Documentary film maker Laura Poitra’s exhibit in the Whitney Museum presented an immersive installation covering issues of mass surveillance, the war on terror, Guantánamo Bay, occupation, the US drone program and torture. Some of these issues have been investigated in her films, including Citizenfour, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and in her reporting, which was awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
With that came Astro Noise: A Survival Guide For Living Under Total Surveillance, where Poitras invited authors ranging from artists and novelists to technologists and academics to respond to the modern-day state of mass surveillance. Among them are author Dave Eggers, artist Ai Weiwei, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee Lakhdar Boumediene, MSR SMC researcher Kate Crawford, and Edward Snowden. Some contributors worked directly with Poitras and the archive of documents leaked by Snowden; others contributed fictional reinterpretations of spycraft. The result is a “how-to” guide for living in a society that collects extraordinary amounts of information on individuals. A few excerpts by the different collaborators:
Laura Poitras –> Her chapter is called “Berlin Journal,” which she wrote between 2012 and 2013, when she had relocated to Europe so she could work easily without fear of having her material taken when she went into the US.
Feb 11. 2013
I read the news for fear of an arrest. It still could be a shakedown targeting Julian or Jake. Watching what i’ll do with the material. It really is a drama to understand the possible motivations/goals. I take it at face value, but why? He could have approached the NYT or the Washington Post for maximun exposure. Why reach out to a filmmaker? Because I’ve been targeted? Because he has already gone down other paths? Because he doesn’t have what he claims? (p. 86)
Kate Crawford—> Asking the Oracle
Kate compares the ancient Greek Delphic Oracle, which had restrictions for acquiring knowledge, to the unrestricted vastness of information provided by total surveillance.
So the Oracle, as a technology, set up particular restrictions and limitations. The information flow was restricted by the number of people who could visit the Oracle, by how many questions they could ask, and by the cryptic nature of the responses they received. In this sense there is strange similarity with the Snowden archive. The person seated before the search box must decide what to ask next and try to exercise restraint so as not to be drawn into thousands of documents and stories and systems. But in another sense, when analysts consult the database inside the fortresses of the NSA and the GCHQ, there seems to be little respect for limits beyond the stictures of policy. Everything that can be captured will be. The archive is an epic testament to information acquisition, overreach, and confidence. It’s as though the guiding principles of Delphi were reversed. Know Everyone. Everything in Excess. Just keep pledgdin that all the necessary protections ar ein place. (p 143)
Edward Snowden –> Astro Noise
With the right antenna, we can hear the universe’s radio noises. The stars themselves (or so it’s been theorized) can provide us an unpredictable source of information that will never be heard again in the same way. As the world turns, our antenna sweeps the vastness of the universe at a given point in time. The signals that we receive constitute an ever-changing key forged from the sky itself. Such a key could only be imitated by an agent listening from that exact same place, in that same direction, at the same time, to those exact same stars. (p. 121)
Cory Doctorow –> The Adventure of the Extraordinary Rendition
In his chapter, Cory Doctorow explores a story of Sherlock Holmes in the times of the NSA.
It’s life in prison if I go public, Mr. Holmes. These kids, their parents are in the long-term XKeyscore retention, all their communications, and they’re frantic. I read their emails to their relatives and each other, and I can only think of how I’d feel if my son had gone missing without a trace. These parents, they’re thinking that their kids have been snatched by pedos and are getting the Daily Mail front-page treatment. The truth, if they knew it, might terrify them even more. Far as I can work out, the NSA sent them to a cIA black site, the kind of place you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The kind of place you build for revenge, not for intelligence.
This is a collection of some of our researchers’ quotes, mentions, or writings in mainstream media. Topics include Facebook’s supposed neutral community standards, sharing economy workers uniting to protest, living under surveillance and relational labor in music.
And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework — one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.
“There’s a sense of workplace identity and group consciousness despite the insistence from many of these platforms that they are simply open ‘marketplaces’ or ‘malls’ for digital labor,” said Mary L. Gray, a researcher at Microsoft Research and professor in the Media School at Indiana University who studies gig economy workers.
Poitras has a show on at NYC’s Whitney Museum, Astro Noise, that is accompanied by a book in which Poitras exposes, for the first time, her intimate notes on her life in the targeting reticule of the US government at its most petty and vengeful. The book includes accompanying work by Ai Weiwei, Edward Snowden, Dave Eggers, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Lakhdar Boumediene, Kate Crawford and Cory Doctorow.
When discussing the use of social media by songwriters, Baym prefers to present a big-picture view rather than focusing on a ‘Top Ten Tips” approach, or on one platform or means of engagement. Practicality is key: “I’d love for 2016 to be the year of people getting realistic about what social media can and can’t do for you, of understanding that it’s a mode of relationship building, not a mode of broadcast,” says Baym.
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 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.
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
During her summer with us at Microsoft Research, PhD candidate Stacy Blasiola did a qualitative analysis of how Facebook users make sense of News Feed and algorithmic systems. Take a look at the presentation she did on her findings.
Presentation by intern Nathan Matias on the project he worked on during the summer at the SMC. He has continued to work on his research, so in case you have not read it here is a more updated post on his work:
We are happy to share SMC’s intern Aleena Chia’s presentation of her summer project titled “Co-creation and Algorithmic Self-Determination: A study of player feedback on game analytics in EVE Online”.
Aleena’s project summary and the videos of her presentation below:
Digital games are always already information systems designed to respond to players’ inputs with meaningful feedback (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). These feedback loops constitute a form of algorithmic surveillance that have been repurposed by online game companies to gather information about player behavior for consumer research (O’Donnell 2014). Research on player behavior gathered from game clients constitutes a branch of consumer research known as game analytics (Seif et al 2013). In conjunction with established channels of customer feedback such as player forums, surveys, polls, and focus groups, game analytics informs companies’ adjustments and augmentations to their games (Kline et al 2005). EVE Online is a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) that uses these research methods in a distinct configuration. The game’s developers assemble a democratically elected council of players tasked with the filtration of player interests from forums to inform their (1) agenda setting and (2) contextualization of game analytics in the planning and implementation of adjustments and augmentations.
This study investigates the council’s agenda setting and contextualization functions as a form of co-creation that draws players into processes of game development, as interlocutors in consumer research. This contrasts with forms of co-creation that emphasize consumers’ contributions to the production and circulation of media content and experiences (Banks 2013). By qualitatively analyzing meeting minutes between EVE Online’s player council and developers over seven years, this study suggests that co-creative consumer research draws from imaginaries of player governance caught between the twin desires of corporate efficiency and democratic efficacy. These desires are darned together through a quantitative public sphere (Peters 2001) that is enabled and eclipsed by game analytics. In other words, algorithmic techniques facilitate collective self-knowledge that players seek for co-creative deliberation; these same techniques also short circuit deliberation through claims of neutrality, immediacy, and efficiency.
The significance of this study lies in its analysis of a consumer public’s (Arvidsson 2013) ambivalent struggle for algorithmic self-determination – the determination by users through deliberative means of how their aggregated acts should be translated by algorithms into collective will. This is not primarily a struggle of consumers against corporations; nor of political principles against capitalist imperatives; nor of aggregated numbers against individual voices. It is a struggle within communicative democracy for efficiency and efficacy (Anderson 2011). It is also a struggle for communicative democracy within corporate enclosures. These struggles grind on productive contradictions that fuel the co-creative enterprise. However, while the founding vision of co-creation gestured towards a win-win state, this analysis concludes that algorithmic self-determination prioritizes efficacy over efficiency, process over product. These commitments are best served by media companies oriented towards user retention rather than recruitment, business sustainability rather than growth, and that are flexible enough to slow down their co-creative processes.
 Seif et al (2013) maintain that player behavior data is an important component of game analytics, which includes the statistical analysis, predictive modeling, optimization, and forecasting of all forms of data for decision making in game development. Other data include revenue, technical performance, and organizational process metrics.
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