Heading to the Courthouse for Sandvig v. Sessions

E._Barrett_Prettyman_Federal_Courthouse,_DC

(or: Research Online Should Not Be Illegal)

I’m a college professor. But on Friday morning I won’t be in the classroom, I’ll be in courtroom 30 in the US District Courthouse on Constitution Avenue in Washington DC. The occasion? Oral arguments on the first motion in Sandvig v. Sessions.

You may recall that the ACLU, academic researchers (including me), and journalists are bringing suit against the government to challenge the constitutionality of “The Worst Law in Technology” — the US law that criminalizes most online research. Our hopes are simple: Researchers and reporters should not fear prosecution or lawsuits when we seek to obtain information that would otherwise be available to anyone, by visiting a Web site, recording the information we see there, and then publishing research results based on what we find.

As things stand, the misguided US anti-hacking law, called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), makes it a crime if a computer user “exceeds authorized access.” What is authorized access to a Web site? Previous court decisions and the federal government have defined it as violating the site’s own stated “Terms of Service,” (ToS) but that’s ridiculous. The ToS is a wish-list of what corporate lawyers dream about, written by corporate lawyers. (Crazy example, example, example.) ToS sometimes prohibit people from using Web sites for research, they prohibit users from saying bad things about the corporation that runs the Web site, they prohibit users from writing things down. They should not be made into criminal violations of the law.

In the latest developments of our case, the government has argued that Web servers are private property, and that anyone who exceeds authorized access is trespassing “on” them. (“In” them? “With” them? It’s a difficult metaphor.) In other cases the CFAA was used to say that because Web servers are private, users are also wasting capacity on these servers, effectively stealing a server’s processing cycles that the owner would rather use for other things. I visualize a cartoon thief with a bag of electrons.

Are Internet researchers and data journalists “trespassing” and “stealing”? These are the wrong metaphors. Lately I’ve been imagining what would happen in the world of print if the CFAA metaphors were our guide back when the printing press were invented.

If you picked up a printed free newspaper like Express, the Metro, or the Chicago Reader at a street corner and the CFAA applied to it, there would be a lengthy “Terms of Readership” printed on an inside page in very small type. Since these are advertising-supported publications, it would say that people who belong to undesirable demographics are trespassing on the printed page if they attempt to read it. After all, the newspaper makes no money from readers who are not part of a saleable advertising audience. In fact, since the printing presses are private property, unwanted readers are stealing valuable ink and newsprint that should be reserved for the paper’s intended readers. To cover all the bases, readers would be forbidden from writing anything based on what they read in the paper if the paper’s owners wouldn’t like it. And readers could be sued by the newspaper or prosecuted by the federal government if they did any of these things. The scenario sounds foolish and overblown, but it’s the way that Web sites work now under the CFAA.

Another major government argument has been that we researchers and journalists have nothing to be concerned about because prosecutors will use this law with the appropriate discretion. Any vagueness is OK because we can trust them. Concern by researchers and reporters is groundless.

Yet federal prosecutors have a terrible record when it comes to the CFAA. And the idea that online platforms want to silence research and journalism is not speculative. After our lawsuit was filed, the Streaming Heritage research team funded by the Swedish Research Council (similar to the US National Science Foundation) received shocking news: Spotify’s lawyers had contacted the Research Council and asked the council to take “resolute action” against the project, suggesting it had violated “applicable law.” Professors Snickars, Vonderau, and others were studying the Spotify platform. What “law” did Spotify claim was being violated? The site’s own Terms of Service. (Here’s a description of what happened. Note: It’s in Swedish.)

This demand occurred just after a member of the research team appeared in a news story that characterized Spotify in a way that Spotify apparently did not like. Luckily, Sweden does not have the CFAA, and terms of service there do not hold the force of law. The Research Council repudiated Spotify’s claim that research studying private platforms was unethical and illegal if it violated the terms of service. Researchers and journalists in other countries need the same protection.

More Information

The full text of the motions in the case is available on the ACLU Web site. In our most recent filing there is an excellent summary of the case and the issues, starting on p. 6. You do not need to read the earlier filings for this to make sense.

There was a burst of news coverage when our lawsuit was filed. Standout pieces include the New Yorker’sHow an Old Hacking Law Hampers the Fight Against Online Discrimination” and “When Should Hacking Be Legal?” in The Atlantic.

The ACLU’s Rachel Goodman has recently published a short summary of how to do research under the shadow of the CFAA. It is titled as a tipsheet for “Data Journalism” but it applies equally well to academic researchers. A longer version co-authored with Esha Bhandari is also available.

(Note that I filed this lawsuit as a private citizen and it does not involve my university.)

IMAGE CREDIT: AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons

Spike in Online Gig Work: Flash in the Pan or Future of Employment?

Most conventional jobs involve hierarchy. A boss divvies up work to the office’s full-time employees awaiting direction and a green light. While still true for the majority of American workers, a growing number of people are picking up work online — accepting jobs with companies that assign, schedule, route, and pay for work through websites or mobile apps. This on-demand “gig work” is unraveling the typical job. Yet none of our current workplace statistics or labor laws reckon with the new employment reality turning APIs into shift managers. Our research team spent the past two years conducting one of the largest, most comprehensive studies of its kind to learn about the lives of on-demand gig workers. One of our greatest challenges was that we didn’t have a representative sample of American workers that could validate and enrich our findings. That is…until now.

We shared our survey questions and preliminary findings with the Pew Research Center for Internet, Science and Tech as they designed their survey, “Gig Work, Online Selling and Home Sharing.” Pew wanted to develop a better way to gauge how many people, from a representative sample of the U.S. population, participate in gig work, ridesharing (think apps like Uber and Lyft) and homesharing (via sites like Airbnb and VRBO). It is hard to get a good headcount of those earning an income in the gig economy because the words to describe these jobs change with the launch of a new on-demand service or court case challenging what it means to “work” for a mobile app. Ridesharing and homesharing are more visible in the media. But a variety of jobs are quietly shifting online to become on-demand gig work, too. TaskRabbit and Thumbtack, for example, connect consumers with trade workers available to do the task. Crowdflower and Amazon Mechanical Turk are two of the more popular “crowdsourcing” platforms. They offer companies a way to post tasks online to a pool of people who have signed up to sift through the platform’s online listings of work opportunities. These public crowdsourcing platforms are the tip of the spear. Today, nearly every large tech company developing artificial intelligence uses proprietary services like these. The on-demand labor that AI-fueled jobs create is hard to measure, let alone see. The typical jobs performed on these platforms are white-collar office gigs, like transcribing audio, labeling images, and reviewing social media material flagged as “adult content” or “not safe for work.”

Before Pew’s report, scholars and policymakers had only the Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements survey, last run in 2005, to estimate the size and growth rate of this workforce. A lot has changed since then but worker surveys never caught up with the technology trends radically altering the workplace.

The Pew’s findings confirmed everything we learned. It is the perfect complement to our roughly 200 in-person interviews, tens of thousands of survey responses, dozens of behavioral experiments and big data analyses of gig work platforms. It also spotlights how quickly temp and contract work have changed for U.S. workers since the Great Recession.

According to the Pew report, about 5% of the U.S. population, or 1-in-20 people, does some form of online gig work. To put that in perspective, online gig work was a far more common source of income than homesharing (at about 2%) or ridesharing (around 1%).

How important is earning money from gig work to those who do it? Are we talking about college students earning beer money or people trying to put food on the table? According to Pew:

· Only 8% of those surveyed said the money they earned from selling goods online is “essential for meeting my basic needs.”

· Eighteen percent said the same of money earned from homesharing.

· But roughly one quarter of those doing gig work reported that the money they earned was essential for meeting their basic needs.

· Another one quarter said the money was important.

According to the Pew analysis, “workers who describe the income they earn from these platforms as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ are more likely to come from low-income households, more likely to be non-white and more likely to have not attended college.”

The reliance on gig work income reported in the Pew survey is echoed in our own survey of over 2,000 gig workers, collected across 4 different platforms. Over half of our study’s respondents reported that they had a minimum amount of money that they needed to make that month from gig work.

Part of gig work’s appeal is a chance to manage one’s own workflows. Of the people who said doing gig work was “essential” or “important” in the Pew survey:

· Just under half reported that they do this work because they have a “need to control their own schedule.”

· Another quarter said there was a “lack of other jobs where they live.”

In fact, according to one of our study’s experiments, gig workers were willing to take somewhere between a $0.40/hour and $0.80/hour pay cut to work on tasks that allowed them some degree of control over when they complete the task. And almost every one of our interview participants described balancing care for a loved one or completing a school program as the kind of constraint that pushed them to seek online work. Clearly, people do this kind of work because they need the job, they need to control their schedules and/or they don’t have a lot of employment options in their hometowns.

Pay attention to online gig work because it is dramatically reshaping our society. Labor economists Lawrence Katz and Al Krueger estimate that conventional temp and alternative contract-driven work rose from 10 to 16%, accounting for all net employment growth in the US economy in the past decade. Assuming Pew’s trends continue at the current rate, by the year 2027, nearly 1 in 3 American adults will transition to online platforms to support themselves with on-demand gig work. This is only bad news if we do nothing to change the outdated laws and structures in place to support working people. Ignoring corporate and consumer dependency on an on-demand gig workforce is not a sustainable strategy.

Pew’s study is robust proof that the world of work — what we spend most of our time doing — is quickly moving online. Platform start-ups are cropping up every day to connect people directly with employers for short-term gig work. There is no evidence that this trend will reverse and every indication that the move to on-demand gig work is well underway. The future of work will look more like the apps and web-based platforms that we have been studying the past two years than the “traditional” employment around (some of us) today. These workers may be difficult to see but they are vital to the future of our economy. Our country cannot afford to leave them behind.


Siddharth Suri (@ssuri) is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, New York City. Mary L. Gray (@maryLgray) is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Associate Professor at Indiana University and Fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. They are writing a book about workers’ experiences of the on-demand economy. You can read more about their research at inthecrowd.org.

Architecture or Minecraft?

(or, “Hopefully 4chan Won’t Hear About This Contest”)

The social-media-ification of everything continues. If you’ve got time for some late-summer procrastination, thanks to the Internet you can choose the design of my house.

As you may have read here two weeks ago, I’m crowdsourcing it. The first competition is over and I received 16 entries — above average for arcbazar.com. That means anyone on the Internet can now help pick a winner. I’d say there are some great designs and many awful ones.

My needs attracted designers from Nigeria, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, Vietnam, Mexico, and Indonesia. But also London, Texas, and my very own town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Submissions are anonymous, but Arcbazar maps their self-reported locations:
arcbazar map.png

Anyone can submit–no credentials required. So far I don’t think it’s “the worst thing to happen to architecture since the Internet started” but there’s still plenty of time for this to go sideways on me. The next step is voting.

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the young architect Howard Roark says, “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.” Like Rand’s protagonist, I think some of my designers refused to compromise their unique vision. To give you the flavor, here are some comments my friends made about the low points:

“This house looks like the head of a Minecraft pig”:

BARNSK

 

For reference:

barnpig

 

We asked for a barn-like building with a gambrel roof. That was a requirement. To write this requirement, “gambrel” is a word I had to look up. Google says:

gambrel roof

I think some of the designers really struggled with it! A friend said: “It looks like this building fell down and broke its spine.”

broken roof

 

“This appears to be a car dealership.”:

arcbazar concept

 

You can help choose the winner here: (You need to sign up for a free login.)

There are two separate things to do at this link — voting and commenting. Anyone with an arcbazar login can vote: it’s a numerical rating in five categories.

To vote click “Vote now!” when you are looking at a particular entry. This affects the rankings.

arcbazar vote now link

 

To comment and to read other people’s comments, click the word “Evaluations” when you are looking at a particular entry. You need a Facebook login to add a comment.

arcbazar evaluations link

 

Stay tuned. More updates here as the process unfolds.

 

I crowdsourced the design of my house

(or, “The Social-Media-ification of Everything”)

The architecture crowdsourcing Web site Arcbazar has been called “The Worst Thing to Happen To Architecture Since the Internet Started.” The site also got some press recently by running a parallel, unauthorized architecture competition for the “people’s choice” for the design of the Obama Presidential Library.

arcbazar screen shot home page
The arcbazar welcome page. (click to enlarge)

I’ve decided to use arcbazar.com to run two architectural competitions for my house. My competitions started yesterday (links below), in case you want to see this play out in real time.

Most of the attention given to arcbazar has been about labor, safety, and value. Discussion has centered around possible changes to the profession of architecture. Does it lower standards? Will it put architecture jobs and credentials in jeopardy?

Yet as a social media researcher the part of arcbazar that has my attention is what I would call the “social media-ification of everything.”

Anyone with a free arcbazar account can submit a design or act as a juror for submitted designs, and as the Web site has evolved it has added features that evoke popular social media platforms. Non-architects are asked to vote on designs, and the competitions use familiar social media features and metaphors like a competition “wall.”

Here are my competitions. You need a free account to look at them.

This means YOU could design my house, so please choose wisely. (One friend said: “You realize your house is going to be renamed Housey McHouseFace.”) Keep your fingers crossed for me that this works out well. Some of the submitted designs for past competitions are a little… odd…

obama building shaped like obamas name
Who wouldn’t want a house in the shape of their own name? (click to enlarge)

Why I Am Suing the Government — Update

[This is an old postSEE ALSO: The most recent blog post about this case.]

Last month I joined other social media researchers and the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the US Government to protect the legal right to conduct online research. This is newly relevant today because a community of devs interested in public policy started a petition in support of our court case. It is very nice of them to make this petition. Please consider signing it and sharing this link.

PETITION: Curiosity is (not) a crime
http://slashpolicy.com/petition/curiosity-is-not-a-crime/


For more context, see last month’s post: Why I Am Suing the Government.

 

Why I Am Suing the Government

(or: I write scripts, bots, and scrapers that collect online data)

[This is an old postSEE ALSO: The most recent blog post about this case.]

I never thought that I would sue the government. The papers went in on Wednesday, but the whole situation still seems unreal. I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and a social scientist who studies the Internet, and I ran afoul of what some have called the most hated law on the Internet.

Others call it the law that killed Aaron Swartz. It’s more formally known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the dangerously vague federal anti-hacking law. The CFAA is so broad, you might have broken it. The CFAA has been used to indict a MySpace user for adding false information to her profile, to convict a non-programmer of “hacking,” to convict an IT administrator of deleting files he was authorized to access, and to send a dozen FBI agents to the house of a computer security researcher with their guns drawn.

Most famously, prosecutors used the CFAA to threaten Reddit co-founder and Internet activist Aaron Swartz with 50 years in jail for an act of civil disobedience — his bulk download of copyrighted scholarly articles. Facing trial, Swartz hung himself at age 26.

The CFAA is alarming. Like many researchers in computing and social science, writing scripts, bots, or scrapers that collect online data is a normal part of my work. I routinely teach my students how to do it in my classes. Now that all sorts of activities have moved online — from maps to news to grocery shopping — studying people means now means studying people online and thus gathering online data. It’s essential. 

Les raboteurs de parquet (cropped)

Image: Les raboteurs de parquet by Gustave Caillebotte (cropped)
SOURCE: Wikipedia

Yet federal charges were brought against someone who was downloading publicly available Web pages.

People might think of the CFAA as a law about hacking with side effects that are a problem for computer security researchers. But the law affects anyone who does social research, or who needs access to public information. 

I work at a public institution. My research is funded by taxes and is meant for the greater good. My results are released publicly. Lately, my research designs have been investigating illegal fraud and discrimination online, evils that I am trying to stop. But the CFAA made my research designs too risky. A chief problem is that any clause in a Web site’s terms of service can become enforceable under the CFAA.

I found that crazy. Have you ever read a terms of service agreement? Verizon’s terms of service prohibited anyone using a Verizon service from saying bad things about Verizon. As it says in the legal complaint, some terms of service prohibit you from writing things down (as in, with a pen) if you saw them on a particular — completely public — Web page.

These terms of service aren’t laws, they’re statements written by Web site owners describing what they’d like to happen if they ran the universe. But the current interpretation of the CFAA says that we must judge what is authorized on the Web by reading a site’s terms of service to see what has been prohibited. If you violate the terms of service, the current CFAA mindset is: you’re hacking.

That means anything a Web site owner writes in the terms of service effectively becomes the law, and these terms can change at any time.

Did you know that terms of service can expressly prohibit the use of a Web site by researchers? Sites effectively prohibit research by simply outlawing any saving or republication of their contents, even if they are public Web pages. Dice.com forbids “research or information gathering,” while LinkedIn says you can’t “copy profiles and information of others through any means” including “manual” means. You also can’t “[c]ollect, use, copy, or transfer any information obtained from LinkedIn,” or “use the information, content or data of others.” (This begs the question: How would the intended audience possibly use LindedIn and follow these rules? Memorization?)

As a researcher, I was appalled by the implications, once they sunk in. The complaint I filed this week has to do with my research on anti-discrimination laws, but it is not too broad to say this: The CFAA, as things stand, potentially blocks all online research. Any researcher who uses information from Web sites could be at risk from the provision in our lawsuit. That’s why others have called this case “key to the future of social science.”

If you are a researcher and you think other researchers would be interested in this information, please share this information. We need to get the word out that the present situation is untenable.

NEW: There is now an online petition started by a cool group of policy-minded devs on our behalf. Please consider signing and sharing it.

The ACLU is providing my legal representation, and in spirit I feel that they have taken this case on behalf of all researchers and journalists. If you care about this issue and you’d like to help, I urge you to contribute.

 

Want more? Here is an Op-Ed that I co-authored with my co-plaintiff Prof. Karrie Karahalios:

Most of what you do online is illegal. Let’s end the absurdity.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/30/cfaa-online-law-illegal-discrimination

Here is the legal complaint:

Sandvig v. Lynch
https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/sandvig-v-lynch-complaint

Here is a press release about the lawsuit:

ACLU Challenges Law Preventing Studies on “Big Data” Discrimination
https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-challenges-law-preventing-studies-big-data-discrimination

Here is some of the news coverage:

Researchers Sue the Government Over Computer Hacking Law
https://www.wired.com/2016/06/researchers-sue-government-computer-hacking-law/

New ACLU lawsuit takes on the internet’s most hated hacking law
http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/29/12058346/aclu-cfaa-lawsuit-algorithm-research-first-amendment

Do Housing and Jobs Sites Have Racist Algorithms? Academics Sue to Find Out
http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/06/do-housing-jobs-sites-have-racist-algorithms-academics-sue-to-find-out/

When Should Hacking Be Legal?
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/when-should-hacking-be-legal/489785/

Please note that I have filed suit as a private citizen and not as an employee of the University.

[Updated on 7/2 with additional links.]

[Updated on 8/3 with the online petition.]

 

Hacker activism

(This post is a slightly-tweaked version of a talk I gave as a respondant to Gabriella Coleman’s recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m grateful to DCC for inviting me, and to Biella Coleman for provoking these ideas.)

There is something both over and under-determined about the word “hacker.” On the one hand, “hacker” has come to encompass a broad sweep of practices far beyond those most narrowly associated with an entity like Anonymous, a collective that leverages computing technology to engage in pranks and protests, memes and civil disobedience. Hacking also encompasses (with varying degrees of earnestness) DIY home repair, highly-commercialized software maintenance and non-code-based trickery and mischief on any number of platforms, from newspaper comment forums to Amazon reviews. Even in this brief cataloging, hacking bears the weight of a diverse range of references. On the other hand, and perhaps a key cause of the aforementioned definitional blurriness, hacking defies concrete conceptual confinement, a vague, residual category of practices, mostly those practices that actively resist the very stability required for classification.

A number of internet and media studies scholars have made important contributions that both draw from and clarify this ambiguity, recuperating the political capacity of hacker praxis (not unlike Heller-Roazen’s work on pirates), reorienting previously dominant stereotypes of hackers as loaner, criminals and/or perverts. Starting from the premise that hacker communities can do important political work, I’m interested in using community as a lens for imagining what hackers have done and might do in terms of activist projects. In particular, I want to set up a comparison between the political actions of hackers and that of in-person direct action.  Hacking is (or can be) deeply political.  But in what ways is it activist?

Continue reading “Hacker activism”

17 Games that Showcase Gaming

(or, interactive art & entertainment: a short tour)

OK, dear readers, it’s time for some BuzzFeed-style content here on the Social Media Collective.

You want to understand digital media, right? You occasionally like to play a game, right?

I’m pleased to revisit and refresh my list of games that quickly demonstrate what is possible in digital gaming. Sort of: “digital games, a short tour.” With this list, you can inexpensively, briefly play one game every day and at the end of it all you’ve had a broad experience of what digital games can do.

To keep your attention, this blog post is illustrated with a few choice screen shots from games on the list. Like this one:

undertale like LIKE you

Undertale [2015]

The ground rules. Games on the list must be:

  • a computer game
  • easy-to-learn-to-play (Not necessarily “easy.”)
  • free, cheap ($10 or less), or have a meaningful playable demo
  • quick, or at least quick to get into the substance (They need not be “casual” but casual is OK. If there’s a long tutorial before you get to the good stuff, forget it.)
  • more likely to be from obscure, independent producers
  • representing some aspect of gaming so that the complete list captures much of what is possible (The goal is breadth, within the limits of cheap, quick, and easy-to-learn.)
  • the kind of thing that does not require unusual hardware or software (Games that can be played in a browser are ideal. Multi-platform games are great. Games that can be played with an downloaded emulator are OK. Games only playable on the Vectrex will not work.)

 

flow-game-screenshot-6-b

Flow [2006]

I posted the rationale for the above requirements a while back if you’re curious. (I originally made this list as part of my course Play and Technology.)

Note that the games don’t have to be new — in fact classic or influential games are a big plus. Technically I shouldn’t even care if the games are fun; they are supposed to broaden your perspective about what is possible. But don’t worry, these are fun.

Keep in mind that with the above requirements (free! obscure!) you won’t find AAA graphics and celebrity voices. Although some of these games are quite beautiful, there’s definitely less polish than average. Indeed, you could say these contenders tend toward the bizarre. But that’s OK. In the words of Mettaton, “Who needs arms with legs like these?”

But taking this tour is a great way to expand your perspective about digital game genres if you haven’t spent a lot of time with indies. And who doesn’t like a quick browser game? Vin Diesel understands.

vin diesel dnd screenshot

(ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You [2015]

I’ll mark games on the list with [*] if they are super-duper quick, so you can jump right in if you want to.

Okay, without further ado, here is the list.

The 17 (Quick, Cheap, Easy-to-Learn) Games that Showcase (the Breadth of Potential in Digital) Gaming:

  1. Undertale. [2015] ($10. This is the RPG where each monster does their best. At first it looks like straight nostalgia, until you realize what is actually going on. Would you kiss a ghost? HECK YEAH.)
  2. TIS-100 [2015] ($7. The puzzler’s puzzler. Motto: “It’s the assembly language programming game you never asked for!” This counts as easy-to-learn because its goal is to be “almost inscrutable,” and it succeeds immediately.)
  3. (ASMR) Vin Diesel DMing a Game of D&D Just For You [2015] (Free. Yes that entire thing is the name. That title really describes it quite well, except that there is no ASMR. It’s a text adventure.) [*]
  4. Passage [2007] (cost: free, format: side-scroller, crying: possibly, difficult to explain: yes) [*]
  5. Thirty Flights of Loving [2013] ($5. Demolitions! Mechanic! Sharpshooter! Confectioner! Anita does it all. Time for a blast of narrative.) [*]
  6. Diner Dash [2004] (Free. The game that took StarCraft casual. Heck it’s the game that took casual casual. It’s real-time resource management. Hurry up, it’s closing time.) [*]
  7. dys4ia [2012] (Free. A game about identity that is also an autobiographical journal.) [*]
  8. Flow [2006/2013] (Free to download or $6 on PSN. Action/arcade, with a twist or two. Play the rebooted version on your biggest available screen.) [*]
  9. Façade [2004] (Free. This game pioneered a new direction in conversational AI. It’s an uncanny cross between an RPG and a chat session. The New York Times said it was “the future of games” in 2004, but Trip told me “you know what? I think you should leave.”)
  10. SissyFight 2000 [2000/2014] (Free. Take the trash-talk out of the CoD lobby and put it where it belongs… in the schoolyard. SissyFight is multiplayer game theory, people. And by “game theory” I mean the John Nash kind.) Oops, it looks like the 2014 Kickstarter reboot doesn’t work. I see a lot of bug reports and no players. 😦
  11. A Series of Gunshots. [2015] (Free. Quite a different take on the shooter.) [*]
  12. Papers, Please [2013] ($10. A morality puzzler/RPG crossover you might actually be able to finish, unlike the other puzzler on this list.)
  13. QWOP [2010] (Free. A paragon of simulation. You’ll scorn those games with a simple “run” button after you get the chance to individually operate each of your hips and knees.) [*]
  14. Candy Box 2 [2013] (Free. It’s time-based click-farming that forges a new relationship to time, and to clicks. Or at least a new relationship to the game developer.)
  15. FTL [2012/2014] ($10 with a great iPad interface. Roguelike. “Please accept these small cakes made from stiff dough.” This is space exploration with character, and a great way to practice dying over and over.)
  16. Habbo Hotel. [2000-present] (Free. It’s a MOO! Sort of. Motto: “A strange place with awesome people. Get noticed!”)
  17. EnviroBear [2000/2010] (Free for PC, $1 for Android/iPhone. No list of games is complete without a driving game. Here’s a driving game where the premise is that you are a one-armed bear trying to drive a car. You may also get to wear a hat.) [*]

But there are so many great games I’ve left off the list! It makes me so mad I almost want to give the “throw baby” command.

throwbaby

Peasant’s Quest [2004]

So here are some Honorable Mentions:

  1. Ultra Business Tycoon III. [2013] (Free. A text adventure that feels like André Breton may have been involved somehow — but I have too many text adventures on the list already.)
  2. Peasant’s Quest. [2004] (Free. This is a fantastic game but it only works if you are already very familiar with the “Quest” series of split-screen adventure games it is parodying.)
  3. Journey. [2013] ($15 Wonderful but just too expensive for our rules. Also too long.)

 

3

A Series of Gunshots (2015)

An acknowledgement: Great suggestions above came from Mia Consalvo, Adrienne Massanari, Alex Pieschel, and Leigh Alexander.

17 is kind of a weird number, and this list is always in revision. What am I missing?

I worry that I’ve given short shrift to arcade games, as only Flow and EnviroBear represent that experience, and they’re far from representative. Likewise, my “shooter” isn’t a real shooter. My “driving game” isn’t a real driving game, etc. To cover the range of what people actually do when they play games, it seems like I should have a game more obviously about chance or gambling. 

I’ve got games about confectioners covered though.

30flightsconfectioner

Thirty Flights of Loving (2013)

Let’s fix this tour. Please post your suggestions, people.

 

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.

The Future of Work

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.