidated Facebook use in an informal settlement in Nairobi. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2823-2832). ACM. */ How is the Internet and Facebook used in the third world? How is is used in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya? "Even in this poor setting [...] having an online presence is no longer a luxury but is rapidly becoming a necessity for popeoli living in underdeveloped regions." Recommended /*
  • Al-Ani, B., Densmore, M., Cutrell, E., Dearden, A., Grinter, R. E., Thomas, J. C., Kam, M. & Peters, A. N. (2013, April). Featured community SIG: human-computer interaction for development. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2473-2476). ACM. */ This was just a short rallying call for a Special Interest Group. "how [can we] both learn from each other and from those we serve in underserved communities"? on Human-Centered Design for Development (HCD4D), User-Centered Design for Development (UCD4D) and Interaction Design and International Development (IDID) /*
  • Read, J. C., & Hourcade, J. P. (2013, April). Enhancing the research infrastructure for child-computer interaction. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2481-2484). ACM. */ This is another rallying cry for a Special Interest Group, this time on child-computer interaction, i.e. HCI specifically for children. */
  • Väätäjä, H. K., & Pesonen, E. K. (2013, April). Ethical issues and guidelines when conducting HCI studies with animals. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2159-2168). ACM. */ Apparently the number of studies of HCI and/with animals is increasing because this paper addresses ethical issues and "guidelines for carrying out studies with animals". /*
  • Mancini, C. (2013, April). Animal-computer interaction (ACI): changing perspective on HCI, participation and sustainability. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2227-2236). ACM. */ One more paper about Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI), this time by someone who has read everything there is in the area and who wants to (perhaps) create a Special Interest Group around this theme(?) /*
  • Wyche, S. P., & Murphy, L. L. (2013, April). Powering the cellphone revolution: findings from mobile phone charging trials in off-grid Kenya. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1959-1968). ACM. */ This was a really interesting paper about the conditions for owning and charing you cell phone if you live in rural Africa (Kenya) and don't have electricity in your home village. The solutions that was evaluated a hand-crank cellphone charger and a bicycle charger kit. "Does the early hype hold up in practice with real-world rural condistion and real people? Answer: it worked so-so. Very interesting, recommended! /*
  • Kumar, N., & Rangaswamy, N. (2013, April). The mobile media actor-network in urban India. In Proceedings of the 2013 ACM annual conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 1989-1998). ACM. */ The paper "describes the vast, growing mobile media consumption culture in India. [...] we show how the practice of piracy [...] fuels media consumption". Interesting, but I can't recall if the Actor-Network Theory angle added anything in particular. /*
  • Tariq, M. A. (2013 - unpublished). Threat assessment using storytelling. */ Written for an internal doctoral conference/colloquium at my department. I was the designated opponent. */ "This paper, based on the interviews conducted at an organization, elaborates on a framework which extends the attacker persona methodology by using narratives in order to assess the organizations' security." /*

Batch/week 3 - texts from the CHI 2013 conference
Comment: I spent the subsequent weeks after the CHI conference reading papers that for one or another reason had caught my attention at the conference. It for the most part went like this: I listened to the presentation, thought it was good and decided to read the paper afterwards. Here's the blog post about the conference itself
  • Busse, D. K., Borning, A., Mann, S., Hirsch, T., Nathan, L. P., Grimes Parker, A., Shneiderman, B. & Nunez, B. (2013, April). CHI at the barricades: an activist agenda?. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2407-2412). ACM. */ A short into to a panel on the connection between HCI and activism; "What is the appropriate role of activism and HCI research and practice?" /*
  • Lomas, D., Kumar, A., Patel, K., Ching, D., Lakshmanan, M., Kam, M., & Forlizzi, J. L. (2013, April). The power of play: design lessons for increasing the lifespan of outdated computers. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2735-2744). ACM. */ Very interesting paper about the 8-bit home computers and video games that "the rest of the world" use/play/have access to. This system is comparable with the Nintendo Entertainment System that sold 60 million copies in the US between 1983-1995. Taking into account the (real, researched) situation in poor countries, the paper "explores strategies for increasing the reuse of outdated computers". Recommended. /*
  • Rodden, T. A., Fischer, J. E., Pantidi, N., Bachour, K., & Moran, S. (2013, April). At home with agents: exploring attitudes towards future smart energy infrastructures. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1173-1182). ACM. */ Great paper that "considers how consumers might related to [...] future smart grids within the UK. [...] Users' reaction suggest that [...] they were principally disinterested. Users showed a considerable lack of trust in energy companies raising a dilemma of design. Warmly recommended. /*
  • Heyman, S. (2013 - unpublished). Research proposal: Financial advising systems that support decision making. */ Written for an internal doctoral conference/colloquium at my department. I was the designated opponent. */ An "early plan for research in how to design online banks and/or electronic tools for professional financial advisors, in order to make concepts such as risk and retur graspable to the ordinary layperson." /*
  • Shrinivasan, Y. B., Jain, M., Seetharam, D. P., Choudhary, A., Huang, E. M., Dillahunt, T., & Mankoff, J. (2013, April). Deep conservation in urban India and its implications for the design of conservation technologies. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1969-1978). ACM. */ These guys *get it*. They frame the paper by referring to peak oil in the very first sentence and then "present a study of energy, waster and fuel conservation practices in urban India." The term "deep conservation" is coined to describe this culture and these practices. An interesting turn away from the almost exclusive western focus of these kinds of studies. /*
  • Irani, L. C., & Silberman, M. S. (2013, April). Turkopticon: Interrupting worker invisibility in amazon mechanical turk. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 611-620). ACM. */ Written by my (temporary) now-colleage Six, this paper describes the appalling working conditions in the premier system for "crowdwork", "human computation" and "humans-as-a-service" (comparable to software-as-a-service), Amazon Mechanical Turk. Big in the US (and India) but almost unheard of in Europe. Won the prize for best paper! /*
  • Starbird, K. (2013, April). Delivering patients to sacré coeur: collective intelligence in digital volunteer communities. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 801-810). ACM. */ A study of how Twitter, distributed cognition and collective intelligence works - in detail - in a specific "case" in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Prominently features "digital volunteers", a cross between detectives and do-good network matchmakers and gatekeepers. /* 
  • Erete, S. L. (2013, April). Protecting the home: exploring the roles of technology and citizen activism from a burglar's perspective. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2507-2516). ACM. */ Interesting paper and extremely interesting methodology. "This paper analyzes three panel sessions with 15 people who have been convicted of burglarizing homes, cars, and /or business. Participants describe in detail what they looked for when deciding to burgalizize a home and what deterred them. Technologies such as security systems, alarms, and cameras do not dissuade burglars. Instead, evidence of neighborhood cohesion was named the stronges deterrent. Sometimes technologh is not the solution. Recommended."

lördagen den 19:e april 2014

Culture and Data in the Digital Field

I attended a full-day workshop called "Big: Culture and Data in the Digital Field" at the end of last week (I've been away on vacation for a week since then with no internet access). The workshop was organised by professor Tom Boellstorff at the UCI Center for Ethnography and also by the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing (ISTC). Several people I "know of" but had never met IRL were there and that's always nice. The idea of organising a workshop appearantly came from ideas of Tom's from when he wrote a a book and a First Monday article about "metadata labor"

There were around 10 presenters (who each only got to give a 15-minute talk - perfect length) and lots of time for discussions and coffee. The organisation of the event was in fact exemplary. It would be hard (but not impossible) to surpass the organisation, but very easy to do a lot worse. There were basically three cycles that went like this:

- Three presenters giving 15 minutes talks (with powerpoint slides, movies etc.)
- A "fishbowl" conversation exercise (geard towards picking up ideas from the audience)
- A 30-minute general conversation (geared towards the presenters and the presentations)
- Break (lunch or coffee break)

On my sabbatical, I've for the most part hunkered down behind my computer, writing. I haven't gone to very many talks and seminars. I have had lots of time to read (my daily "fix" - or "allotment"), but I realise that most of the new ideas I have gotten here at UCI have come from texts rather than from other people. It was therefore really nice to be part of a truly intellectual academic environment - if but for a day. I felt almost cleansed, being among (many) people, hearing about new projects and taking part of a firework of ideas! Also, I met several persons I really got on well with and will meet again here in Irvine - and hopefully keep in touch with afterwards too!

This will (of course) not be a walk-through of the whole day and all the speakers, I'll just discuss a few of my personal highlights of the day.

- Paul Dourish talked about a meeting he had just attended were he was told that "Big Data" is sooo last year because now it's all about the three V's; Volume, Velocity and Variety. Tom reflected on the velocity of terms, something he saw as a dangerous trend. I agree. I would hate to have a text rejected for using "last year's terms" and I would hate for scholarship degenerating to being the first or the best at coining, defining and using the lastest, trending terms, rather than being about clear thoughts and deep insights. I have, for a long time, flirted/struggled with the idea that so much of what we do in the academy is "phony" (a race for positional goods). I would hate to be (even further) proved that that is the case. I mean, wouldn't it be terrible if people started to submit text of little value (or worse - get them published)? Yeah, right - like that never happens today... I even totally opted out of the academic race for some years, but now I'm back at it (like a true sucker, or junkie).

- The previous point can be neatly tied to a conversation we had later during the day about academic overproduction. Mary L. Gray though we should slow down. Talk more to each other and publish less. "We are producing too much of too little value" - and I agree 100%. She also said that the more we can publish, the more careful we should be about what we publish. As to that, am I contributing to publishing "too much" when I write blog posts here once or twice per week? Or is this part of the sought-after conversation she referred to? This all reminds me of Fred Brook's quip from "The mythical man-month" about decreasing returns: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later" and the corollary about the fact that it takes nine months to bear a baby no matter how many women are assigned to the task. As I write this, I come to think of Brook's law being an example of Tainter's law of decreasing returns of increasing complexity. I should think some more about the connection between Tainter and Brooks at some point - I know there is one but this is not the time to delve into that.

To summarise the two bullets above, the workshop raised questions (for me) about how big data is shifting our perception and our behaviour as individuals, as citizens and as teachers, academics and scholars. How does the idea and the practice of big data shift our perception of what is possible and what isn't possible, what is easy and what isn't easy, what is of value and what isn't of value, what is right and what is wrong? I'm the born sceptic, concentrating as much (or more) on what we loose as on what we gain. Still and even as a sceptic, I find this project extremely interesting and it would never have come about without big data and number crunching. In fact, I think that research project is an excellent example of the upside of big data as well as of innovative interdisciplinary collaboration.

One of the speakers was Anthropologist Morten Axel Pedersen from Copenhagen University (official homepageown homepage) who talked about "Complementary social science? Reflections from a Deep Data Experiment". More specifically, his talk was about a project called SensibleDTU (DTU = the Technical University of Denmark). The projects wants to "map social networks in real-time" and at the heart of the project is the fact that they have handed out 1000 (!) Google Nexus 4 smart phones to first-year DTU students with the caveat that they agree to have their social interactions with others tracked and mapped by the DTU-developed "SensibleDTU app". The SensibleDTU project is a "large" study. The research project is interested in many different questions, for example "how friendship and networks of behaviour form offline and online" and "how information and influence is transmitted and transformed in the DTU 'social fabric'". As apart from the data collected through the app, the researchers also have access to the students themselves (interviews etc.). The project will run (collect data) for as long as the students keep their phones (i.e. after 12-18-24 months it is expected that students will buy new phones and drop out of the project in terms of generating new data). This project obviously raises huge ethical questions (none were discussed at the workshop), but the students themselves are apparently more interested in the technical back-end than they are worried about in-depth surveillance... (this was a technical university). The project employs (as far as I understood) around 10 persons (half are ph.d. students) and they (Morten) will organise a workshop about [something] in Copenhagen in the autumn. I talked to Morten and we (KTH/CSC/MID - STPMID4SEIDshould be there! This is a project that KTH/CSC/MID (together with other institutions) definitely could replicate. We have the students and the in-house know-how to pull something like this off! Morten discussed mixed methods (big data + social science) in his talk. With an increasing number of users and and increasing volume of data (bits/user) the DTU project is collecting "deep data". The combination of big data + social science/ethnographic interpretation can lead to something Morten called "thick data". These are just terms I'm throwing around here in order to not forget them but I have lit tle deep understanding of what what "deep data" and "thick data" means in practice or what the project status is (are they collecting data now?).

Comment (140421): Although I didn't hear anything about ethical concerns at the workshop, Morten read this blog post and added that "the project have very profound and very reflective ethical rules and practices built into its very edifice".

Malte Ziewitz from NYU talked about "unscaling ethnography" and about big data vs "small data moments". Here's a small data moment: "why did you do that?", "well, I was hungry and wanted to go to lunch so I had to finish the experiment early"... Several speakers talked about the value of mixed methods. You can get a lot of data (logged) from "within" the computer system, but some things will forever elude you (that telephone call between two friends that sets one of them into motion). Complex problems will be hard to understand with only quantitative or qualitative methods and data. Geoff Bowker (Chair of informatics at UCI and leader of the Values and design lab) gave a dazzling high-speed talk ("Make It So, Data") with interesting juxtapositions of cool pictures and neat sound bytes and he said something to the effect that "people are afraid of getting eaten by the cookie monster, but, people who don't love cookies must have had troubled childhoods..." :-)   Geoff had also created a histogram of the presence of the terms "knowledge", "information" and "data" during the last 200 years and in the 1960's, during the computer revolutions, these terms traded place; "knowledge" was on top but switched place with "data" that was previously at the bottom. His tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that the 1960's was the decade when knowledge became overtaken by information and data (and, it goes without saying that we are presumably suffering the consequences of that shift today).

Christine Borgman (Wikipedia) leads the Data practices team at UCLA and talked about "The data citation dance" (she also referred to a report with the great title "Out of cite, out of mind"). As we collect larger amounts of data, big data will change publishing and publications and there are new roles to be filled. Christine quoted [someone] who said something to the effect that "if publications are the stars and planets of the scientific universe, data are the "dark matter" - influential but largely unobserved in our mapping process". You should for example be able to get credit (including tenure) for taking care of and organising large data sets that are useful to other researchers, but you don't (today). Christine compared this to physics where there can be a lot of authors on a paper (including the name of someone being responsible for the scientific instruments). What (to us) seemed praiseworthy turns out to be more fraught with difficulties when you dig down - but it still represents a first attempt at something that will become more important in the social sciences as big data becomes bigger and more important (see the SensibleDTU project above!). This made me remember a slogan I've heard; "data is the new oil" (or, "data is the oil of the 21st century"). This is an intriguing notion even though I personally think oil is the new oil (as well as the old oil) because without the oil (energy), nothing will run and data will loose much of its current allure).

Here are some random observations and comments that I can't (or couldn't care to) attribute to the correct person who raised the issue in question at the workshop:
- The quantified self (QS) community already think about themselves in terms of large data sets.
- Ubiquitous computing, Algorithmic living, Quantified self and Big data are terms that fly around today. Anthropologists are big on "kinship", so, what's the kinship between these terms?
- We explicitly assume that what is mentioned and talked about the most is what is most important and means the most. But what if some things are really import but also taboo to talk about? What are the things that are really important, but that we do not talk about today (at the workshop, on the Internet and in society)?
- When researchers interview an informant, the informant can say "you can use the data I provide you with if I can read your text first". But what can you "interrogate" big data about? How can you correct errors propagating in the network (the baseline is that you can't).
- Social media is archived and lasts "forever". What are the consequences? It's like you yell something stupid out of the window when you're 18 and it won't ever go away. It will become part of your identity. My thought: is that like a stigma (something that Goffman has written about):
- What then could a "Big data stigma" be? What if the potential of a stigma exists that neither you nor anyone else knows about? Still, the potential of that stigma exists - if someone just has access to and manages to get the right information together. How would your behaviour differ from that of someone who had a physical stigma (like a mark on the body)? How would everyone's behaviour change if everyone (potentially) could be stigmatised, if everyone unbeknownst had 1000 "potential" stigmas, readily available to someone with enough data about you? Would that have a chilling effect on people/society? See further Lundblad's excellent 2004 paper "Privacy in a noise society" (short version herelong version here).

I ended by asking a sceptical, contrarian question, basically repeating the question that came to me and was the impetus to write a paper about "Ubiquitous information in a world of limitations" back in 2010. We all assume that big data is getting bigger, and even bigger, and moving faster. But this actually assumes a lot of things (BAU). While we can extrapolate, we don't really know very much about the future. It might turn out to be very different (e.g. disruptive change, "In times of disruptive change your expected future is no longer valid"). I also shamelessly self-promoted just the tiniest bit, referring to my upcoming (end of May) UCI talk about "Peak computing" (more on that later) but it didn't really take (no-one asked about it later for example).

Here's the text that framed the workshop and that made me decide to attend it:

Despite first appearing in an academic publication only in 2003, the term “big data” has swiftly become central to technology and social science. While bearing deep histories, big data is clearly linked to developments in computational storage, algorithmic analysis, mobile devices, and online sociality. But big data is also debated in the blogosphere, portrayed in mass media, discussed in everyday life.

The goal of this workshop is to take these multiple meanings and practices of big data seriously by placing them in conversation with ethnographic methods. Big data has sometimes been said to imply the “death of ethnographic methods” because it ostensibly provides a more comprehensive, accurate, or unbiased view of social life. In this workshop, however, we explore emergent synergies between ethnographic methods and big data. While some speak of a quantitative versus qualitative divide as foundational to social inquiry, there is value in exploring the possibly more consequential distinction between experimental methods “in” a laboratory (based on the control of variables) versus fieldwork methods “out” in the world (based on empirically investigating contexts preexisting the research process).

From this perspective, big data and ethnography lie on the same side of a divide that separates them from laboratory approaches. Both are forms of engagement with “the field.” As a result, considering new possibilities for their creative entanglement and mutual reconfiguration could present “big” possibilities for investigating the digital dimensions of contemporary cultures.

Oh, and one more thing (if you've read this far). I met some really cool people at the workshop:
- Judith Gregory is the co-director of the UCI EVOKE &Values in Design Laboratory. She does work about Quantified Self. We got off and talked non-stop for an hour and didn't really get around to talk about Quantified Sefl - so we just have to meet and talk some more. I actually think someone recommended that I talk to her some time ago (which I didn't). I'm just so happy to have hooked up with Judith as we had an eclectic and electric conversation about so many different things.
- Just as the event was winding down, I also met and talked intensively with UCSD sociology ph.d student Joan Donovan who is also a bona fide social media activist-guru, and who seems to know everyone. She's also has Manuel Castells as her advisor and she's working with Interoccupy.net ("Connect. Collaborate. Organize.", "InterOccupy is an interactive space for activists looking to organize for global and local social change"). Her private blog is Occupy the Social. We talked about the future of work and I presented her with the concept of "empty labour" while she retorted with presenting me with "the cognitariat"
- I finally chatted just a little with Bill Maurer who is a UCI professor of anthropology. He directed me to the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) as well as to some Swedes who are doing work in "Valuation Studies" (new journal).

torsdagen den 10:e april 2014

The future of work

At the end of last week I handed in a draft report about "The future of work". The report is part of the research project Scenarios & Impacts of the Information Society (official info) at CESC. I've written about the project before, but last time I did so was nine months ago. Well, I also wrote a blog post that is related to this project, "Science Fiction research workshop" (only) five months ago. Still, time flies.

So, what's new? Well, I'm one of a dozen persons who each has been tasked with taking responsibility for a "building block" and my building block was "work", or perhaps "work patterns". This building block is part of the "Household" package and two of my colleagues are responsible for writing about (households') "Consumption of goods and services" and for "Time use and activity patterns". Do note that these two colleagues of mine are not colleagues at my department (Media Technology and Interaction Design) but rather come from the Division of Environmental Strategies Research.

I believe that we plan on writing a book based on the research project and that each "building block" (including my report about the future of work) later will be (re-)shaped into a book chapter.

I have prepared for writing the report rigorously - primarily by researching, buying and reading more than a dozen books about work during the autumn. I have literally read thousands of pages since last summer about the history and genesis of (modern) work and about work-this and work-that. Since I regularly publish blog posts about the books I've read here on the blog, and, since I'm almost half a year behind in writing them up, several blog posts as of late have treated these work-related books (see this, this and this blog post). My intention was originally to finish the report back in December, but that didn't happen and so I had to bring (send) all these books with me to the US. The report isn't finished either, what I just handed in is the first 20-page instalment...

The brunt of my report consists of 11 different trends that I have identified and that I write about. The 11 trends I have chosen to emphasise are:

1) Rationalization
2) Outsourcing
3) Qualified niche high-paid jobs
4) Service jobs
Analytical intermission - on globalization and the reverse lottery economy
5) Migration
6) Precarious jobs
7) "Astronomic" youth unemployment
8) Workfare
9) Empty labour
10) Implications for (higher) education
11) Inner change
Analytical intermission - on the middle class funnel

I've chosen to publish the two analytical intermissions below. Do get in touch with me if you want to read the whole draft report. If you want to read it, you have to promise to get back to me with comments and feedback though!

Intermission - on globalization and the reverse lottery economy

It is fair to say that during the course of no more than a decade, from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s, processes of globalization increased in both speed and scope. The situation on the labor market in affluent, industrialized countries since then can basically be compared to a “reverse lottery economy”. Affluent Western consumers have on the one hand benefited from globalization to the extent that the fruits of global capitalism have been increasingly within the reach of a consumer culture shifting gears into “overdrive”. Never before has it been so easy to buy so much for so little (in terms of exchanging your working hours against material objects). On the other hand, that has only been true until the very moment when your unlucky number comes up and your occupational job niche is outsourced to elsewhere. For each iteration in this process, an overwhelming majority of workers benefits from the ongoing changes, while a small minority of workers are laid off and suffer an oftentimes permanent erosion of living standards, job security and future prospects:

In short, we have entered what might be called a "reverse-lottery economy." The broad majority of American workers continue to do well; yet in any given year—even in boom times—a few workers hit the negative jackpot and must accept lengthy or even permanent reductions in living standards. Increasingly, these unfortunates hail from a variety of educational backgrounds and occupations. (One recent study found that U.S. financial-service firms are planning to move more than 500,000 jobs—or eight percent of the total work force in that sector—offshore within the next five years. These relocations will include higher-status, higher-income jobs than such transfers have typically included in the past; jobs in financial analysis, research, accounting, and graphic design are among those expected to be moved offshore.) In a society where many people buy on credit, counting on ever expanding good fortune, the decline in income from job displacement is especially hard to bear financially. It is hard to bear psychologically as well."
The Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004

Due to a steady pace of technological developments as well as progressively lowered barriers towards moving capital and production facilities, there has been a steady attrition as “traditional” occupational niches have been “ejected” from the labor markets of wealthy countries. Until recently, not only have most workers (those who have been able to keep their jobs) benefitted, most of the middle class have been protected against these changes. That is however not true any longer due to a pincer movement; also middle-class, qualified, white-collar jobs have been and are being automated or outsourced (see above) and while many middle-aged, middle-class whilte collar workers are (relatively) safe from ongoing changes, their (university-educated) children have a much harder time to find jobs that will allow them to retain the same living standards as their parents (generation).

At the same time as many jobs and occupational niches have disappeared over the last 20 to 30 years, new jobs have been created, but, these have bifurcated in two directions; hyper-qualified jobs bringing ample economic rewards to job-holders, and, less-qualified (service) jobs that have brought decreased economic rewards and decreased occupational security (compared to earlier conditions on the labor market, see further below). The reverse lottery that was outlined above does not currently seem to have reached its logical conclusion (where all jobs that can be outsourced have been outsourced), and it might even be the case that this “game” currently, with ongoing developments in computing (see above) is speeding up. It becomes increasingly difficult to discern who the winners might be on a mid-term basis as the number of jobs that are “protected” decrease at the same pace that the capabilities of computer technologies increase. One clear winner is naturally the professions that are involved in bringing about these ongoing transformations of work, as well as every other (highly) qualified occupational job niche that for one reason or another can not be automated or outsourced. As apart from this “reverse lottery economy” continuing to play out its course, it also seems logical that we will continue to move towards a “winner-takes-it-all” society where, say, lawyers might or might not be paid well, but where the very best lawyers (doctors, experts etc.) can charge astronomical fees. These discussion also harken back to the 1980’s discussions about the formation of a “two-thirds society” (in German: “Zweidrittelgesellschaft”, in Swedish: “Tvåtredjedelssamhället”) where a two thirds of the population continue to prosper while one third “fall behind” into a precarious existence of temporary jobs, unemployment and poverty.

Analytical intermission - on the middle class funnel

I have outlined a number of trends that together spell out the end of the middle class in western societies, or if not the end, then at least the “slimming” and the erection of obstacles in the middle class membership admissions process. It might be that the rewards for admission are becoming higher than ever and that the stakes in terms of the difference between admission and non-admission are diverging, e.g. venturing (even) further towards a winner-takes-it-all society. To repeat, while the middle class in Western countries might be shrinking in absolute numbers, the obstacles and the rewards for admission become higher than ever before and the penalties for non-admission also become higher than ever before. The US always being a decade or two ahead of Europe, this would for example explain the heated debate about Asian “Tiger mothers” (Chua 2011) relentlessly drilling their children to succeed in the American educational system as well as the underlying anxiousness and competition for admission to Ivy League (e.g. top) universities as well as admission to top high schools, top middle schools, top elementary schools and even top pre-kindergarten (day care).

At the same time, the global middle class has expanded especially in China and India during the last decade. My question, or rather Immanuel Wallerstein’s question (1974, 1980, 1989, 2011) is if these developments in some way are connected to each other? If the proper unit of analysis is the modern (capitalistic) world-system rather than individual nations, developments in one part of the world (Asia) can (or will invariably) have repercussions in other parts of the world (Europe, the US). Wallerstein’s hypothesis is that

The more effective way to lower costs of production is to lower the costs of labour - by further mechanization, by changing law or custom causing lower real wages, or by geographical displacement of production to zones of lower labour costs. [...] However, these tactics contradict the other mode of increasing profits [...] which is that of increasing effective demand.
How can these two needs be reconciled? Historically, there has been only one way - by geographical disjuncture. Whenever, in more favoured regions of the world-system, political steps are taken to raise in some way effective demand (increases in wage levels, and in the social wage or state-controlled redistribution), steps have been taken in other parts of the world-system to increase the number of producers at low wage levels” (Wallerstein 1983. Historical capitalism, p.146.).
In world-system theory, there always exists unequal exchange between the wealthy countries in the core and the poor countries in the periphery of the world-system . Moreover, under the 500 years old historical and current capitalist world-system, there will alway exist a core and periphery (and a semi-periphery in between), although specific countries over time can move from the periphery towards the semi-periphery and the core (e.g. China, Brasil) or from the core towards the (semi-)periphery (e.g. Greece, Tajikstan and the other five former Soviet Union Cental Asian “stans”). Although increasing absolute (material) affluence could be evenly distributed, the standard outcome is instead that it is exceedingly unequally distributed between the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. There is thus a distinct zero-sum character that contradicts the more dominant discourse of “development” (with the idea that underdeveloped/developing countries can leapfrog technological developments and “catch up” with developed (core) countries).

The capitalist world-system is continuously finetuning the very most efficient global production machine possible, including moving production to countries with the cheapest resources (both material resources and labour). But, as per the quote above, there also needs to exist a market for consuming the goods produced as well as for supervising the global production process. The task of supervision as well as consumption is primarily the task of “cadres” or managers, or more generally of the global middle class:

The cadres of the world-system [...] an in-between group of people who have leadership or supervisory roles in various institutions. [...] This in-between group may be larger or smaller according to the county’s location in the world-system and the local political situation. The stronger the country's economic position, the larger the group” (Wallerstein 2004, p.40).

The capitalist system thus both "needs" a relatively affluent middle class that can buy all the goods being produced and that can control the teeming masses not privy to their “fair share” of the material wealth being produced. According to Wallerstein, the global middle class can only “bear” ten to fifteen percent of the total global population. This model would thus imply that just as there can only be one "king of the hill", only, say, 15% of the global population can belong to the “global middle class” and if production and economic opportunities shifts towards Asia, they will also shift away from the absolute dominance of the older centers of wealth creation and affluence (Europe and the US).

This XXX (model?) would explain many of the trends above by linking developments in western labour markets during the last decades (increased unemployment and uncertainty, downward mobility, decreased life prospects for the younger generation) to the rise of a global, non-Western middle class. New entrants to the global middle class (China, India, Brasil etc.) thus exert pressure on individual wanna-be Western members of the global middle class) who do not have the same almost self-evident access to this privileged position that their parents’ generation had (Henley 2013).