Nick Seaver and I have put together a list we wanted to share. It is an attempt to collect and categorize a growing critical literature on algorithms as social concerns. The work spans sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, geography, communication, media studies, and legal studies, among others. Our aim was to catalog the emergence of “algorithms” as objects of interest for disciplines beyond mathematics, computer science, and software engineering.
This area is growing in size and popularity so quickly that new contributions are often popping up without reference to work from disciplinary neighbors. One aim of this list is to help nascent scholars of algorithms to identify broader conversations across disciplines, and to avoid reinventing the wheel or falling into analytic traps that other scholars have already identified. We also thought it would be useful, especially for those teaching these materials, to try to loosely categorize it. The organization of the list is meant merely as a first-pass, provisional sense-making effort. Within categories the entries are offered in chronological order, to help make sense of these rapid developments.
In light of this, we encourage you to see it as an unfinished document. There are 132 citations on the list, but we suspect there are many more to include. We very much welcome comments, including recommendations of other work to include, suggestions on how to reclassify a particular entry, or ideas for reorganizing the categories themselves. Please use the comment space at the bottom of the page itself; we will try to update the list in light of your suggestions.
On September 9, 2015, the Data & Society Research Institute hosted Platformation, a one-day summit that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss platform economies and the labor that fuels them. Participants included platform business leaders, researchers, labor organization representatives, policy experts, and those contributing labor to this growing sector.
You can read the full summary report here.
The event was co-convened by Dean Jansen, Data & Society Fellow and myself, with a great deal of encouragement and support from the SMC (thanks peeps!)
Participants raised questions and discussed concerns, but the consensus was that collaboration at a larger scale is necessary to arrive at concrete solutions in all sectors.
We broke the day into three sessions – the first grappled with accountability and trust and how these dynamics shift as platforms scale. To begin, the nature of work itself has changed, as automated workflows replace traditional modes of managing work. Participants highlighted that some workers see their platform work as surplus income while others make a living from it. As companies scale, the rift between the definitions of workers and platforms may widen, and companies could see themselves differently than how workers see them. Participants also shared how they made accountability work on their own platforms. One discussant said that having workers act as intermediaries between the platform and workers had been successful in building a trusting and transparent relationship.
During the second session the group wrestled with the complexities of classification; participants described sharing economy workers as contributors, entrepreneurs, freelancers, consumers, and partners. Although the media focuses on the 1099 vs. W-2 debate, participants argued that the framework is potentially incongruous with the new economy, and solving the dichotomy is just the beginning. Also, regulation is not necessarily the only or most effective way of securing ethical treatment of workers. Participants added that the focus on vehicles of change such as regulation could be shifted towards outcomes, such as ensuring a living wage. Additionally, attitudes towards unions are mixed, with some reluctant to be bound by the restrictions of other workers. A common fear is that a platform could easily drive out any individual seeking to organize workers; this highlighted the isolated nature of platform work.
The third and final session centered around collaboration – mutual obligations between governments, public interests, and the private sector. Traditionally, benefits are defined in terms of goods mediated by government, such as paid sick and vacation leave, retirement, etc. How would a new social contract be crafted to map out new categories of support for the gig economy? The day ended with a reflection on how to continue dialogue around platform labor in a meaningful and sustained way. As different groups grapple with the same questions, there is a need for new conversations and efforts to address a lack of data and research. Also, as new frictions emerge, actors in this space will benefit from a variety of perspectives, which can best emerge and be sustained through continued development of spaces for dialogue.
Our hope is that Platformation marks the beginning of a conversation that more fully includes voices from those doing the work and values their experiences as we collectively develop policy and business models for a more equitable and productive future.
Earlier in the month, the new Sage journal Social Media & Society announced a special issue curated and written by Culture Digitally scholars. SMC’s own Tarleton Gillespie edited and wrote the issue’s Introduction along with Hector Postigo, and the two collaborators blogged about the special issue here, here, and here.
A number of articles in this issue grapple with new ways of understanding the relationship between technology and practice. In particular, two papers approach this issue by revisiting the concept of affordance.
Peter Nagy and Gina Neff argue for the term ‘imagined affordances’ to clarify a socio-technical definition of the affordance concept, one better able to address the mediated duality of materiality and communication technology. The issue also includes an article by myself and Nancy Baym that reframes the affordance concept in terms of a process of sense-making and looks to vernacular language about material structure for clues to how people themselves understand the relationship between their communicative practices and the technologies they use. Titled “Thinking of You: Vernacular Affordance in the Context of the Microsocial Relationship App, Couple”, our paper examines experiences of romantic partners who use Couple and sought to understand how people make sense of the app’s affordances and role in a broader media ecology.
We argue that affordances are not a distinct aspect of a single artifact, but rather are experienced as nested layers at different levels of scale. Likewise, affordances are not experienced in isolation but as part of a complex ecology of alternatives. Finally we found that vernacular affordances are often invoked strategically as either “choices” or “constraints”—an opposition that maps onto different ways of accounting for material structure.
Here is our abstract:
The concept of “affordance” stakes out a middle ground between social constructivism and technological determinism, seeking to account for how material qualities of technologies constrain or invite practices while also accommodating emergent meanings. Yet we know little about how people themselves understand affordances in their encounters with technology. This article treats vernacular accounts of material structure and practice as clues to the ways that people understand and negotiate technology in their everyday lives. We studied the experiences of romantic partners who use Couple, a relationship app touted as a “social network of two,” and part of an emerging class of “microsocial” platforms. Partners who use Couple have limited knowledge of how others use the app, which offered us a unique lens for witnessing how people make sense of the relationship between practice and material structure. We conducted qualitative interviews with romantic pairs who use Couple, attending to how interviewees conceived of its capabilities, features, and position within larger media ecologies. We argue that affordances simultaneously exist for people at multiple levels of scale, for example: infrastructure, device, app, feature, and so on. These levels are theoretically distinct but can intersect conceptually as people make sense of technological systems and adapt their practices, or create new ones. This approach opens up new ways of understanding the relationship between technologies and practices by drawing attention to how different vernacular frames, such as “choice” or “constraint,” reflect particular ways of accounting for material structure.
The Pacific Standard magazine has been running a series where academics, business leaders, technologists and labor leaders have contributed to the discussion on the most consequential changes in labor and the future of work. We invite you to read the contributions from members of our SMC family.
“Caring for the Crowdworker going at it alone” –>Mary L. Gray, one of our senior researchers at the SMC. She is writing a book, with computer scientist Siddharth Suri, on platform economies, digital labor, and the future of work.
In many ways, the assumption that workers no longer need a supportive or collaborative work environment and can act as self-directed actors is a fair one. Plenty of workers figure out how to find a good gig, develop routines for getting work done quickly, even find water-cooler chatter on worker-centered forums. A significant percentage of crowdworkers string together 30 to 50 hours of work, and rely on networks of peer support to maintain this level of productivity. Workers share information about how to sign up for platforms, what jobs to consider, employers to avoid, even how to do certain tasks when the task instructions leave out key details. Indeed, my time with workers shows that the API silently shifts the burden of finding, training, and retaining talent to workers’ shoulders.
“Working for the machine” –> Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Human-Computer Interaction group and is a Robert N. Noyce Family Faculty Scholar. His research focuses on the design of crowdsourcing and social computing systems.
The computer no longer is just our tool for doing work: it is becoming an instrument that gives us work. Online, networked societies have embarked on a massive shift to take work online, and that means an algorithm may be your next boss, or at least be your task matchmaker. Ask an Uber driver, who is told where to be and when by software. Or ask workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace, who execute information tasks for hours a day at piecework rates.
For Uber Drivers, Data is the Boss –> Alex Rosenblat, researcher and technical writer at Data & Society, a New York organization focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development.
From Uber’s perspective, drivers are a stopgap solution until autonomous vehicles can replace them. The more permanent Uber employees—the data scientists—algorithmically scrutinize the drivers’ movements to determine where they should be positioned to meet passenger demand. At Uber, drivers are also data points on a screen. The data they generate as they do their work feeds Uber’s surge pricing algorithm, can help determine how long it should take a driver to complete a trip, or could be used to move into markets beyond passenger delivery.
What isn’t counted, counts –> Karen Levy, postdoctoral fellow at New York University School of Law and the Data and Society Research Institute.
Consider long-haul truckers. Most are paid according to the number of miles they drive, which are increasingly tracked by their employers via GPS-enabled “fleet management systems.” What these systems don’t track (and what drivers aren’t paid for) is the time they spend on other essentials—like safety inspections, paperwork, and waiting for hours while their freight is loaded or unloaded at crowded terminals. But because their work is measured by miles driven instead of by some other metric (say, by number of hours worked), truckers have incentives to cut corners—hurrying their safety checks, speeding, ignoring the legally mandated rest breaks meant to keep the highways safe.
The Social Media Collective is showing up in force at Internet Research 16 in Phoenix, Arizona starting next week. Along with many friends of the SMC, there will be some of our permanent researchers (Nancy Baym, Tarleton Gillespie), postdocs current and past (Kevin Driscoll, Lana Swartz, Mike Ananny), past & present interns (Stacy Blasiola, Brittany Fiore-Gartland, Germaine Halegoua, Tero Karppi, J. Nathan Matias, Kat Tiidenberg, Shawn Walker, Nick Seaver), past and future Visiting Researchers (Jean Burgess, Annette Markham, Susanna Paasonen, Hector Postigo, TL Taylor), and our past Research Assistants (Kate Miltner and Alex Leavitt). Hope to see you there!
Below is a list of papers and panels they will be presenting:
WEDNESDAY, 21 OCT
THURSDAY, 22 OCT
11:00 am – 12:20 pm
1:30 pm – 2:50 pm
1:30 pm, -2:50 pm
3:10 pm- 4:30 pm
***The Nancy Baym Book Award will be presented to Robert Gehl for Reverse Engineering Social Media at the banquet on Thursday night
FRIDAY, 23, OCT
9:00 am – 10:20 am
9:00 am – 10:20 am
10:40 am – 12:00 pm
10:40 am – 12:00 pm
Tarleton Gillespie, Mike Ananny, Christian Sandvig & J. Nathan Matias
10:40 am- 12:00 pm
10:40 am – 12:00 pm
Jing Zeng, Jean Burgess, Axel Bruns
1:00 pm – 2:20 pm
Sharif Mowlabocus, Nancy Baym, Susanna Paasonen, Dylan Wittkower, Kylie Jarrett
2:40 pm – 4:00 pm
2:40 pm – 4:00 pm
4:20 pm- 5:40 pm
Greg Elmer, Ganaele Langlois, Joanna Redden, Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Robert Gehl
4:20 pm – 5:40 pm
SATURDAY 24, OCT
9:00 am – 10:20 am
Lee Humphreys, Jean Burgess, Joseph Turow
9:00 am- 10: 20 am
1:30 pm – 2:50 pm
3:10 pm – 4:30 pm
SMC is excited to welcome Tom Streeter, who will be soon making occasional visits to our New England lab, beginning later this month. To mark his arrival, we wanted to highlight the essay he has just published in the International Journal of Communication: “Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism.” (Borrowing from the summary provided by IJOC here:)
The essay explains how that story and its repetition tell us more about the culture than the man. Building on previous work about the rise of “romantic individualism” as an organizing mechanism for high-tech capitalism, this essay focuses on the latest outpouring of discourse about Jobs since his death in 2011, analyzing both its continuities with past cultural forms and what it is about the present moment that has intensified the discourse—especially the post-2008 crisis of confidence in financial capitalism. Among other things, the tale offers the appealing, if ultimately unrealistic, hope of a capitalism with integrity, of a one-percenter who deserves it.
The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for two social media postdoctoral researchers (start date: 5 July, 2016). This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues. Application deadline: Friday 6 November, 2015.
Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment, with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoctoral researcher positions provide emerging scholars (PhDs received late 2015 or to be conferred by July 2016) an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. Successful candidates will have a well-established research track record as demonstrated by journal publications and conference papers, as well as participation on program committees, editorial boards, and advisory panels.
While each of the Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, this position with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England specifically seeks social science/humanities candidates with critical approaches to their topics. Qualifications include a strong academic record in anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to technology or the internet and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.
The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:
– How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries, and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)
– How are social media platforms, through algorithmic design and user policies, adopting the role of intermediaries for public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)
– What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of crowdsourcing as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)
– How are predictive analytics used by law enforcement and what are the implications of new data-driven surveillance practices? (Sarah Brayne)
– What are the social and political consequences of popular computing folklore? (Kevin Driscoll)
– How are the technologies of money changing and what are the social implications of those changes? (Lana Swartz)
SMC postdocs may have the opportunity to visit and collaborate with our sister Social Media Collective members in New York City. Related projects in New York City include:
– What are the politics, ethics, and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford, MSR-NYC)
– What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute)
Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses. Postdoctoral researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2016. Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We encourage those with tenure-track job offers from other institutions to apply, so long as they can defer their start date to accept our position.
To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:
Submit an online application here.
– On the application website, indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, MA, U.S.” in the pull down menus. IF YOU DO NOT MARK THESE PREFERENCES WE WILL NOT RECEIVE YOUR APPLICATION.
– In addition to your CV and names of three referees (including your dissertation advisor) that the online application requires, upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:
- two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as two separate attachments);
- a single research statement (four page maximum length) that does the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the Social Media Collective (~one page)
After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this and are prepared to submit your letter by our application deadline of Friday 6 November, 2015. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation. You can check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application must include three submitted letters of reference.
For more information, see here.
Feel free to ask questions about the position in the comments below.