Brave new-old world – gig economy as scientific management

They’re gonna be disrupted, yeah! Because your lives are being disrupted, yeah! This is the money you need to live!

An interesting article in the FT: “When your boss is an algorithm“, in which (if you ignore the sort of anthropomorphism of “the algorithm” and its apparently supreme agency) the author,  , draws out the similarity between the claims of efficiency etc. made for ‘gig economy’ -type work platforms, such as Uber and Deliveroo, are very similar to Taylorism:

Algorithmic management” might sound like the future but it has uncanny echoes from the past. A hundred years ago, a new theory called “scientific management” swept through the factories of America. It was the brainchild of Frederick W Taylor … Taylor wanted to replace this “rule of thumb” approach with “the establishment of many rules, laws and formulae which replace the judgment of the individual workman”. To that end, he sent managers with stopwatches and notebooks on to the shop floor. They observed, timed and recorded every stage of every job, and determined the most efficient way that each one should be done. “Perhaps the most prominent single element in modern scientific management is the task idea,” Taylor wrote in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management. “This task specifies not only what is to be done but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it.”

Exemplified by the following excerpt articulating the experience of a Deliveroo driver, Kyaw, which is, in turn, of course similar to the kinds of working conditions of other delivery drivers and Amazon warehouse pickers (as has been covered widely in the press)…

Kyaw whips out his phone. The app expects him to respond to new orders within 30 seconds. The screen shows a map and address for the local Carluccio’s, an Italian restaurant chain. A swipe bar says “Accept delivery”. That is the only option. The algorithm will not tell him the delivery address until he has picked up the food from Carluccio’s. Deliveroo couriers are assigned fairly small geographic areas but Kyaw says sometimes the delivery address is way outside his allocated zone. You can only decline an order by phoning the driver support line. “They say, ‘No, you have to do it, you already collected the food.’ If you want to return the food to the restaurant they mark it as a driver refusal — that’s bad.” as an instrument of analytical discipline

Saw a paper, shared (perhaps ironically) on ResearchGate, concerning and the ways it can be seen as a means of self-discipline around ‘impact’, self-promotion and how these may relate reward and recognition. May be of interest to some…

“Facebook for Academics”: The Convergence of Self-Branding and Social Media Logic on

Brooke Erin Duffy and Jefferson D. Pooley.

Given widespread labor market precarity, contemporary workers—especially those in the media and creative industries—are increasingly called upon to brand themselves. Academics, we contend, are experiencing a parallel pressure to engage in self-promotional practices, particularly as universities become progressively more market-driven., a paper-sharing social network that has been informally dubbed “Facebook for academics,” has grown rapidly by adopting many of the conventions of popular social media sites. This article argues that the astonishing uptake of both reflects and amplifies the self-branding imperatives that many academics experience. Drawing on’s corporate history, design decisions, and marketing communications, we analyze two overlapping facets of (1) the site’s business model and (2) its social affordances. We contend that the company, like mainstream social networks, harnesses the content and immaterial labor of users under the guise of “sharing.” In addition, the site’s fixation on analytics reinforces a culture of incessant self-monitoring—one already encouraged by university policies to measure quantifiable impact. We conclude by identifying the stakes for academic life, when entrepreneurial and self-promotional demands brush up against the university’s knowledge-making ideals.

‘Ways of Being in a Digital Age’ scoping

I’ve only just caught on here, but the ESRC’s “Ways of Being in a Digital Age” scoping review, for their new theme of the same name, has been awarded to the Liverpool Institute of Cultural Capital (a collaboration between Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores) in a partnership with 17 other institutions (a core of eight in the UK apparently). They say:

The project will undertake a Delphi review of expert opinion and a systematic literature review and overall synthesis to identify gaps in current research.

The project will also run a programme of events to build and extend networks among the academic community, other stakeholders and potential funding partners.

There’s a website, so you can read more there…

Academic emotional labour

We are getting to the business end of our second term at my institution, when our final year students submit their dissertations, and we shift register looking towards field trips (our 2nd years go this weekend), exams and transitions – including of course graduation. This and some rather troubling conversations and various meetings through the term have got me thinking about the volume of emotional labour some of us perform. I say ‘some of us’ because, as with any organisation, some colleagues variously avoid it due to a range of reasons. Thus, some are faced with quite a bit of such work. Maybe these observations are a bit naive but this is where I currently find myself…

At the beginning of this academic year I ceased to be “Early Career”, in spite having only recently (3 years ago) getting back into geography – I spent three years (overlapping writing-up) as a post doc outside of the discipline. In the three years I’ve been in my current position, and beginning to learn how to teach, I have been surprised and at times overwhelmed by what others have labelled an ‘epidemic’ of mental health issues in universities. The complicated entanglements of anxiety and depression that a significant number of our students are contending with are worrying and at times heart-breaking. Some terms can be measured in the number of boxes of tissues I buy (not only for the students).

My experience has been that you get no training for this and, if you have not been an undergraduate for some time, the level of the issues our students are experiencing may feel utterly alarming and mystifying. I remember my time as an undergrad as pretty care-free and fun. It really saddens me how many of my tutees may well remember their time in a very different and perhaps largely negative way. Likewise, many of us in academia are wrestling with personal mental health issues and to be confronted with those of the students may well be very challenging.

So, what do I/you do, with no training and perhaps little experience of such things? Well, this is not meant to be advice but it gets me to the point I want to make: First things first – we are not counsellors. We are not trained to deal with these issues and can possibly make things worse ont better. Show empathy and sympathy, of course, but my strategy has also been to show respect for the student by explaining as tactfully as possible that they need to seek help from what we call “wellbeing services” and/or their GP. Many have already done this. A surprising number are already medicated.

So, personally, I end up listening, trying to discern the academic/administrative measures I have at my disposal that I can put in place to support the student’s needs and identify when I need help. Sometimes you get through the meeting, close the door and may have to have a cry yourself. Many colleagues will recognise this pattern and I’m not trying to dispense advice here but it does say something about work.

Many of us have a calculated workload, perhaps in a digitally accessible workload model (which some colleagues might suggest inculcates us into internalising the logic of institutional discipline for ourselves 😉 – if you look in that workload allocation the chances are there is figure somewhere that figures in office hours, personal tutor duties and so on. Often, the students you may be ‘supporting’ are not personal tutees but dissertation tutees as well, which is a different workload allocation – but probably not a big number. For some of us this workload figure may be accurate. For others this is a mere fraction of the workload experienced.

It would be easy to retort – “well, don’t take on the work”, don’t ‘pander’ to the students and stick rigidly to the time set out. Of course, with some authority (seniority, grant income buy-out etc.) you probably can do this. However, increasingly there is institutional pressure to improve metrics around student experience, to demonstrate the institution is ‘supportive’. As ‘frontline’ staff, academic tutors can bear a significant amount of responsibility for this.

So, this (potential) labour can be a catch-22: you do it, support students, deal with the related admin and your own emotional wellbeing and it may potentially affect other parts of your work that you value (i.e. research/writing time); or: do the minimum/ don’t do it and the work will be displaced to your colleagues (I don’t think it simply goes away) and you may risk being admonished for damaging the ‘student experience’.

Increasingly, such work is being pooled into particular roles – “senior tutors” of one kind or another: for a year group etc. Likewise, the extraordinary growth in applications for mitigation and the administrative side of the academic support for students with wellbeing issues involves a huge increase in work for our administrative colleagues – who are, in many institutions, increasingly embattled, disenfranchised and pulled in other directions.

It seems to me that the status quo is untenable. We cannot go on, we must go on. According to colleagues researching school-level education and those managing admissions, some students are arriving at university with these mental health issues already at an advanced stage, which seems to me a damning indictment of the ethos of the culture of our education system but also suggests we may need much more concerted responses to managing wellbeing from day one, somehow.

I don’t have the answers, but it seems to me that if we continue like this many of us face an ever-increasing student support workload that carries significant emotional cost. I try to remain positive – it is possible to put measures in place and there are dedicated colleagues in many institutions who are putting in place systems and taking difficult but necessary decisions about how to do this work. Nevertheless, I never imagined this would be such a big part of my job.

Reblog> 1:1 and Cartographic Operations

Via Machinology.

1:1 and Cartographic Operations

Cartographic Operations-exhibition is on at the Level 4 gallery in Southampton (Hartley Library). Supported by AMT, it features work from Winchester School of Art practitioners addressing maps. Jane Birkin, Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson’s pieces address the main theme: “In Bernhard Siegert’s ‘The map is the territory’, he refers to the idea of ‘cartographic operations’. The suggestion is that our way of seeing the world is not simply represented in maps, but that map-making is itself a play of competing signs and discourses producing our subjecthood. These are the coordinates we come to live by, which in turn influence the marks and signs at our disposal when we seek to make and share representations of the world.”

One of the pieces is Jane Birkin’s 1:1 which is described and show below. It opens up the exhibition space to the depth of the surface by making visible the electric current and metal inside the wall. While it can be read in relation to some earlier pieces of contemporary art it also speaks to the current work in critical practices of infrastructure.

Birkin 1 to 1_med

From the catalogue text:

Jane Birkin’s 1:1 is a direct mapping of infrastructure behind the white space of display. It is ­a piece produced by performative procedure: a regulated operation where authorial control is established at the outset and rules are strictly followed. Electric current and metal are plotted using a DIY store metal/voltage detector and the information transferred simply to print.

There are literary precedents for mapping at this scale. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science cartography became exactingly precise, producing a map that has the same scale as its territory. And, in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, a German professor tells how map-makers experimented with the use of ever larger maps, until they finally produced a map of the scale of 1:1. ‘It has never been spread out, yet’, said the professor. ‘The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!’ In this case, the gallery wall is covered, shut off from light and eyes. Although 1:1 is an impassive engagement with the rule-based activity of cartography, it simultaneously performs an affective act of display.Birkin 1 to 1 detail_med.jpeg

Public scholarship, or: profs should edit wikipedia

Over on Savage Minds Rex Golub has written a compelling provocation about the places of ‘public anthropology’ (which I think could probably be broadened to ‘public scholarship). He points out that it’s all very well writing letters to venerable broad sheet newspapers but that doesn’t necessarily achieve much. Instead, Professors (or academics more broadly) might better spend their time editing wikipedia pages because that is the prime site of the public sourcing, and contestation, of knowledge. I think its quite a compelling argument… not least when thinking about the current trend and push for demonstrating “impact”. Isn’t it quite “impactful” to be the person who attempts to ensure that the most widely used source of knowledge on a given topic is rigorously written/edited? There’s no academic brownie points in that though… no promotions or awards/rewards are going to be given on that basis!

What do you think?

…my issue is that anthropologists are doing public anthropology in the wrong places and in the wrong way because they don’t understand how social media works today and are seduced by an out-moded model of cultural capital that makes them feels heroic, but it isn’t actually efficacious.

The new public anthropology, on the other hand, is not glamorous, will not make you famous, can be emotionally uncomfortable, involves working in new and unfamiliar genres, and can change the world. A good example of this sort of public anthropology is editing Wikipedia

Wikipedia is ground zero for knowledge in the world today. Everyone uses it to look stuff up quickly. Everyone. Some people may take it more seriously than others, but because its content can be reused on other sites, what wikipedia says spreads everywhere. For better or for worse — I’d say for better — it’s the public record of the state of human knowledge at the moment. Unlike letters to the New York Times, Wikipedia gets read. Constantly. When you contribute to Wikipedia, you are concretely and immediately altering what the world knows about your topic of expertise.

Containers and global capitalism (podcast)

Via Deterritorial Investigations Unit.

Containers is an 8-part audio documentary about how global trade has transformed the economy and ourselves. Host and correspondent Alexis Madrigal leads you through the world of ships and sailors, technology and tugboats, warehouses and cranes. At a time when Donald Trump is threatening to toss out the global economic order, Containers provides an illuminating, deep, and weird look at how capitalism actually works now.


Disciplining theory(?) – post-phenomenology(dot-org)

The website is an interesting resource, especially the bibliography compiled there (which perhaps implies an canon?), which got me returning to some thoughts I’ve had about how particular kinds of theory ‘travel’, how they co-opted and then, perhaps, disciplined. The website mentioned above is clearly, if not wholly explicitly, positioned within that interesting, apparently interdisciplinary, area of Science and Technology Studies – and one would think, then, that the reference list would take in a range of disciplinary debates, demonstrating how the ideas freighted by “post-phenomenology” have, perhaps, contributed to an interdisciplinary debate. Instead, it seem to me, the reference list demonstrates something like a kind of disciplining, whereby the journals and authors represented sit within what is de facto a particular field, potentially having not an open, interdisciplinary, debate but rather a fairly insular one. I don’t intend that observation as a slight to the compilers of what is a useful resource, I’m just interested in how the movement or spread of ideas can work – or, as Said says, how theory travels.

This cannot be uncommon, nor is it necessarily a normatively ‘bad’ thing. Recently I took part in a fascinating workshop on the generations of Southern theory – in relation to urbanism and in particular in relation to how this has historically played out through the empirical lens and academic institutions of South Africa. My colleague Clive Barnett highlighted that that set of debates has happened slightly differently (or perhaps not at all) in different but cognate disciplinary contexts. In the wake of Said and various others, Clive has, of course, written about such things – as have many others!

So, what should ‘post-phenomenological’ geographers do? Probably just carry on… One could try and forge the connections, but it of course takes effort and time etc etc. In the end, nobody ‘owns’ concepts and the theory will develop within different disciplinary contexts, albeit possibly siloed into particular journals and conferences. I suppose, it goes to show that when conversations become more than superficially interdisciplinary, taking in different points of view and contexts, it’s probably a precious moment…

Reblog> Workshop on Security and the Political Turn in the Philosophy of Technologies

An interesting event blogged by Peter-Paul Verbeek:

Workshop ‘Security and the Political Turn in the Philosophy of Technologies’, University of Twente | DesignLab, March 10 2017. How to understand the political significance of things? And how to deal with the politics of technology in a responsible way? Ever since Langdon Winner claimed in the early 1980s that “artifacts have politics”, these questions have been puzzling philosophers and ethicists of technology. Technologies are not just instruments for humans to do politics but actively shape politics themselves. In this workshop we will explore various dimensions of this political role of technologies, especially with regards to security, citizenship in a technological world, and the role of social media and ‘fake news’ in contemporary democracy.

Speakers include:

  • Babette Babich (Fordham)
  • Robin James (UNCC),
  • Laura Fichtner (TUD)
  • Wolter Pieters (TUD)
  • Melis Bas (UT)
  • Jonne Hoek (UT)
  • Philip Brey (UT)
  • Nolen Gertz (UT)
  • Michael Nagenborg (UT)
  • Peter-Paul Verbeek (UT)

The workshop is sponsored by the 4TU.Ethics working group on “Risk, Safety, and Security.”