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)

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.

bucking and sucking down trends

and confusing the hell out of porn-bots everywhere, to be sure, with a title like that. shortish entry about my current doings, which are actually getting pretty interesting, at least for me. that’s the ‘bucking’ part, where I surprise you all by switching off the automatic Tweet updates and instead throw a real live post exceeding 160 characters.

the ‘sucking down’ trends part comes in two parts, really. one is trivial – i joined the google wave thing on a whim. we’ll see where that goes. i have nothing to say about it. the other is that i have embraced thrift in recent weeks, always a year behind the trends. but being years behind mainstream trends is always already the new early adopter, the new avant garde. it took me ten years to listen to any nirvana songs (i will always fondly associate their music with the attacks on the world trade center).

what’s so interesting about any of that? nothing. what’s interesting are the inches of progress i’m starting to make on my PhD. i’m writing my first exam in two weeks’ timein February 2010 actually (logistics weren’t in place for a Nov-Dec write), and i think i feel somewhat prepared (as prepared as any PhD student ever is for their comps, I mean, which given the vicissitudes of living life as a grad student, is not at all. so i guess i’m feeling better prepared than most).

but something in this has clicked, in the sense that it has subsided to become a sort of routine, mindless, administerial form of work, this sorting and sifting of theories and methodologies, and busting them up against each other. you can only spend so long in university without this sort of administrivial subsidence.

but this is good, as it means that my mental energies can be focused on higher callings. i’m not at all disdainful of my work, but it is work first and foremost. let’s face it – it’s a gig. it’s taken a long time to admit as much. but doing so has converted it into a day job – of sorts, in the sense that any 21st century space-of-flows info economy laptop-job (hello again porn bots!) can ever be thus.

but the combination of thrift and work subsidence means that the ASIHE record will be pressed, and soon, ‘cos I can afford it in terms of both money and mental effort. so that’s interesting too. yum, artefacts.


obligatory interim half-post from my tar sand mind

in half-assed fashion I am blipping the past month of activity in short sentences, sans links, even. much time in books, but not as much as I need. Loving Foucault’s The Order of Things as much as Becker’s Art Worlds, but the comps are being subdivided due to massive contraction of expected time. moving on. had two colds in two weeks (just getting over #2, hopefully can read again tomorrow), and during the last (at the deepest trough of it, as it happens) had to manage Isabel’s first night away from her mum due to obligatory overnight work retreat she had. also, exhilarating trip TAing classes at both Surrey and Burnaby – totally distinct demographics and the experience is really giving me an polyphonic earful of noise and eurekas! too much old time radio whispering in the background of my sleep, but can’t resist the intermittent haha that wakes me. dire feelings, in equal measure, about the status of my personal media archiving project and the global ecomony. when will either pick up again? Mobile Muse going on hiatus at the end of March and so engrossed in a whirlwind schedule of VJing and workshops and report filing. And the media-citizenship stuff is invigorating too. the summer should spare some breathing space to get those comps done (one in May now, the other in August), but for now, nose still down, twits-only. i’ll permit one weekend of no fucking email or phone or twitter thankyouverymuch (last weekend’s many coincident excursions nearly turned me off all people altogether – not getting into it, instead recovering from it and learning from the experience). pardon my crawlunderarockanddie posture for the next 3 days. i don’t mean anything by it.

Twittering the Election, SIFTing Media Collections

If you haven’t seen this already, then go check it out. Terse political opinions fly by with impunity. What to do, what to do…and how does media theory speak to this? I can anticipate hundreds of approaches, from critical political economy to social constructivism to what-have-you … but then again, I’m directly implicated in the construction of these very tools, for better or for worse.

Case in point – if you can imagine a media rich version of this, then you might be interested in what Mobile Muse (in partnership with the affable people at Raincity Studios) has been working on for the past little while: the Social Information Feed Tracker (SIFT) Tool. Currently in beta, this application allows SMS and social media from sites like Youtube and Flickr to be aggregated in custom channels. More functionality is being added as we speak – watch for a full public announcement of this and other Mobile Muse innovations very shortly…

Real time GPS tracking on the Nokia N95

I exercise 5 days a week, and much of this is running. While I can be found in local gyms on occasion, I try to do as much of this running as possible for free. For in using a treadmill, with its diligent, brainless constancy, I subjugate my running activity to the Gestell of its designers and the networks of people and things that maintain that thing as a predictable machine, and me as its consumer. I become some totally useless, galloping form of what Heidegger calls Bestand in the process.

Enter GPS and Google Maps, which together offer tangible, and ludicrous alternatives to the regimentation of gym apparati. With these marvels of our age I can, in theory, monitor and regulate my own running, and in doing so keep costs down, like the careful consumer I am. And what the hey, biofeedback loops are funnest when they involve sending data approximately 20,000 kilometres into space and back again, then across 2000 kilometres of Internet and back again to my Macbook Pro so I can enjoy a bunch of flashing lights and icons. In short, could I use my phone to log my jog?

Well, work colludes with life this week as Scott and I explore various GPS trackers for the Nokia N95. We are looking specifically for something we can deploy for a rally between a smart car and a bicycle as part of Mobile Muse‘s platform demonstration at Car Free Vancouver Day this year (Sunday June 15th).

I’m sorry to report that I’ve tried out two of them, and both failed.

Nokia Sportstracker beta didn’t work for me at all. It’s basically a heavyweight stopwatch. A stopwatch that works just fine, but that doesn’t do anything else.

MapMyTracks has an excellent website, where one can replay one’s movement on a detailed map with ease. But unfortunately, the phone app seems to go haywire at unpredictable intervals. The stop watch and distance meter ran fine until 2.56 km on my run today, then all the numbers froze. Plus, it was constantly looking for a new wi-fi hookup, which was most irritating. I came home and checked out my My Tracks page and found that the site only recorded two truncated runs : one that crashes the java applet that shows you the movie of your run, and a second one that is only 0.5 kilometres long (my daily run is about 7K).

Back to the drawing board…

MUSE3 BCNET presentation

I had the opportunity last week to present my ongoing research into user-centered technology design (which is what is evolving out of my ethnographic research in the lives of mobile handset users) as part of a panel all about Mobile Muse (where I’m the Program Manager, for those who aren’t aware of this).

A webcast of the proceedings is available here. Here are slides for the full presentation, and here (more for my own concept archiving sanity than for anything else, really) are my slides extracted from that set.

Some of the same ideas from prior talks I’ve given about the mobile divide are revisited here, but in the context of a more proactive problem orientation. Here I’m asking: how is technology developed in ways that are directly informed and influenced by the communities of users most affected by them, and how is this tech disseminated in ways that are socially beneficial?.

MUSE3 is an excellent opportunity, I’m finding, for looking at the processes of intermediation that go on in the building of new things. At the intersection of network engineers, open source and other sorts of coders, mobile handset companies, government agencies, artist-run centres and a cavalcade of people and organizations with an interest in the potential of mobile technology, many complex interactions are going on that contribute, bit by bit, to whatever technological assemblage is going to emerge. Fascinating stuff, really. Here’s hoping my notes are as meticulous as they need to be…

Mobile Media Use & Disuse – Research findings, plus musical odds and sods

Hey. I’m digging my head out from under a tense, transitional semester of research, teaching and baby-raising. I’m working directly in mobile media now, in a new job at Mobile Muse 3 (so expect more posts in this sorter space as we go). On that note, you can see a recent presentation of research findings gleaned from my ongoing mobile research for Nokia here (PDF, 3.7 Mb). A full paper on this research, authored by me and Richard Smith, is forthcoming.

On the music and audio front, I’m about to embark on an ambitious audio archiving project pending the purchase of a USB cassette deck. Not a found sound project, mind you, but more of a personal biographical project. I have a huge box of old tapes, set to expire any minute, that simply must be digitized. I’ve been recording things since I was 9 years old. No word yet on how much has survived, but in the new year I’ll have a good idea. This’ll also be my chance to debut the clicknoise podcast…

I will likely set this bio project to coincide with the release of the newest A Spectre Is Haunting Europe record, too, which will permit much dialectic between past, present, and futurism. This way I’ll have the dual pleasure of digging through the vaults whilst unleashing something that is completely fresh (in the past, ASIHE albums have always combined new and old seamlessly, and with Embers (the next LP), we definitely didn’t want to do that again.

AOIR 8 Vancouver, 50 Parties, etc. (Oct. 2007)

Heya. I am presenting in a panel at AOIR this year (the title of my presentation/paper is “The Technical Micropolitics of the Online Music Industry, 1997-2007″, abstract here). For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you’ll know something of what to expect, except that I’ll be strictly framing up the narrative in terms of something called “technical micropolitics”, which, with any luck, I’ll have a competent grasp of by the time the conference rolls along. Theory, y’know? One minute you think you’ve got it, and the next minute, well, you sound like Daffy Duck.

Which brings me to another announcement of sorts – one more suited to quacking unintelligibly [& yes, readers coming in via The ORG should get that one]. I volunteered to organize (hopefully not all by my lonesome self!) the Vancouver instantiation of something Jimmy Wales started called “Heather and Jimmy’s 50 Party Club“. See the links I’ve provided for as detailed an explanation as you’re going to get (which admittedly ain’t much), but in a nutshell, you can expect a gathering of an international set of free culture/creative commons/open source nerds drinking together in the same physical space and engaging in as-yet-undetermined activities to keep each other vaguely entertained. Go to the wiki and pitch in! Your help is needed. Know of a potential sponsor (hint – local microbreweries or wineries love nerds because nerds drink lots!)? A venue? An entertainment source? A fax machine we can rig up to send loopfaxes to Larry Lessig for quitting the good fight? Or do you just wanna show up and make an arse of yourself? Get with our little planning wiki, whatever the case. Let’s have some fun.

Copyright/Creative Commons Lecture

I delivered a lecture today for my 200 level Communication class on “Copyright, Commerce, and the Creative Commons”. It might need work around its rougher edges still, but I’m kinda modestly proud to have gotten it into the shape it’s in now. The emphasis is on (1) the historicization of copyright law using a political economy of media approach, and (2), in the second half, confronting the current era of massively collaborative media and imagining alternative regimes of remuneration/distribution. The images are low resolution to enable quick downloads. If anyone wants high-resolution images, or links to the embedded URLs/movie clips, make some noise and I can provide that info.

Feedback is welcome, of course. I’m always looking to improve on this stuff.

Here’s the file: Copyright, Commerce, and the Creative Commons