Logistical Labor: Stop doing companies’ digital busywork for free

A man from the back, in a striped dress shirt and blue jeans, facing a grey wall, hands on hips, looking up at a graphic of five white stars, four of which are filled in.

How much time and energy do people spend rating, reviewing and answering surveys?

Jordan Kraemer, New York University

Over the past year, I stopped responding to customer surveys, providing user feedback or, mostly, contributing product reviews. Sometimes I feel obligated – even eager – to provide this information. Who doesn’t like being asked their opinion? But, in researching media technologies as an anthropologist, I see these requests as part of a broader trend making home life bureaucratic.

Consumer technologies – whether user reviews and recommendations, social media or health care portals – involve logistical effort that means more administrative work at home. As economic anthropologist David Graeber observes, “All the software designed to save us from administrative responsibilities [has] turned us into part- or full-time administrators.” Companies may benefit when customers create content, provide feedback and do busywork once done by paid employees, but what about the customers themselves – all of us?

Many researchers recognize professional workplaces are becoming more bureaucratic, managing workers through documentation and quantification. But fewer acknowledge the expansion of this logic into private life. It might not feel like a burden to update your Facebook profile, review a business or log in to a web portal to message your doctor. But when you lose time answering customer surveys, setting privacy rules, resetting a password, wading through licensing agreements or updating firmware, it becomes clear how digital technologies increase managerial work at home. In my forthcoming book, I explore this phenomenon, which I call logistical labor.

Digitizing daily life

Here’s a typical example of how this happens at home. I recently received an email from my auto insurance requesting I call. Fair enough; I might not answer if the company called me. But instead of reaching a person familiar with the query, my call fed into an automated system where a synthesized voice asked what I was calling about.

“You told me to call!” I replied.

The automated system was confused: “Sorry, what was that again? You can say auto ‘policy,’ ‘claims’ or ‘tell me my options.’”

Eventually I reached a human, who didn’t know why I’d been asked to call either. “I don’t know,” I told her, “That’s what I’m calling about…” Finally, we figured out what was going on and resolved the issue. Then she asked whether I would stay on the line for a customer service survey. I refused.

Rather than calling or emailing me with specific details, the company made me work through all that automated confusion. Requiring that I call in effectively gave me work previously done by paid employees. And then the insurance company asked for yet more of my time to reflect on how well – or not – my work solved the problem the company had. At what point should I expect to be paid for my work?

Managing work

Bureaucracy – a term coined in the 18th century to mean “rule by writing desk” – refers to the organization of modern government, desk-bound and hierarchical. Max Weber, a founding theorist of social science, viewed bureaucratic organization as fundamental to modern society. He decried its rigidity as an “iron cage” of rationalization in which social life is managed quantitatively. Since at least the 1970s, bureaucratic management has become common in corporate workplaces.

Sociologist Robert Jackall termed this shift the “bureaucratization of the economy,” in which rigid hierarchy and constant documentation takes over business places, including “administrative hierarchies, standardized work procedures, regularized timetables, uniform policies, and centralized control.” More bureaucracy means relentlessly tracking metrics and performances in the name of productivity – and internalizing the idea that a person’s value can be quantified.

Graeber, the anthropologist of bureaucracy, suggests bureaucratization is becoming more common as Western economies export manufacturing work to developing countries. The work that remains increasingly depends on the finance, insurance and real estate sectors, businesses that make their money from service fees and employ people to do pointless “bullshit” jobs. Graeber contends that – unlike teaching, manual work, health care or the arts – jobs in management, consulting, PR or other “knowledge” fields could vanish with little effect on society.

In the academic world, anthropologists like Marilyn Strathern have described the push to quantify and document university work as “audit culture.” More broadly, this expansion of administrative work, aided by digital technologies, is transforming how American companies operate. For many companies, shifting administrative labor to consumers and “gig-economy” contractors offers a newly “disruptive” business model. As tech companies replace live customer service with online support “topics,” for example, users must spend additional time wading through these articles, or face endless phone trees when they do find a phone number.

Laboring for social media companies

New technologies can generate more pointless work, and not just in professional settings. The logic of tracking and monitoring, for example, threatens to take over American home life as well, from fitness and wearable tech to smart homes that assess when you need toilet paper or milk.

But spending time on new tech platforms doesn’t always seem like work. Young Europeans I have studied, for example, enjoy spending time on social networking sites and describe them warmly. But Facebook, Yelp, Instagram and the rest profit from the posts, photos, reviews and links people create, because they incite the “engagement” that drives ad revenue. As with consumer surveys or user feedback, these firms are harnessing user-generated content to convert people’s leisure time into corporate profit.

As new social network sites are created and become popular, each person spends more time keeping profiles up to date, checking on connections’ activities or chasing down forgotten passwords. Managing these accounts isn’t just time-consuming; it can be mentally taxing. Inspired by Chandra Mukerji’s research on the logistical power of water in civil engineering projects, I consider this cognitive effort “logistical labor.” Logistical labor is in this sense the work consumers do to manage tech platforms, often as companies outsource content creation and streamline their operations.

A new digital divide

The scope of this uncompensated digital busywork – from which companies profit – goes well beyond social media maintenance and taking consumer surveys. Even setting up a home printer requires exploring settings and configurations and troubleshooting, which can be daunting without the right tech know-how. People who are unwilling or unable to do that miss out on some of technology’s benefits.

In my research, for example, one young person in Berlin balked at purchasing a new mobile phone, overwhelmed by the task of sorting through service plans. Another shared wireless internet service with a friend across the street, resigning herself to spotty connections and limited online activity rather than wrestle with choosing, ordering and configuring her own service. Others were concerned about data privacy but were stymied by Facebook’s privacy options.

The scale of these problems is not only about quality of life – but about life itself.

Handling health care

Expecting consumers to be deeply involved expert users is especially concerning when it comes to managing health care. The dysfunctional U.S. health care system is already a Byzantine system of preauthorizations, insurance codes and impersonal treatment. Digitization alone isn’t to blame, but tech platforms like online portals increase administrative work for patients.

Patients, for example, often encounter multiple online portals in the process of paying bills or obtaining prescriptions. Although these systems save time in some ways, they require patients do more legwork like setting up user accounts. This problem is made worse as doctors leave private practice for hospital groups, which often use unwieldy online platforms and automated phone systems that make it difficult to reach a doctor directly.

Although the health care industry touts such portals as better for business – and in theory, for coordinating care – little attention has been paid to the additional work they create for patients, or the barriers to accessing their doctors.

Inequality at home

In all these examples, managing information on computer systems – for health care, insurance coverage or social media interaction – requires a new level of logistical effort, even with access to computers and the internet. This logistical labor adds to the mental work of managing a household.

In most homes, this additional effort, sometimes called “cognitive load,” falls disproportionately to women, who keep track of their families’ needs. For working women, the “second shift” isn’t just about housework or child care, but the cumulative fatigue of planning, delegating and worrying. It’s not a coincidence that many “smart home” technologies effectively replace the care work of mothers. This invisible labor typically goes unpaid, further devaluing responsibilities traditionally associated with women.

Do smart technologies tend to focus on gender-biased tasks?

Similarly, the logistical labor of managing new technologies entails a cognitive load that can overtake daily life. Of course, I still follow social media, read consumer reviews and sign up for paperless billing. But I’m more aware of how easily my time and labor become new sources of profit, through an unseen exploitation that places the onus on individuals to manage complex systems in the guise of optimizing user “experience.” This broader trend, however, makes individuals complicit in their own exploitation.

Jordan Kraemer, Visiting Scholar in Anthropology, New York University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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The Cultural Anxiety of the White Middle Class

This week in Counterpunch, I write about the cultural & racial dimensions of identity & belonging for the white middle class in the “knowledge” economy:

Whiteness has long stood in for class status, ensuring respectability and legitimacy for those who imagine themselves the protagonist of the (white) American narrative. For many whites, losing economic status entails a profound loss of selfhood and cultural belonging—not only economic anxiety, but cultural anxiety.

Read more…

New Book Review: Reclaiming Media Ideologies

Are smartphones and social media destroying our capacity for human connection? New technologies can upend existing social orders, but are equally a product of the conditions—here, late capitalism—in which they are produced. Two divergent approaches offer insight into how cultural and economic contexts shape media practice.

Sherry Turkle. 2015. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press. 436 pages.

Daniel Miller. 2016. Social Media in an English Village. London: University College London Press. 234 pages.

Daniel Miller, Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang. 2016. How the World Changed Social Media. London: University College London Press. 260 pages.

Excerpt:

[Turkle’s] diagnoses provide a language for addressing ways smartphones and social media distract many people, offering a “friction-free” engagement that promises freedom from boredom but not from loneliness. And if conversation is what’s lost, then conversation can cure, in the tradition of the open-ended conversation of psychoanalytic therapy, the “talking cure.” Turkle offers two main approaches to reinstating talk, one concerned with design and the other with practice. She advocates, first, designing technologies that do not exploit human psychological vulnerabilities, such as notifications that demand continual attention. I agree that design could offer a means to redress features that are disruptive, but these features — like the interfaces that enable the “machine zone” — are essential to the business model of most mobile platforms. Redesigning them would entail tech companies relinquishing lucrative revenue streams. On the contrary, a broader critique is required of the social and economic context in which media technologies are produced, such as in Silicon Valley and other elite tech hubs.

This article in Anthropology Now is available for free download to the first 50 users here:

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/chSjwK2guCysmvsAbyX6/full

Upcoming talk: When Social Media are the News, Bard College

Thursday, April 20, Bard College, NY

What does it mean for the public sphere when social media become a news platform in their own right? I’ll be discussing how the merger of social media with the news media has troubling consequences for politics and shared understandings of reality.

http://anthropology.bard.edu/events/

A decade ago, social media—that is, social network sites like MySpace and Facebook—were taking off among teens and fan communities. News consumption in the US was shifting as well, as cable news outstripped network shows and print circulation declined. Only a few years later, Facebook and Twitter became widespread, perhaps losing their cool among young people. As social media coalesce into a new mass medium, these platforms integrate news stories into spaces previously envisioned for leisure and friendship. Planned changes to the Facebook News Feed algorithm cultivated this process further. By 2015, breaking events like the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris unfolded online in a new way, sparking the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag and public memorials across Europe hours later. Reading news websites was already part of daily practice among young people I studied in Berlin in the late 2000s, but by 2015, social media became the place to encounter and experience news stories. This shift is reshaping how the news circulates, facilitating viral “fake” news and disinformation regimes. Social media contribute to reconfiguring the meaning of public and private, but what is at stake when social media are the news?

Time: 6:00 pm
Location: Olin, Room 202
Contact: Jonah Rubin
E-mail: jrubin@bard.edu

Speaking at XX+UX at Tumblr in December!

Excited to be on a panel at Tumblr HQ on designing social spaces free from harassment:

XX+UX @ Tumblr: Designing and Fostering Safe Online Communities

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/xxux-tumblr-designing-and-fostering-safe-online-communities-tickets-30033591280

Description

Haters, trolls, bots, and fake news sites are gaming social media platforms for their own advantage and driving away people who want to participate in positive, constructive dialogue. At Tumblr, we’ve been cautious about introducing new modes of communication—but at what cost?

How can social platforms and media publishers create a forum for free and open communication while protecting the participants from bad actors? How can product designers design systems that encourage good behavior and allow for effective, impartial moderation?

Join us Tuesday at Tumblr HQ for a panel discussion with community trust and safety experts, designers, and academics on these issues and strategies for building platforms that enable positive, productive conversations online.

Can’t wait? Ask or vote on questions ahead of time

Take Critical Design at The Brooklyn Institute this September!

I’ll be teaching my course on critical and ethnographic approaches to design, especially technology design, this September in Brooklyn:

Critical Design: Interface and Imagination
Jordan Kraemer

The Brooklyn Commons, 388 Atlantic Ave in Boerum Hill

Is design the new core competency? From user experience research to sustainable development, professional labor and productivity is increasingly framed in the language of design, while design fields are growing rapidly in industry and academia alike. This is partly a product of “design thinking,” an alternative approach to interacting with the world through the tools of design. In these contexts, design purports to approach diverse facets of human life in terms of innovative problem-solving, whether it be resource management in the Global South, urban development, home furnishings, or the latest tech gadgets and platforms. But what does it mean to approach the world in terms of design, and who is designing what and for whom? What is at stake in framing labor in terms of design? What norms become encoded in interface design, for example, and how does this shape technology-related practices?

This course takes design, especially interface design, as an object of study through empirical and critical analysis. This is not a course in the subdiscipline of “critical design” per se, but rather a sociological and anthropological study of design and related theories and practices. We will read works by Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze and other theorists, in conversation with emerging literature in critical studies of design, such as the work of Lucy Suchman, Paul Dourish, Natasha Dow Schüll, Dawn Nafus, and Keith Murphy. In this class, students will not only explore contemporary critical design literature and key theoretical backgrounds, but will also engage critically with the creation, use, and understanding of user experience, interface, and design aesthetics.

Held Thursdays, 6:30-9:30pm
Starts September 8, 2016
Lasts 4 weeks
Costs $315

Enroll at the Brooklyn Institute’s website.

Teaching Feminist STS at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

I’m excited to be joining the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research this fall as an Associate Faculty member! The Brooklyn Institute is a New York-based center for public education and scholarship, offering liberal arts courses in non-traditional settings. I’ll be teaching an introductory seminar on feminist technology studies in November and December at Singularity & Co. bookstore in Brooklyn. Find out more or enroll here: https://thebrooklyninstitute.com/bisr_course/life-digitally-feminist-studies-of-technology/

 

Life, Digitally: Feminist Studies of Technology

Jordan Kraemer
Singularity & Co, 18 Bridge St. in DUMBO

More than thirty years ago, feminist scholar Cynthia Cockburn surveyed the dearth of women in engineering and technology jobs in the early 1980s. Despite the women’s movement of the 1970s and the massive influx of women into the workforce, women remained distressingly underrepresented in tech fields—a situation that has changed remarkably little since. Grand narratives of progress often presume that inequality will disappear as science and technology drive society forward toward some egalitarian future. But as Cockburn noted, technology is as much a product of unequal, gendered social relations as it is salvation from them: “Our industrial technology also has the imprint and the limitations that come of being both the social property and one of the formative processes of men… The masculinity of technology, men’s proprietorial grasp of machinery, has to be seen as a product of social rather than biological history.” Feminist theory provides alternative lenses to examine questions of power, selfhood, materiality, embodiment, and sentiment in relation to emerging technologies, calling attention to fundamental inequalities that mutually shape technology and social life. In this course, we will read the work of scholars such as Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Lucy Suchman, Judy Wacjman, Katherine Hayles, Susan Stryker, and others to consider how gender (in concert with race, class, sexuality, and disability) structures technologies such as artificial life, digital worlds, infrastructure, data, and bodily technologies.

There will be no class on November 24 due to Thanksgiving

Held Tuesdays, 6:30 – 9:30pm
Starts November 17, 2015
Lasts 4 sessions over 5 weeks
Costs 315

#bydesign at #AAA2014: design, inequality, and cultural difference

Thanks to everyone on our panel Accidentally By Design: Producing Difference and Inequality Through Technological Designs at this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in D.C. If you missed it, you can peruse the Storified version of tweets with the hashtag #bydesign that my co-organizer Angela VandenBroek created for us — thanks Angela!

AAA2014panel-poster-682x1024

Public lecture at Wesleyan University: What do mobile phones mobilize?

I’m giving a talk next week, Monday Oct. 13, for a weekly public lecture series at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Humanities on the theme of mobilities. My talk looks at forms of mobility and selfhood that inform mobile phone design and use in Berlin:

What Do Mobile Phones Mobilize?

In what sense are mobile phones, and related devices, mobile? Mobile phones, and mobile computing generally, facilitate particular kinds of mobility—especially elite, cosmopolitan, voluntary forms of movement and circulation—due in no small part to their user interface design. But what counts as movement, culturally speaking? How are mobile devices mobile in relation to the body? When are they characterized instead by locatability, for example, in relation to location-based services? This talk takes up these questions to consider how circles of friends in Berlin interact with the interface design of mobile technologies, especially smartphones, which expect a singular, indivisible subject as the user. Everyday mobile phone practices often challenge implicit norms built in to mobile devices, with implications for sociality, mobility, and experiences of urban space.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2014  |  6 P.M.
DANIEL FAMILY COMMONS  |  USDAN UNIVERSITY CENTER

http://www.wesleyan.edu/humanities/html_email/1013_kraemer_lecture.html

announcing my new postdoc position (+ AAA panel in December)

I’m very pleased to announce that I’m joining the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University this year as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow. This year’s theme is Mobilities, and I’ll be continuing my work on constructions of mobility and sociality in social and mobile media. I’ll be giving a public lecture on my research in October (details TBA).

In addition, Angela VandenBroek and I have co-organized an invited session for the annual American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings in December, in D.C., on technology, design, and inequality (Accidentally by Design: Producing Difference and Inequality Through Technological Designs). The session is being sponsored by CASTAC, through the General Anthropology Division.