ubitasking. Taylorism. The horror…

Visualization of over 16,000 Mechanical Turk workers in the United States. Click on the image for the original (much bigger).

I’m always trying to think of silly new buzzwords (“ubitasking”), and I’m also always trying to avoid the hackneyed ones (“crowdsourcing”). Mechanical Turk (ach! 41% of it is SPAM) -type platforms are brushing up against place-sensitive applications, and the results are intriguing, particularly in the coordination of humanitarian aid. In one case, Crowdflower participated in Haitian earthquake relief efforts, in conjunction with the well-known Ushahidi platform and a ‘Turk-like ‘form called Samasource. This is interesting (and relevant to my research) for two reasons:

Firstly, the work sourced through Samasource involved translation of text messages so that aid workers could read them and respond – which is an important general consideration when envisioning the localization of any ICTs to particular cities (and neighborhoods within cities). Vancouver is made up of a number of linguistic communities; reaching out broadly to ensure they are all included requires an awareness of such tactics and a readiness to deploy them in the rollout of any mobile application(s). So, for instance – should the design team prescribe something with a similar “task orientation” (like ubitasking notifications to the City about sick trees or potholes) – translation services can be similarly sourced and organized here. The elderly Korean woman who has a community garden plot next to ours (who is constantly giving us gardening advice, in Korean, as she speaks no English whatsoever) inspires me to demand a community babelfish…

Secondly, and troublingly, all this “task orientation” (should be “tsk. orientation…”) smacks of Taylorism writ even more granular than ever before. If you doubt me, just read Crowdflower’s FAQ page for things such as “By saving the correct answers to a small set of Units prior to running a job, we track the quality of a worker’s performance and reject a worker once his or her accuracy drops below a defined threshold. When no Gold Units are inserted, the quality of work plummets…”. Yep, that’s your name alright, Taylorism. Routinizing work; building human powered Difference Engines; monitoring space and time with cool algorithms. Not your Lefebvre‘s city. More like yr Le Corbusier‘s…

I’m not dis(mis)sing Crowdflower, though, as they clearly have a charitable and progressive ethos going on, by all accounts. Just picking on the FAQ language, noting the exacting character of software, and pointing out where I’ve seen it all before.

So yes, pluses and minuses so far in the prelims, as expected. I’m looking at a few more technical options, and I’m prescribing nothing.

Image credit: sethoscope (http://www.flickr.com/photos/sethoscope/5410862747/) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Games Go Home

After reading up about the riots last night (and there’s so much to read – here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters…) I went and devoted some in-transit iPhone note-taking to reflection on the ‘festivities’, specifically in light of issues related to my research into urban life and pervasive media/computing. On my mind here are the tensions presented by digital media, ‘live sites’, the structure of the built environment, and the structure of commercial sport spectacle. I’m not an expert in the sociology of spectator sports, though I’m familiar with social psychological concepts that are relevant to the space. Mainly, my concern is with building better cities, and I don’t have any answers at this point. I do, however, have a lingering fascination for prehistoric spectator sports, and whenever sports fans lose their shit I can’t help but imagine what the fans would be like if the players kicked around a severed captive warrior’s head instead of a ball.

Here are my unfiltered (but link-enhanced) notes:

So with riots then we observe a cathartic collision of public (mis)behaviour, nationalism, and local/regional solidarity with the built environment. The targets of rage consist of whatever’s available – beating up other fans, overturning parked cars, the omnipresent police and smashing in the windows of corporate retailers & service shops. Screens were also targeted – it was also that old SCTV gesture– thousands throwing their TVs out of windows because they don’t like the images they see there – indeed those images oppress. They’re at minimum very unsatisfying. This dissatisfaction, in the euphoria of a run on the Stanley Cup, is suspended; the dream is alive. The pinch is strongest, the awakening to the hangover most dramatic, when they lose in Game 7. In their home city. Self destructive impulses (repressed desires) explode upon the most convenient and/or symbolically valuable targets. Mob mentality is merely an accelerant to the conflagration.

The structuring of experience in the built environment – filled with signs of our wasteland of promotional culture & disciplined consumerism – invites precisely this sort of meleĆ©. Such commercially coaxed fandom – wrapped in the same symbolic assemblage as the downtown core – is destined to implode or explode when the dream dies & the myth is revealed as a colossal con. & they can’t take it out on the team, or the corporations who run it – that too is taboo, and invisible among all available possibilities for action. It’s quite depressing, the hockey fan’s lot.

If the public built environment were more saturated with interactive media (ports not screens), perhaps, we might be able to mitigate such behaviour. Clearly the urban camera panopticon isn’t enough to fulfill Jeremy Bentham’s (1785) prediction of self regulating, self disciplining individuals. What is called for is the same thing that helps us behave ourselves in Facebook & Amazon – abundant opportunities via pervasive, interactive media to contribute to & belong (Humphreys 2006) in an urban space – if we are to prefer this sort of coordinated life.

The problem I have with this, of course, is that such projects so easily slip into projects of bureaucracy & micromanagement (Hern 2010). What is warranted is not a new regime of mediated bylaws & planning, but a distributed, basic platform that amplifies broadly beneficial diversions, modularity & granularity of development – again, a ‘local’ web of ‘locants’ (actants localized in space?) that can leverage all the benefits of global digital connections and can locally interpret or mediate/mitigate these for local benefit.

What this could do is infuse crowds with responsibility for their everyday interactions while maintaining the (desirably) unpredictable character of urban life. Really, could it? But how?

Well, what stops fistfights? What stops riots?


Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy (1785) Panopticon (Preface). In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.

Hern, M (2010) Common Ground In A Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Oakland: AK Press.

Humphreys, A. (2006) The Consumer as Foucauldian ”Object of Knowledge’. Social Science Computer Review 24: 296. (link to SAGE abstract)

Ballcourt image from SanGatiche reproduced under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Participatory Mobile Urban Experience Planning

… or, Streethacking with Ubiquitous Media, if you prefer. This is the thing toward which I’m now turning most of my academic affections and attention. Reading Henri Lefebvre, Matt Hern, Paul Dourish, and many others has led me to this increasingly (and appropriately) crowded (for instance, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for some rough coordinates…) space of inquiry. My research has been months in the planning phases, and has been a labour of love (among other things… a different story, for a different blog, with different privacy settings…). Now, however, begins the process of scheduling, recruiting, fine-tune budgeting, and nailing down the specific questions for the inquiry. There’s much to be queried about the topic. Oh, the topic?

I’m doing this research as part of something called the Greenest City Conversations Project, a collaborative effort of a number of researchers at UBC and SFU, based at UBC’s Centre for Sustainability. My research (on mobile and ubiquitous computing, the urban environment, and sustainability issues in Vancouver) involves a participatory design exercise, in which the team will be doing something of a ‘needs assessment’ and ‘visioning exercise’ for what the mobile/ubicomp sphere can do to improve or better facilitate public awareness, dialogue and participation in sustainability issues. Then, we’ll turn to designing an application (or a ‘connective tissue’ piece between existing platforms and/or applications) in conjunction with student interns and/or a local technology company. That’s the lightning pitch.

As the research proceeds, I will be providing regular updates on this, my longest-serving blogbot (since 2006 now! pat on the head there, little noseclicker, aw… we’ve been through so much!…). While much of my data will be sealed off from public scrutiny due to the exigencies of ethical codes safeguarding personal information of human research subjects, I will be posting what I can when I can, as a way of documenting my path toward completing it. Likely, this project will unfold over 6-8 months, culminating in a dissertation and public launch of … something … whatever the designers recommend, and whatever the developers can fashion.


This blog is going to get more frequent updating in short order – more time on my hands in the coming months. Expect some dissertation-related posts as I crystallize my proposal. It’s coming together. It’s mobiles. Cities. Ubi-comp. And, I think, postphenomenology.

This is your funky cup of tea

Heh. In a flourish of dog day afternoon catchup (smack between finishing up grading for one semester and course planning for the next one), and with the help of the 3 year old girl, I have here the long-delayed fourth installment of my audio archiving project. Today the world hears for the first time ever the most brilliant sketches to ever go absolutely nowhere, the work of one Yummibrayn.

It was four, then five people, Yummibrayn. We did appear on CFRO for an interview at some point, but never had any gigs. Yummibrayn’s provenance was somewhere between the initial List of Mrs. Arson forays and Pc.s, but in retrospect is far more sophisticated than both of those enterprises combined. It’s a pity that LOMA and Pc.s both had gigs and Yummibrayn did not. At any rate, keep on crunchin’ on that crunchy dolphin snack nose (you had to be there), as the later instantiations of LOMA revived much of Yummibrayn in spirit, to my mind.

Enclosed for your listening displeasure, credit mainly due to my brilliantly patient and critical daughter (despite tha fact that she had 100% of the tape inside this very cassette unspooled all over the living room laminate at one point – I had to fold the laundry at some point, no? – are two select tracks from the Yummibrayn nonalog.

First up, a spirited number entitled “Funky Junk“, which, according to my meticulous 16 year old liner notes was conceived, composed, recorded and never revisited on/since October 30, 1988. It is an unbelievable and dire mess of a hooky tune. What’s even better is that it was recorded over a mixtape, straddling the Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. Make of that what you like…

Second, a Yummibrayn track entitled “Thought For The Day“, a much more planned affair, with amazingly mature lyrics like “lo/hi/dot/or die” and instrumental interplay (mainly the guitar and synth) that very nicely blends Tones on Tail and Wire. But it’s recorded so badly, you likely didn’t notice.

Why the HST is a Labour Issue

I don’t usually post about taxation or provincial politics (do I?). But being one of a sizeable community of technology workers (and workers in many other industries) who are required by law to charge 12% tax instead of 5% tax to customers/clients as of today, I felt that it was really important to correct the deceptive claims about “benefits to small business” (Intuit guesses at some of these benefits here) that are said to result from Harmonization. For readers not privy to this issue due to your far-flungness from it, I offer apologies (it is Canada Day, after all), the official primer, and the word from some of the HST’s opponents).

I’m also teaching a class (sorry, it’s a PDF) about the history of labour and technology this term, and part of the course deals with the growing sector of “contract” workers (workers who are not legally defined as employees of a company). A related issue (for those who work in high technology industries, and especially for those who work for multiple employers/clients) is the fact that since 2002 some workers in B.C. also come under the legal definition of a “high technology professional“, which excludes them from the benefits of overtime and holiday pay provided under British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act (contract workers, who are of more central concern WRT the HST, are obviously outside this legislation entirely, but it’s still important to understand the various shades of “employee” in B.C. to better appreciate the context and options for workers).

The rhetoric about HST in the mainstream media has thus far pivoted mainly around two stories: (1) impact of the tax on consumer household costs (mindless media tropes debunked here) and (2) the businesses who will enjoy reduced administrative costs (this blog post casts some doubt on that assertion, recounting how the B.C. government is going through some restructuring – which can be costly – partly to avoid the increase in HST). I’m not dealing with these issues here, as they are receiving plenty of discussion elsewhere.

The claims about “small business” benefits (mostly touted by the BC Liberals) from harmonization, however, are misleading.

If a small business sells goods and/or services that are already subject to PST, there may be a small benefit in that the HST can now be offset by claiming Input Tax Credits [ITCs]. Currently a business collecting PST for the government can only claim a nominal commission for that collection as against the tax, while with GST (and as will be the case with HST) they can claim all the GST/HST they spend for business purposes as against that tax. No question, this, on the face of it, offers some benefit for some small businesses.

But consider the context. When we think about “small business” we think about the coffee shop on the corner, the plumber, or the freelance software designer. There are many other sorts of contract workers who are legally categorized as “small businesses” – call centre employees, video game beta testers, stock pushers, and so on. These services were not subject to PST under the former tax system. For these workers to now comply with Canada’s tax laws, they will have to charge higher rates to clients or customers in cases where previously PST didn’t apply. For the on-contract call centre worker or game beta tester making just over $30K (net) (the minimum threshold for collecting mandatory GST/HST in most cases), this means that to be in compliance with Revenue Canada, he/she would have to invoice their “client” 12% HST instead of 5% GST. What do you think their “client” would say to that?.

Likely, clients/customers in many industries will be attracted by the lure of non-taxing contractors in the underground economy, as this article in the Winnipeg Free Press asserts.

It’s simply bad for small business. And the smaller the “business”, the worse it gets, it seems. Let’s hope this HST gets reversed.

But more importantly, let’s try not to not forget what the HST pinch is now throwing into sharp relief – the ongoing erosion of our identities as workers and the recasting of us as businesses. This process is wonderful for government revenues, and even better for the bottom line for large businesses. But it’s bad for us down here on the flexibilised assembly line.

and now on to something else

I just formally completed my comprehensive exams. The oral defense was held today, I passed, and now I’m officially ABD (all but dissertation). This is the other side I said I’d see you on.

I think the defining harrowing thing about comprehensive/qualifying exams is that they come to us (1) without precedent (most of us who do a dissertation have already done a Master’s thesis, and gone through the same process of defending it – but when in our education do we go through a 6 day writing blitz, on subject areas we largely define ourselves, with little in the way of explicit expectations?), and (2) with seemingly infinite expectation (the feeling that no matter what one writes it can never be good enough, thorough enough, broad enough, or deep enough).

So now, I’m on to things with more manageable processes and outcomes.

I believe a glass (bottle[cask]) of wine is in order.

Dateline 8 May 2010

Fortunately there is much going on this weekend to keep my attention away from books and the start of the summer semester next week (& fortunately my prep is all done!). The Stone Soup Festival is happening today, the sun is out, and everyone’s in great spirits!

I had hoped to attend Northern Voice this year but tickets sold out far too fast. C’est dommage.

jumping ship

I’ve left Facebook for good. In recent weeks I shed applications, then later removed most of my data (photos, posts, etc.), with each surreptitious nudge that they’ve given us in their relentless quest to end privacy. Previously I was irritated with the constant change in Privacy Policies on FB, but now I’m finding the tradeoff (giving up intricate data about myself – to whosoever – in exchange for the convenient social connectivity the site affords) is no longer worth what it once was.

For those of you (and I know there are many of you) who are also considering this move, you might want to consider some of the following (I did):

  • Not totally convinced that you should quit the FB habit? Consult Gizmodo’s Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook. You’ll be glad you did. The kicker, for the cynic in me: “the Facebook application itself sucks”.
  • If you’ve installed any Applications on your profile (or had FB do it for you without you realizing it), it might make sense to revoke any permissions you’ve granted (known or not) to them to access/reuse your data. I think this should be done in addition to and in advance of FB account deletion. Why do I think so? Well, recently a developer discovered a data hole in a recent API released by FB to its developer community. All of those “companies” who build FB apps have access to your Events schedule (and god knows what else), and this apparently, whether or not you’ve added the application to your profile. It may yet be that you cannot revoke the permission you’ve granted to (or had stolen from you by) these entities. At any rate, it can’t hurt to try and revoke as much as possible. Seeing that privacy is such a dirty word over at Facebook, I wouldn’t put it past them to just be lax about pretty much any user data they come across…
  • If you have a profile on Friendfeed (or any other property that Facebook owns), it’s probably a good idea to delete your presence there, too.
  • Have an exit strategy. You don’t want to lose contact with all of your friends or those high school dropouts to whom you have no other connection except FB. Take down email addresses, phone numbers, IMs, and any and all other contact deets for your FB friends (the ones you really want to keep, of course). Remember that Facebook doesn’t own your sociality, nor your social capital.
  • Finally, do the right thing. Don’t follow those misleading links within the Facebook privacy settings pages to remove your account. Go directly to this link to delete your FB account. It will vanish instantly, and will (supposedly) be permanently deleted in 14 days’ time.

Take a deep breath. There’s a whole world wide web out here that we forgot to attend to while we were tokin’ from the Facebook bong. And it’s just getting started.

Besides, Facebook jumped the shark over a year ago. I predict a whimper.