Monday thought – OOOber?

statue of a man holding his head with his right hand

A thought experiment based upon flippant suggestion:

Object Oriented Ontology is to philosophy what Uber is to tech development.

Both ‘disruptive’, Uber and OOO have both expanded beyond their initial context, which is by several measures ‘success’. Both have become like discursive shortcuts for a particular set of ideas – ‘gig economy’ and ‘automation’ for Uber and ‘speculative realism’ and maybe even ‘metaphysics’ for OOO (and there’s possibly other associations for these terms too).

Neither OOO or Uber came up with the ideas they propound first, they ‘innovated’ from others (not necessarily a problem) and then made grand claims based on that (maybe a problem).

Neither of the groups involved in the development of Uber or OOO has acted especially ethically, although Uber is almost certainly significantly worse (this isn’t a like-for-like comparison). This is one of the other ways in which these words have become pregnant with meaning. Uber has been variously documented as having a problem with misogyny in the workplace and has also teetered on the edge of legality through ‘greyball’. Some of the proponents of OOO have been accused of bullying graduate students online and at conferences (I recognise gossip can be pernicious but I’ve heard this from several unrelated sources). It has also been suggested some of these folks are garnering a reputation for being somewhat ‘macho’ in attitude – it probably doesn’t help that the lead figures are all male, that they write lots of earnest manifestos or that they succumb to profiles in newspapers that call them “philosopher prophet“. Of course, neither OOO or Uber are unique in this, similar observations/ accusations have been made of antecedent tech firms and philosophical movements, one need only look to TV programmes like “Silicon Valley” or open up the ‘theory boy‘ can of worms.

Finally, there is also a sense that the success both Uber and OOO are easily co-opted into these (pejorative) narratives. There are grounds for this, well – certainly for Uber, but the visibility that success brings makes it easier to tell these stories. I have no doubt that such alleged behaviour is not limited to those involved in Uber or OOO. Likewise, those categories may be contested and we shouldn’t tar everyone who works for a company or does a particular branch of theory with the same brush. Goodness knows there are plenty of “tech bros” and, for want of a better term, “theory bros” outside of Uber and OOO.

Such a critique, however flippant, can come across as a bit pompous or sly. I cannot stand outside this, I am, to a degree, complicit. For example, the citational practices used by “theory bros”, cartel-like, are easy to slip into – many of us have succumbed. To recognise stupidity, as both Ronell and Stiegler point out, is to recognise my own stupidity – the lesson, perhaps the ‘ethic’, is to pass through it towards knowledge. Not the reproduction of the same knowledge (that’s patriarchy), and not always, I think, difference for it’s own sake (isn’t that what the “tech bros” call “disruption”? and doesn’t that always require being in a privileged position?) but perhaps a thoughtful defiance – not ‘laughing along’. This could mean more “no’s” (following Sara Ahmed). Maybe even something like a NO movement – “No Ontology”, at least the kinds of ontology that get used as authority in the kinds of theory top trumps that get played by some of us in the social sciences and humanities… of course this isn’t a novel suggestion either, it’s somewhat akin to feminist standpoint theory.

Perhaps I’m being unkind to OOO and those who do/use it. Success breeds contempt and all that… but the thought experiment was interesting to run through, in my own ham-fisted way…

Reblog> The work lives of uber drivers

Uber surge pricing in LA

Over on Working-Class Perspectives there’s an interesting post byKatie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen about the working lives of Uber drivers. I’ve copied a few bits below. Read the whole post here.

The Work Lives of Uber Drivers: Worse Than You Think

To be an Uber driver is to work when you want. Or so Uber likes to say in recruitment materials, advertisements, and sponsored research papers: “Be your own boss.” “Earn money on your schedule.” “With Uber, you’re in charge.” The language of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy abounds, and can seem like a win for workers.

But the reality of our research shows something very different. The price of flexibility in the gig economy is substantial. Last year we conducted 40 in-person interviews and online surveys with Uber drivers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our project—which creates one of the first independent, qualitative datasets about the rideshare industry—found that the economic realities of precarious work are a far cry from the rosy promises of the gig economy. In exchange for flexible schedules, Uber retains near total control over what really matters for drivers, namely the compensation and costs of work.

The problem isn’t just uncertainty about what drivers can earn. Some also end out in deeper financial trouble by leasing cars from Uber’s Xchange program. One driver, Joan, got caught in this trap after she hit a pothole and damaged her car’s suspension system. She spent nearly all the money she had to get the car fixed. Then, when efforts to repair the vehicle failed, she spent more to lease a car from Uber. While Xchange offers lower credit barriers than traditional lenders, the payments which Uber automatically deducts from drivers’ paychecks, are high. Joan pays $138, more than the national lease average of $100 per week. Another driver we interviewed pays $290 per week and, at the end of her 3-year lease, she will have paid two or three times her car’s value. Think company town, or as one of our other drivers said, “indentured servitude.” The costs of these subprime leases are exorbitant, but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Uber has actively deceived drivers about those costs. A Massachusetts Attorney General also found that Uber’s former lender charged higher-than-allowed interest rates to drivers in low-income communities.

Workers do not know how much they earn largely because of the fluctuating algorithms on which pay is based and the numerous expenses they must deduct. Of the 40 drivers we interviewed and surveyed, only a handful knew what percentage of their fares Uber takes. The majority did not know how Uber determined how much drivers take home on a single ride (whether, for instance, the booking fee is removed before or after Uber takes its commission), whether they are required to buy commercial insurance, or how tax filing works at the end of the year.

What can be done about the working conditions of Uber drivers? The biggest fix, though the least likely at the moment, would be for regulators to require Uber to treat its drivers as employees, which would mean the company would provide worker protections in line with national labor laws. An easier inroad would be for federal legislators and prosecutors to confront the subprime auto-lending practices that proliferate in the Uber world. Until these two steps are taken, cities should be wary of partnering with Uber for any kind of public transit provision, workers should be wary of driving for Uber, and rideshare users should patronize worker co-operative taxi fleets, or barring that, should tip their drivers — a lot.

Katie Wells is a Visiting Scholar and Declan Cullen is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University. Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies at the City University of New York. This research was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors. For more information on forthcoming pieces about driver strategies and the rise of Uber in D.C., contact Katie Wells.

Read the whole post.

Kathi Weeks interview – Feminism & the refusal of work

Glitched Rosie the Riveter poster

Interesting interview with Kathi Weeks, whose book The Problem with Work is really good. Follow the link to the whole interview, but please find a snippet below:

Marxist feminists went a long way towards demystifying the so-called “private” practices, relations, and institutions.

…let me offer a crude but I think useful distinction between two periods of Marxist feminist work, one past and one present.
First the past. In the 1970s, Anglo-American Marxist feminists focused on mapping the relationship bewteen two systems of domination: capitalism and patriarchy.  One could characterize this phase as the attempt to bring a Marxist critique of work into the field of domestic labor and the familial relations of production. By examining domestic based caring work, housework, consumption work, and community-creation work as forms of reproductive labor upon which productive labor more narrowly conceived depends, and by viewing the household as a workplace and the family as a regime that organizes, distributes and manages that labor, Marxist feminists went a long way towards demystifying these so-called “private” practices, relations, and institutions.  On the one hand, they were concerned with the theoretical question of how to understand the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy: were they best conceived as two related systems or as one fully intertwined system?  On the the other hand, they were also focused on the closely related practical question of alliances: should feminist groups be autonomous from or integrated with other anticapitalist (and often antifeminist) movements?

Today we find ourselves in a different situation that holds new possibilities for the relationship between Marxism and feminism. Whereas 1970s feminists struggled to bring a Marxist analytic tailored to the study of waged labor to a very different kind of unwaged laboring practice that had not been considered part of capitalist production, today I think that in order to grasp new forms of waged work we need to draw on the older feminist analyses of waged and unwaged “women’s work.”

Some describe the present moment in terms of the “feminization of labor.”  It’s not my favorite term, but what I understand by it is a way to describe how in neoliberal post-Fordist economies more and more of waged jobs come to resemble traditional forms of feminized domestic work. This is particularly evident in the rise of precarious forms of low-wage, part-time, informal, and insecure forms of employment, and in the growth of service sector jobs that draw on workers’ emotional, caring, and communicative capacities that are undervalued and difficult to measure.

Feminist theory is no longer only optional for Marxist critique.

To confront this changing landscape of work, instead of using an unreconstructed Marxist analytic to study unwaged forms of domestic work, we need today to draw on Marxist feminist analyses of gendered forms of both waged and unwaged work for their insights into how these forms are exploited and how they are experienced. The practical implication of this is that, if we want to both understand and resist  contemporary forms of exploitation, Marxists can no longer remain ignorant of or separated from feminist theories and practices. As I see it, feminist theory is no longer optional for Marxist critique.

Read the whole interview on Political Critique

Theme issue: Sharing Economies? Theories, practices and impacts

Deliveroo cyclists

Interesting theme issue from July in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy & Society” entitled “Sharing Economies? Theories, practices and impacts”.

See the full Table of Contents.

Here’s a snippet from the editorial statement about the issue:

The ten articles that comprise this issue collectively open up significant elements of sharing economies to greater academic reflection and critique. Substantively, they draw on a range of theories, territories and mechanisms to explore sharing economies from across different disciplinary perspectives. Davies, Donald, Gray and Hayes-Knox argue that five key issues emerge: (i) The etymology of sharing and sharing economies; (ii) The differentiated geographies to which sharing economies contribute; (iii) What it means to labour, work and be employed in sharing economies; (iv) The role of the state and others in governing, regulating and shaping the organisation and practice of sharing economies; and (v) the impacts of sharing economies.

The history of the future of automation – lessons from ed tech

Automated taxi figure in the 1990 film Total Recall

I’ve been re-reading the excellent essay by Audrey Watters: Driverless Ed-Tech: The history of the future of automation in educationI really recommend reading it!

Following on from the vague points I made in my last post about an automative imaginary – one way of getting at this is a sort of classic (political economy) critique, which Watters very adroitly takes in relation to ed-tech and MOOCs (etc), and which she write really clearly – so, here is snippet:

“Put me out of a job.” “Put you out of a job.” “Put us all out of work.” We hear that a lot, with varying levels of glee and callousness and concern. “Robots are coming for your job.”

We hear it all the time. To be fair, of course, we have heard it, with varying frequency and urgency, for about 100 years now. “Robots are coming for your job.” And this time – this time – it’s for real.

I want to suggest – and not just because there are flaws with Uber’s autonomous vehicles (and there was just a crash of a test vehicle in Arizona last Friday) – that this is not entirely a technological proclamation. Robots don’t do anything they’re not programmed to do. They don’t have autonomy or agency or aspirations. Robots don’t just roll into the human resources department on their own accord, ready to outperform others. Robots don’t apply for jobs. Robots don’t “come for jobs.” Rather, business owners opt to automate rather than employ people. In other words, this refrain that “robots are coming for your job” is not so much a reflection of some tremendous breakthrough (or potential breakthrough) in automation, let alone artificial intelligence. Rather, it’s a proclamation about profits and politics. It’s a proclamation about labor and capital.

More specific to education, Watters highlights the logic offer by Udacity, one of the big MOOC start-ups:

“We want to be the Uber of education,” Thrun told The Financial Times, which added that, “Mr Thrun knows what he doesn’t want for his company: professors in tenure, which he claims limits the ability to react to market demands.”

In other words, “disrupt” job protections through a cheap, precarious labor force doing piecemeal work until the algorithms are sophisticated enough to perform those tasks. Universities have already taken plenty of steps towards this end, without the help of algorithms or for-profit software providers. But universities are still bound by accreditation (and by tradition). “Anyone can teach” is not a stance on labor and credentialing that many universities are ready to take.

[read all of Watters’ argument here.]

One of the areas in which what I’ve called the automative imaginary/imagination overlaps with wider stories about digital tech disruption and the widespread creed of that disruption being normatively good, if not admirable, is where automation overlaps with the ‘gig economy’. As we can see, via Thrun, one of the models in play here is not to ‘destroy’ jobs but rather to decouple them from some of the elements that make them valuable and either reallocate or automate those and then offer the remaining tasks as precarious work – which you have to sign up for through a proprietary system as a contractor, rather than an employee.

The ways we are invited to see ‘automation’ by some are over-coded with strong narratives of ‘disruption’ and the breaking down of established employment rights into a two their system in which the ‘taskers’ (as Guy Standing calls them) take the precarious work for relatively meagre earnings and the tech company owners and a few they bring along with them hoover up the profits.

An alternative to such narratives might be ‘accelerationism‘ but I remain skeptical at present (but I’ve not read enough to form an opinion really). It seems to me, we (geographers, social scientists, citizens?! … well, me anyway!) really do need to talk and think about work.

Reblog> the Ideology behind the gig economy

Deliveroo cyclists

Via John Naughton.

The ideology behind the gig economy

Jia Tolentino has a very good piece in the New Yorker about the ideology that underpins the gig economy. The piece opens with the story of Mary, a Lyft driver in Chicago who kept accepting rides even though she was nine months pregnant – and even kept going when her contractions began!

In the end, it ended well. Mary had a customer who only needed a short ride, so she was able to drive herself to hospital after dropping him off. Once there, she gave birth to a baby girl – who appears on the company blog wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.

The point of the company blog post is to laud the spirit of workers like Mary. But, writes Tolentino,

It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”–as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars–recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

Quite so. Lyft drivers in Chicago earn about $11 per trip.

Perhaps, as Lyft suggests, Mary kept accepting riders while experiencing contractions because “she was still a week away from her due date,” or “she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet.” Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor. In the other version of Mary’s story, she’s an unprotected worker in precarious circumstances.

Spot on.

Brave new-old world – gig economy as scientific management

Deliveroo cyclists

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.”

Tony Sampson on neuroculture

From a Conversation piece on Huxley, dystopia and how we might think about Facebook etc. in relation to Huxley’s “College of Emotional Engineering”, this concise evocation of his understanding of ‘neuroculture’ is interesting:

The origins of neuroculture begin in early anatomical drawings and subsequent neuron doctrine in the late 1800s. This was the first time that the brain was understood as a discontinuous network of cells connected by what became known as synaptic gaps. Initially, scientists assumed these gaps were connected by electrical charges, but later revealed the existence of neurochemical transmissions. Brain researchers went on to discover more about brain functionality and subsequently started to intervene in underlying chemical processes.

Interpretation of Cajal’s anatomy of a Purkinje neuron, by Dorota Piekorz.

On one hand, these chemical interventions point to possible inroads to understanding some crucial issues, relating to mental health, for example. But on the other, they warn of the potential of a looming dystopian future. Not, as we may think, defined by the forceful invasive probing of the brain in Room 101, but via much more subtle intermediations.

Gary Hall > Ten Ways To Affirmatively Disrupt The Sharing Economy ♯3: Become a Microdatapreneur

Interesting from Gary Hall… lots to think through politically here, as with blockchain-like, more-or-less libertarian, strategies for a new “new economy” (as per the Post-Fordists)…  and possibly relevant to the recent interest in “digital” labour in geography…

part of a series of posts in which I provide ten proposals as to how to affirmatively disrupt ubercapitalism and the corporate sharing economy. Together these posts constitute the draft of a text provisionally titled Data Commonism, designed to follow on from my recently published short book, The Uberfication of the University. If the latter provides a dystopian sense of what is lying in store for many us over the course of the next few years, Data Commonism is more optimistic in that it shows what we can do about it. 

[We can disrupt the sharing economy by] by working toward the kind of “universal micropayment system” Jaron Lanier envisages in Who Owns The Future: “If observation of you yields data that makes it easier for”¦ a political campaign to target voters with its message, then you ought to be owed money for the use of that valuable data.” In this system we would be paid for the data we generate if it turns out to be valuable. Our relationship with the platforms of the for-profit sharing economy would thus take the form of a “two-way” financial transaction in which we all “benefit, concretely, with real money,” rather than just a few San Francisco-based entrepreneurs and investors.

A universal micropayment system may result in some degree of financial redistribution. But while it provides a means of reuniting data with those users who produce it […] there is not really all that much we can do with our own small amounts of data. How much leverage would we have when it comes to negotiating a price for it, bearing in mind most of us will have to rely on these companies to determine for us the extent to which our data […] has actually contributed to a political campaign aimed at targeting voters, to stay with Lanier’s example?

for Clare Birchall, it is not at all “clear that data belongs to us in the first place in order for it then to be given or taken“–or monetized, in this case. Instead, “we are within a dynamic sharing assemblage: always already sharing data with human or non-human agents.” Birchall introduces the term “shareveillance” to describe the “condition of consuming shared data and producing data to be shared in ways that shape” what she refers to as an “an ascendant shareveillant subjectivity.” This is a “subject who is at once surveillant (veiller ‘to watch’ is from the Latin vigilare, from vigil, ‘watchful’) and surveilled. To phrase it with a slightly different emphasis: the subject of shareveillance is one who simultaneously works with data and on whom the data works.”

David Harvey on post-neoliberalism, Trump, infrastructure, sharing economy, smart city

Via Deterritorial Investigations Unit.

David Harvey talking to Evgeny Morozov, in the first few minutes he addresses the issue of the claims being made about the end of globalisation/neoliberalism. The conversation then quickly ranges over the gig economy and what Guy Standing calls the ‘precariat’ (it’d be interesting to stage that conversation!) and then a brief statement question about ‘smart’ cities (Harvey is dismissive). Worth watching.