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?

Home?

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.