my latest syllabus: “Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice”

Several years ago, I introduced a class at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism which was designed to encourage scholars in training to think more deeply about the public-facing dimensions of their work. I wanted to call the class, “How to Be a Public Intellectual,” but this is a university, so we couldn’t be that direct and practical. After some negotiation, the class became “Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice.” Click here for my latest draft of the syllabus.

Students were asked to try their hands about a range of genres (the op ed, the blog post, the digital essay, the interview) that went beyond the university press monograph and the peer-reviewed journal; they heard from faculty at USC and elsewhere who were in the trenches, using their research to make a difference in the world; they underwent media training, including time being interviewed inside a radio studio, so they could reflect upon and refine their skills at public communication; and they were encouraged to explore potential career paths which led them beyond the academy, including some time with researchers working in corporate spaces.

So much for the practice. As I am getting ready to teach the class a second time, I’ve beefed up a bit more on the theory side, using the class as a chance to work through with students a range of professional issues (including those surrounding the current economic and institutional status of universities, diversity and privilege, accessability and the conventions of academic writing, the nature of the public sphere in a networked era, the construction and performance of an academic persona, and scholarly autonomy and collaboration. These are core questions which will shape the environment in which these students will be working in the future and how they situate themselves and their research in relation to the changing world around them. 

I was struck the first time I taught this class by the way focusing on becoming a public intellectual fostered an engagement with larger questions about professional ethics. I often go back to the original meaning of the term, Professor, as in to profess, to share what you know with the world. This is not simply a self-branding strategy; this cuts to the heart of our professional obligations. There are more opportunities now for academics to share what they know with the world than ever before, more chances for us to profess and promote our ideas beyond the control of traditional gatekeepers. But doing so requires personal choices and commitments because these alternative forms of scholarship do not necessarily bring you benefits when you come up for tenure and promotion. Blogging or digital scholarship is often not considered as satisfying the old publish and perish mandate. 

I’d love to see universities reassess the value of being a public intellectual, but until they do, we need to know the risks and benefits associated with doing this kind of intervention. What we can do is shaped by our own institutional setting and professional status, but I do know that our world is a better place if our students have the skills and dispositions needed to become a public intellectual when the opportunity to make a difference in the world presents itself.

I also know that all of us — whether in academy, government, the press, or the private sector — have a vested interest in insuring that the best contemporary knowledge and thought gets out of the academic enclosure and into a wider, more citizenly discourse. I am hoping that sharing this syllabus may spark more discussions about what we can do to foster and support public intellectuals.

Click here for the draft syllabus.

Re-assembling the Assembly Line: Digital Labor Economies and Demands for an Ambient Workforce

Watch Mary Gray’s talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society where she discusses her findings from a two-year collaborative study on crowdwork –“the process of taking tasks that would normally be delegated to an employee and distributing them to a large pool of online workers, the ‘crowd,’ in the form of an open call.” In this talk she addresses ideas about the cultural meaning, political implications, and ethical demands of crowdwork.

The paradox of automation’s “last mile”

My collaborator, Siddharth Suri, and I have spent nearly 2 years studying a nascent but rapidly expanding piece of the platform economy that we call “crowdwork.” Right now, crowdwork — millions of people around the world working in concert with programmers issuing tasks to an API — fuels automation of the internet. This work requires people to contribute responses, at a moment’s notice, and benefits most from a dispersed, diverse set of responses more than the steady input of one person responding to a single call full-time. We see a moving frontier, between what machines can and can’t solve, what we call the paradox of automation’s last mile. As machines progress, they solve problems that previously only humans could solve. But with each solution a new problem — or opportunity for machine learning — presents itself. Engineers, using crowdwork, put their heads down and dig into advancing the frontier of automation once again. The humans who used to solve these now automated problems are continually displaced, as economists David Autor among others, have noted. New labor markets open up as we think of new problems that need solving. We could say that automation is a hard problem, not because of its technical barriers but because each time engineers nail a wicked problem, from voice recognition to self-driving cars, we see another social need or desire that we want to address through automation. Herein lies the paradox: we keep making progress only to find new problems to tackle. There are as many automation problems as there are perspectives on what constitutes a social need or desire and time-efficient ways to address them.


As anyone in the thick of the race to automate responses to human needs and desires knows, we are several decades away (at least) from conquering the hardest problems in automation. As we strive to solve problems, the process of drawing on human insight and creativity through crowdwork will repeat, resulting in the rapid creation and destruction of labor markets for new types of tasks. Thus, these new labor markets are, by design, extremely dynamic. Even more unpredictable: The land of IoT sensors and devices will further expand to-date unimaginable on-demand services and products delivered through the power of human-driven crowdwork. For every sensor informing an individual about an action they could take (e.g., close their refrigerator, pick up a waiting child, help a elderly family member in immediate need), crowdwork will offer new services to respond to the call, when and wherever we need it.


The problem generated by the paradox of automation’s last mile is that we treat those piecework, outsourced, now crowdworked jobs as temporary and marginal, always secondary to the “real jobs” in our economy. Crowdwork and the critical role of workers driving the on-demand economy illustrate that contingent labor is no longer exceptional. Arguably, it never was. It’s just been undervalued or rendered invisible, overshadowed by the mystifying and dazzling machines we build to do what humans can do.


The reality is that innovations in automation and on-demand economies are completely dependent on human labor because of the paradox of automation’s last mile. Right now, the effort to automate relies on crowdwork — people making themselves available to programmers and customers issuing requests for help through an API. Even if one believes most work can be automated, let’s consider the (long!) stretch of time (and all the productive possibilities) between this moment and the singularity as a chance to rethink the structure and meaning of employment. We can no longer afford to ignore the people—whether they work 40 hours or 40 minutes a week—undeniably vital to advancing automation or delivering the goods and services that make on-demand economies work. I think that’s a good thing for all of society to accept.


My First Year On The Rural Side of the Digital Divide

This post originally appeared on Cyborgology as part of its “Small Town Internet” issue. Since I was thinking about several SMC members’ research while writing this, and worked on this post while co-writing with Jessa Lingel, I thought it apropos to post it here as well. There’s a lot more to be said about rural internet experiences and larger issues around social media, infrastructure, internet policy, digital inequities, etc, and I hope to write more about some of these topics soon.

I moved to rural Kansas a over a year ago. I live beyond Lawrence city limits, on the outskirts of Stull (where local legend places one of the gateways to hell), and 50 minutes driving to the nearest Google Fiber connection. It’s a liminal space in terms of broadband connection – the fastest network in the country is being built in the neighboring metropolitan area but when I talked to my neighbors about internet service providers in our area, they were confused by my quest for speeds higher than 1mbps. As this collection of essays on “small town internet” suggests, there’s an awareness that internet in rural, small town, and “remote” places exists, but we need to understand more about how digital connection is incorporated (or not) into small town and rural life: how it’s used, and what it feels like to use it.

One of my ongoing projects involves researching digital divides and digital inclusion efforts in Kansas City. The arrival of Google Fiber in Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO has provided increased momentum and renewed impetus for recognition of digital divides based on cost, access, education and computer literacy, relevance, mobility, and more discussion and visibility for organizations and activists hoping to alleviate some of these divides and emphasize internet access as a utility. I’ve argued that by reading digital media in relationship to experiences of “place,” we gain a more holistic and nuanced understanding of digital media use and non-use, processes and decisions around implementation and adoption, and our relationships to digital artifacts and infrastructures. In other words, one’s location and sense of place become important factors in shaping practices, decisions, and experiences of digital infrastructure and digital media.

The irony is not lost on me that while studying digital divides in a metropolitan area, I had chosen to live in a location with its own, unique series of inequities in terms of internet connection. These inequities have nothing to do with socio-economic instability or lack of digital literacy, as I had funds and willingness to pay a significant amount for internet service (comparable to the prices charged by urban-based, corporate ISPs), and everything to do with the fact that I lived in an area that felt as if it had been forgotten or intentionally bypassed by the internet service providers (ISPs) I had come to know living in other US cities and towns.

In this essay, I want to recount a few of the ways that my relationship to internet infrastructure and ISPs has changed since moving out to the country. (My relationship to social media and my social and economic dependence on internet connection has shifted as well, which I plan to write about elsewhere.) I’m speaking to my experience of digital connection and digital practices “after access,” from within a certain type of digital connectivity. I don’t claim that these interpretations or experiences are generalizable or representative, but they’re some of my initial observations having been an ubiquitously connected, digitally literate, urban dweller for the majority of my life and now living the last year and a half of residence in a rural place.

After moving in, I realized that although our house was advertised as having “high speed internet,” this didn’t mean a wired, cable broadband connection or even DSL, as we weren’t in either of these coverage areas. An internet connection meant that we could connect via two strictly data-capped options: satellite, 4G provided by a cell phone company, or a pay as you go 4G connection. Various blogs and forums hosting threads on ISP options overflowed with warnings about the high prices, data caps, and unreliability of satellite internet connections in rural environments and otherwise.

I posted on social media outlets and contacted friends about my frustrations with my internet access options and received suggestions to contact the cable company and ask them to expand their service to our area, offers to come to friends houses to use the internet, and empathy from people who grew up in rural areas sending condolences for the fact that I would never binge watch anything again. It might sound frivolous to some, but I admit that the thought of not being able to stream anything ever, Skype or share photos with friends and family members, and difficulty downloading large files did make me panic. I’d rather not fall victim to varieties of information, participation and culture gaps and I regularly need to stream, upload and download large files in order to do my job.

The local cable monopoly first offered us service over an old Motorola Canopy network at a maximum of 1mbps upload and download speeds. I had never consciously thought about the sheer amount of emails I received that included or requested attachments until I was unable to send one consistently from my home computer. Before the end of the first week the sound of an email arriving in my inbox while I was at home made me anxious. It meant that I would have to wait until the next time I was in town to respond with a comment other than, “I can’t send the attachment until tomorrow, I have limited access to the internet right now,” a euphemism which frustrated me and I thought made me sounds like a slacker. I cancelled the service after the two-week trial.

Now, I love my internet service provider, which is something I never thought I’d ever say. I have feelings of gratitude for them. They’re a local company who, according to their mission statement, saw “a lack of adequate Internet service options available to rural Northeast Kansas communities” and decided to build their own point-to-multipoint, line of sight network to service to our area. In 2008, they acquired another local ISP owned and operated by an area high school and later migrated their network from Motorola Canopy to 4G. They retrofitted the Canopy network antenna that the previous owner of our house had left, installed a 6 foot pole antenna on the roof of our house, and located a direct line of site to one of their towers. We now average around 5 mbps upload and download speeds. Although we experience noticeable lag time as compared to our workplace connections, and Skype, VoIP, and streaming often crash due to poor internet connection – we have a generally reliable connection with no data caps and at less than half the cost of any service provider in town.

This type of internet connectivity looks and feels different as well. The equipment that powers my connection demands more conscious and haptic attention. The pole and antenna mounted to my roof are taller than the rest of the house and are the first things you see from the driveway. I can see part of the tower that powers my internet, as well as two others that use the canopy network, across the prairie. I have to tend to my equipment. I often have to touch the antenna and pole to adjust them after being blown by strong winds and I’m regularly unplugging and pushing buttons to reset the router. The “seamfulness” of the experience makes me think about the “wires” and wireless frequencies, how they work or don’t work and why, in a way I never did while living in cities. For me, the infrastructure is very tangible and visible, which makes me think of myself as a digitally connected person more than ever before. I feel more connected to my connection, and more responsible for making it work.

I’ve wondered about the potential for mesh networks in my rural area. Mesh networks are decentralized, redundant, often inexpensive networks powered by antennae that act as both access points and routers, repeating wireless signals in a mesh-like configuration. In conversations with digital inclusion activists and community network organizations in urban areas, mesh networks are often suggested or already serve as a powerful alternative to more traditional ISPs and the networks they provide. However, the technical problem of distance persists as houses, barns, silos, garages, and other structures where antennae might be mounted can be over several miles away. More complicated is the fact that the pre-existing social structures and norms around proximity and sharing are also very different from cities or more densely populated areas. People who live out here tend to live “alone together.” I live closer to and encounter my neighbors’ cows, dogs, goats, and chickens than the people who own them, and where minimal (albeit friendly) interaction between people is the norm. There’s not much we share in terms of services and utilities: we pay for utilities individually, often from different service providers. The area is purely residential for miles and the commercial and family farms and orchards don’t have direct sales on premises. In many ways each household feels like a self-sustaining unit with their individual tanks of propane, tornado shelters, livestock, and food crops. I often wonder how introducing an infrastructure built on shared internet connection would mesh with these pre-existing social networks. But at the same time, I wish someone would propose a network like that out here, or finally send up those balloons.

“Critical algorithm studies” reading list

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.


Platformation: Greetings from the future of work!

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.