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

(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.]

 

The OKCupid data release fiasco: It’s time to rethink ethics education

In mid 2016, we confront another ethical crisis related to personal data, social media, the public internet, and social research. This time, it’s a release of some 70,0000 OKCupid users’ data, including some very intimate details about individuals. Responses from several communities of practice highlight the complications of using outdated modes of thinking about ethics and human subjects when considering new opportunities for research through publicly accessible or otherwise easily obtained data sets (e.g., Michael Zimmer produced a thoughtful response in Wired and Kate Crawford pointed us to her recent work with Jacob Metcalf on this topic). There are so many things to talk about in this case, but here, I’d like to weigh in on conversations about how we might respond to this issue as university educators.

The OKCupid case is just the most recent of a long list of moments that reveal how doing something because it is legal is no guarantee that it is ethical. To invoke Kate Crawford’s apt Tweet from March 3, 2016:

This is a key point of confusion, apparently. Michael Zimmer, reviewing multiple cases of ethical problems emerging when large datasets are released by researchers emphasizes the flaw in this response, noting:

This logic of “but the data is already public” is an all-too-familiar refrain used to gloss over thorny ethical concerns (in Wired).

In the most recent case, the researcher in question, Emil Kirkegaard, uses this defense in response to questions asking if he anonymized the data: “No. Data is already public.” I’d like to therefore add a line to Crawford’s simple advice:

Data comes from people. Displaying it for the world to see can cause harm.

A few days after this data was released, it was removed from the Open Science Framework, after a DMCA claim by OKCupid. Further legal action could follow. All of this is a good step toward protecting the personal data of users, but in the meantime, many already downloaded and are now sharing the dataset in other forms. As Scott Weingart, digital humanities specialist at Carnegie Mellon, warns:

As a long term university educator, a faculty member at the same university where Kirkegaard is pursuing his Masters degree, and a researcher of digital ethics, this OKCupid affair frustrates me: How is it possible that we continue to reproduce this logic, despite the multiple times “it’s publicly accessible therefore I can do whatever I want with it” has proved harmful? We must attribute some responsibility to existing education systems. Of course, the problem doesn’t start there and “education system” can be a formal institution or simply the way we learn as everyday knowledge is passed around in various forms. So there are plenty of arenas where we learn (or fail to learn) to make good choices in situations fraught with ethical complexity. Let me offer a few trajectories of thought:

What data means to regulators

The myth of “data is already public, therefore ethically fine to use for whatever” persists because traditional as well as contemporary legal and regulatory statements still make a strong distinction between public and private. This is no longer a viable distinction, if it ever was. When we define actions or information as being either in the private or the public realm, this sets up a false binary that is not true in practice or perception. Information is not a stable object that emerges in and remains located in a particular realm or sphere. Data becomes informative or is noticed only when it becomes salient for some reason. On OKCupid or elsewhere, people publish their picture, religious affiliation, or sexual preference in a dating profile as part of a performance of their identity for someone else to see. This placement of information is intended to be part of an expected pattern of interaction — someone is supposed to see and respond to this information, which might then spark conversation or a relationship. This information is not chopped up into discrete units in either a public or private realm. Rather, it is performative and relational. When we only access regulatory language, the more nuanced subtleties of context are rendered invisible.

What data means to people who produce it

Whether information or data is experienced or felt as something public or private is quite different from the information itself. Violation of privacy can be an outcome at any point. This is not related to the data, but the ways in which the data is used. From this standpoint, data can only logically exist as part of continual flows of timespace contexts; therefore, to extract data as points from one or the other static sphere is illogical. Put more simply, the expectation of privacy about one’s profile information comes into play when certain information is registered and becomes meaningful for others. Otherwise, the information would never enter into a context where ‘public’, ‘private’, ‘intimate’, ‘secret’, or any other adjective operates as a relevant descriptor.

This may not be the easiest idea for us to understand, since we generally conceptualize data as static and discrete informational units that can be observed, collected, and analyzed. In experience, this is simply not true. The treatment of personal data is important. It requires sensitivity to the context as well as an understanding of the tools that can be used to grapple with this complexity.

What good researchers know about data and ethics

Reflexive researchers know that regulations may be necessary, but they are insufficient guides for ethics. While many lessons from previous ethical breaches in scientific research find their way into regulatory guidelines or law, unique ethical dilemmas arise as a natural part of any research of any phenomenon. According to the ancient Greeks, doing the right thing is a matter of phronesis or practical wisdom whereby one can discern what would constitute the most ethical choice in any situation, an ability that grows stronger with time, experience, and reflection.

This involves much more than simply following the rules or obeying the letter of the law. Phronesis is a very difficult thing to teach, since it is a skill that emerges from a deep understand of the possible intimacy others have with what we outsiders might label ‘data.’ This reflection requires that we ask different questions than what regulatory prescriptions might require. In addition to asking the default questions such as “Is the data public or private?” or “does this research involve a ‘human subject’?” we should be asking “What is the relationship between a person and her data?” Or “How does the person feel about his relationship with his data?” These latter questions don’t generally appear in regulatory discussions about data or ethics. These questions represent contemporary issues that have emerged as a result of digitization plus the internet, an equation that illustrates information can be duplicated without limits and is swiftly and easily separated from its human origins once it disseminates or moves through the network. In a broader sense, this line of inquiry highlights the extent to which ‘data’ can be mischaracterized.

Where do we learn the ethic of accountability?

While many scholars concerned with data ethics discuss complex questions, the complexity doesn’t often end up traditional classrooms or regulatory documents. We learn to ask the tough questions when complicated situations emerge, or when a problem or ethical dilemma arises. At this point, we may question and adjust our mindset. This is a process of continual reflexive interrogation of the choices we’re making as researchers. And we get better at it over time and practice.

We might be disappointed but we shouldn’t be surprised that many people end up relying on outdated logic that says ‘if data is publicly accessible, it is fair game for whatever we want to do with it’. This thinking is so much easier and quicker than the alternative, which involves not only judgment, responsibility, and accountability, but also speculation about the potential future impact of one’s research.

Learning contemporary ethics in a digitally-saturated and globally networked epoch involves considering the potential impact of one’s decisions and then making the best choice possible. Regulators are well aware of this, which is why they (mostly) include exceptions and specific case guidance in statements about how researchers should treat data and conduct research involving human subjects.

Teaching ethics as ‘levels of impact’

So, how might we change the ways we talk and teach about ethics to better prepare researchers to take the extra step of reflecting on how their research choices matter in the bigger picture? First, we can make this an easier topic to broach by addressing ethics as being about choices we make at critical junctures; choices that will invariably have impact.

We make choices, consciously or unconsciously, throughout the research process. Simply stated, these choices matter. If we do not grapple with natural and necessary change in research practices our research will not reflect the complexities we strive to understand. — Annette Markham, 2003.

Ethics can be thus considered a matter of methods. “Doing the right thing” is an everyday activity, as we make multiple choices about how we might act. Our decisions and actions transform into habits, norms, and rules over time and repetition. Our choices carry consequences. As researchers, we carry more responsibility than users of social media platforms. Why? Because we hold more cards when we present findings of studies and make knowledge statements intended to present some truth -big or little T- about the world to others.

To dismiss our everyday choices as being only guided by extant guidelines is a naïve approach to how ethics are actually produced. Beyond our reactions to this specific situation, as Michael Zimmer emphasizes in his recent Wired article, we must address the conceptual muddles present in big data research.

This is quite a challenge when the terms are as muddled as the concepts. Take the word ‘ethics.’ Although it’s an important term that operates as an important foundation in our work as researchers, it is also abstract, vague, and daunting because it can feel like you ought to have philosophy training to talk about it. As educators, we can lower the barrier to entry into ethical concepts by taking a ‘what if’ impact approach, or discussing how we might assess the ‘creepy’ factor in our research design, data use, or technology development.

At the most basic level of an impact approach, we might ask how our methods of data collection impact humans, directly. If one is interviewing, or the data is visibly connected to a person, this is easy to see. But a distance principle might help us recognize that when the data is very distant from where it originated, it can seem disconnected from persons, or what some regulators call ‘human subjects.’ At another level, we can ask how our methods of organizing data, analytical interpretations, or findings as shared datasets are being used — or might be used — to build definitional categories or to profile particular groups in ways that could impact livelihoods or lives. Are we contributing positive or negative categorizations? At a third level of impact, we can consider the social, economic, or political changes caused by one’s research processes or products, in both the short and long term. These three levels raise different questions than those typically raised by ethics guidelines and regulations. This is because an impact approach is targeted toward the possible or probable impact, rather than the prevention of impact in the first place. It acknowledges that we change the world as we conduct even the smallest of scientific studies, and therefore, we must take some personal responsibility for our methods.

Teaching questions rather than answers

Over the six years I spent writing guidelines for the updated ‘Ethics and decision making in internet research” document for the International Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), I realized we had shifted significantly from statements to questions in the document. This shift was driven in part by the fact that we came from many different traditions and countries and we couldn’t come to consensus about what researchers should do. Yet we quickly found that posing these questions provided the only stable anchor point as technologies, platforms, and uses of digital media were continually changing. As situations and contexts shifted, different ethical problems would arise. This seemingly endless variation required us to reconsider how we think about ethics and how we might guide researchers seeking advice. While some general ethical principles could be considered in advance, best practices emerged through rigorous self-questioning throughout the course of a study, from the outset to well after the research was completed. Questions were a form that also allowed us to emphasize the importance of active and conscious decision-making, rather than more passive adherence to legal, regulatory, or disciplinary norms.

A question-based approach emphasizes that ethical research is a continual and iterative process of both direct and tacit decision making that must be brought to the surface and consciously accounted for throughout a project. This process of questioning is most obvious when the situation or direction is unclear and decisions must be made directly. But when the questions as well as answers are embedded in and produced as part of our habits, these must be recognized for what they once were — choices at critical junctures. Then, rather than simply adopting tools as predefined options, or taking analytical paths dictated by norm or convention, we can choose anew.

This recent case of the OKCupid data release provides an opportunity for educators to revisit our pedagogical approaches and to confront this confusion head on. It’s a call to think about options that reach into the heart of the matter, which means adding something to our discussions with junior researchers to counteract the depersonalizing effects of generalized top down requirements, forms with checklists, and standardized (and therefore seemingly irrelevant) online training modules.

  • This involves questioning as well as presenting extant ethical guidelines, so that students understand more about the controversies and ongoing debates behind the scenes as laws and regulations are developed.
  • It demands that we stop treating IRB or ethics boards requirements as bureaucratic hoops to jump through, so that students can appreciate that in most studies, ethics require revisiting.
  • It means examining the assumptions underlying ethical conventions and reviewing debates about concepts like informed consent, anonymizing data, or human subjects, so that students better appreciate these as negotiable and context-dependent, rather than settled and universal concepts.
  • It involves linking ethics to everyday logistic choices made throughout a study, including how questions are framed, how studies are designed, and how data is managed and organized. In this way students can build a practice of reflection on and engagement around their research decisions as meaningful choices rather than externally prescribed procedures.
  • It asks that we understand ethics as they are embedded in broader methodological processes — perhaps by discussing how analytical categories can construct cultural definitions, how findings can impact livelihoods, or how writing choices and styles can invoke particular versions of stories. In this way, students can understand that their decisions carry over into other spheres and can have unintended or unanticipated results.
  • It requires adding positive examples to the typically negative cases, which tend to describe what we should not do, or how we can get in trouble. In this way, students can consider the (good and important) ethics of conducting research that is designed to make actual and positive transformations in the broader world.

This list is intended to spark imagination and conversation more than to explain what’s currently happening (for that, I would point to Metcalf’s 2015 review of various pedagogical approaches to ethics in the U.S.). There are obviously many ways to address or respond to this most recent case, or any of the dozens of cases that pose ethical problems.

I, for one, will continue talking more in my classrooms about how, as researchers, our work can be perceived as creepy, stalking, or harassing; exploring how our research could cause harm in the short or long term; and considering what sort of futures we are facilitating as a result of our contributions in the here and now.

For more about data and ethics, I recommend the annual Digital Ethics Symposium at Loyola University-Chicago; the growing body of work emerging from the Council for Big Data, Ethics, & Society; and the internationalAssociation of Internet Studies (AoIR) ethics documents and the work of their longstanding ethics committee members. For current discussions around how we conceptualize data in social research, one might take a look at special issues devoted to the topic, like the 2013 issue on Making Data: Big data and beyond in First Monday, or the 2014 issue on Critiquing Big Data in the International Journal of Communication.These are just the first works off the top of my head that have inspired my own thinking and research on these topics.

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.

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.

Capture

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.

2015 Advice for Your 856-Year-Old Ph.D.

(or, What’s New About Getting an Old Degree?)

I’m delighted to be teaching an intro seminar for all the new Ph.D. students in my department’s graduate program. One of my goals is to give these students a place to talk about the environment of graduate school itself. How does getting a Ph.D. work? What do you need to know?

This task has made me reflective. At first I thought I should pass along readings that had been inspirational for me during grad school. That sure didn’t work. Here is the advice I apparently once loved:

Once you have identified some [thesis] topics you are interested in, you can research them rapidly by spending a few hours on the telephone calling up experts in the field and pumping them for information…although it may cost you a few dollars in long-distance bills…  —Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., p. 182

Or:

I wrote the paper with which this book begins on a microcomputer. Though this first experience with one frightened me a little at first, writing soon seemed so much less work that I wondered how I had managed before. —Writing for Social Scientists, p. 151

Or:

Having surveyed the basics…it’s time to consider the role that electronic communication can play. The most important thing is to employ electronic media consciously and deliberately as part of a larger strategy for your career. —Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students

Or:

Fortunately, these days every legitimate library has a copy machine, and each copy costs about a dime. —How to Write a Thesis, p. 86

The process of getting a Ph.D. is very old. Wikipedia claims the first Ph.D. was awarded in Paris in 1150. I thought Ph.D. advice would be more likely to stand the test of time.

These days you’ll find better dissertation advice on Tumblr. Or at least you’ll find some comic relief from Tumblrs like When in Academia

when someone asks you how the diss is going

(That’s some great tagging.)

The upshot is that it looks like a fair amount of the advice about how to get a Ph.D. has to do with the available communication technology of the time.  Both the stuff that’s in everyday use, and also the scholarly communication infrastructure (which I’ve also blogged about recently).

Has anyone reading this ever attended a conference paper sale? (No, that’s not about buying pre-written term papers.) Or have you ever received an academic journal article “preprint request postcard?” Here’s an image of one:

reprint-request-1

Source: Google Scholar Blog.

So far I’ve come up with a list of things that seem to still be helpful. Caveats: I’m aiming to help the social science and humanities students interested in communication and information. Our first year students won’t be teaching yet, so I am not focusing on teaching with this list.

Hopefully there are some readers who will find this list useful too.

How to Get a Ph.D. — The Draft Reading List

Agre, P. (2002). Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Studentshttp://vlsicad.ucsd.edu/Research/Advice/network.html  I’ll excerpt the following sections:

  • Building a Professional Identity
    • Socializing at Conferences
    • Publication and Credit
    • Recognizing Difference
  • Your Dissertation
  • Academic Language

anonymous. (ed.) (2015). “When in Academia.” http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/

Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. — Don’t let the title of this book fool you, it is equally applicable to graduate students in the humanities and professional programs. I’m excerpting the following sections:

  • Freshman English for Graduate Students
  • Persona and Authority
  • Learning to Write as a Professional
  • Risk
  • Terrorized by the Literature

Cham, J. (2013, January 21). “Your Conference Presentation.” (image.) PhD Comics.

Edwards, P. N. (2014). “How to Give an Academic Talk.” http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtotalk.pdf (13 pp.)

Germano, W. (2013) From Dissertation to Book. (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. — Note: “Passive Is Spoken Here” is a great section heading. I’ll excerpt the chapter:

  • Making Prose Speak

Sterne, J. (2014). How to Peer Review Something You Hate. ICA Newsletter. (2 pp.)

Shore, B. M. (2014). The Graduate Advisor Handbook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. I’ll excerpt:

  • Mutual Expectations for Research Advising (pp. 143-146)

Strunk, W., Jr. & White, E. B. (2000). The Elements of Style. (4th ed.) New York: Longman. (Important: You must avoid any “Original Edition” or public domain reprint that does not include E. B. White as a co-author. The version without E. B. White is a different book.)

@yourpapersucks (ed.) (2015). “Shit My Reviewers Say.”  http://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com/

…however…

I see that it’s a list woefully lacking in anything like “social media savvy for Ph.D. students” or “How new forms of scholarly communication are changing the dissertation.” I’m sure there are other newish domains I’ve left out, too. What am I missing? Can anyone help me out?  Please add a comment or e-mail me.

Yours in futurity.

.

.

.

(this blog post was cross-posted to Multicast.)

A Research Agenda for Accountable Algorithms

What should people who are interested in accountability and algorithms be thinking about? Here is one answer: My eleven-minute remarks are now online from a recent event at NYU. I’ve edited them to intersperse my slides.

This talk was partly motivated by the ethics work being done in the machine learning community. That is very exciting and interesting work and I love, love, love it. My remarks are an attempt to think through the other things we might also need to do. Let me know how to replace the “??” in my slides with something more meaningful!

Preview: My remarks contain a minor attempt at a Michael Jackson joke.

 

 

A number of fantastic Social Media Collective people were at this conference — you can hear Kate Crawford in the opening remarks.  For more videos from the conference, see:

Algorithms and Accountability
http://www.law.nyu.edu/centers/ili/algorithmsconference

Thanks to Joris van Hoboken, Helen Nissenbaum and Elana Zeide for organizing such a fab event.

If you bought this 11-minute presentation you might also buy: Auditing Algorithms, a forthcoming workshop at Oxford.

http://auditingalgorithms.wordpress.com

 

 

(This was cross-posted to multicast.)

Should You Boycott Traditional Journals?

(Or, Should I Stay or Should I Go?)

Is it time to boycott “traditional” scholarly publishing? Perhaps you are an academic researcher, just like me. Perhaps, just like me, you think that there are a lot of exciting developments in scholarly publishing thanks to the Internet. And you want to support them. And you also want people to read your research. But you also still need to be sure that your publication venues are held in high regard.

Or maybe you just receive research funding that is subject to new open access requirements.

Ask me about OPEN ACCESS

Academia is a funny place. We are supposedly self-governing. So if we don’t like how our scholarly communications are organized we should be able to fix this ourselves. If we are dissatisfied with the journal system, we’re going to have to do something about it. The question of whether or not it is now time to eschew closed access journals is something that comes up a fair amount among my peers.

It comes up often enough that a group of us at Michigan decided to write an article on the topic. Here’s the article.  It just came out yesterday (open access, of course):

Carl Lagoze, Paul Edwards, Christian Sandvig, & Jean-Christophe Plantin. (2015). Should I stay or Should I Go? Alternative Infrastructures in Scholarly Publishing. International Journal of Communication 9: 1072-1081.

The article is intended for those who want some help figuring out the answer to the question the article title poses: Should I stay or should I go? It’s meant help you decipher the unstable landscape of scholarly publishing these days. (Note that we restrict our topic to journal publishing.)

Researching it was a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit about how scholarly communication works.

  • It contains a mention of the first journal. Yes, the first one that we would recognize as a journal in today’s terms. It’s Philosophical Transactions published by the Royal Society of London. It’s on Volume 373.
  • It should teach you about some of the recent goings-on in this area. Do you know what a green repository is? What about an overlay journal? Or the “serials crisis“?
  • It addresses a question I’ve had for a while: What the heck are those arXiv people up to? If it’s so great, why hasn’t it spread to all disciplines?
  • There’s some fun discussion of influential experiments in scholarly publishing. Remember the daring foundation of the Electronic Journal of Communication? Vectors? Were you around way-back-in-the-day when the pioneering, Web-based JCMC looked like this hot mess below? Little did we know that we were actually looking at the future.(*)

jcmc-1-1

(JCMC circa 1995)

(*): Unless we were looking at the Gopher version, then in that case we were not looking at the future.

Ultimately, we adapt a framework from Hirschman that we found to be an aid to our thinking about what is going on today in scholarly communication. Feel free to play the following song on a loop as you read it.

(This post has been cross-posted on multicast.)