If you’ve seen me waddle onto stage lately, you’ve probably guessed that I’m either growing a baby or an alien. I’m hoping for the former, although contemporary imaging technologies still do make me wonder. If all goes well, I will give birth in late January or early February. Although I don’t publicly talk much about my son, this will be #2 for me and so I have both a vague sense of what I’m in for and no clue at all. I avoid parenting advice like the plague so I’m mostly plugging my ears and singing “la-la-la-la” whenever anyone tells me what I’m in for. I don’t know, no one knows, and I’m not going to pretend like anything I imagine now will determine how I will feel come this baby’s arrival.
What I do know is that I don’t want to leave any collaborator or partner in the lurch since there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll be relatively out of commission (a.k.a. loopy as all getup) for a bit. I will most likely turn off my email firehose and give collaborators alternate channels for contacting me. I do know that I’m not taking on additional speaking gigs, writing responsibilities, scholarly commitments, or other non-critical tasks. I also know that I’m going to do everything possible to make sure that Data & Society is in good hands and will continue to grow while I wade through the insane mysteries of biology. If you want to stay in touch with everything happening at D&S, please make sure to sign up for our newsletter! (You may even catch me sneaking into our events with a baby.)
As an employee of Microsoft Research who is running an independent research institute, I have a ridiculous amount of flexibility in how I navigate my parental leave. I thank my lucky stars for this privilege on a regular basis, especially in a society where we force parents (and especially mothers) into impossible trade-offs. What this means in practice for me is that I refuse to commit to exactly how I’m going to navigate parental leave once #2 arrives. Last time, I penned an essay “Choosing the ‘Right’ Maternity Leave Plan” to express my uncertainty. What I learned last time is that the flexibility to be able to work when it made sense and not work when I’d been up all night made me more happy and sane than creating rigid leave plans. I’m fully aware of just how fortunate I am to be able to make these determinations and how utterly unfair it is that others can’t. I’m also aware of just how much I love what I do for work and, in spite of folks telling me that work wouldn’t matter as much after having a child, I’ve found that having and loving a child has made me love what I do professionally all the more. I will continue to be passionately engaged in my work, even as I spend time welcoming a new member of my family to this earth.
I don’t know what the new year has in store for me, but I do know that I don’t want anyone who needs something from me to feel blindsided. If you need something from me, now is the time to holler and I will do my best. I’m excited that my family is growing and I’m also ecstatic that I’ve been able to build a non-profit startup this year. It’s been a crazy year and I expect that 2015 will be no different.
I’m pleased to share that I’m joining the Board of Trustees of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 2015. I am honored and humbled by the opportunity to help guide such an esteemed organization full of wonderful people who are working hard to create a more informed and respectful society.
I am not (knowingly) of Native descent, but as an American who has struggled to make sense of our history and my place in our cultural ecosystem, I’ve always been passionate about using the privileges I have to make sure that our public narrative is as complex as our people. America has a sordid history and out of those ashes, we have a responsibility to both remember and do right by future generations. When the folks at NMAI approached me to see if I were willing to use the knowledge I have about technology, youth, and social justice to help them imagine their future as a cultural institution, the answer was obvious to me.
Make no mistake – I have a lot to learn. I cannot and will not speak on behalf of Native peoples or their experiences. I’m joining this Board, fully aware of how little I know about the struggles of Indians today, but I am doing so with a deep appreciation of their stories and passions. I am coming to this table to learn from those who identify as Native and Indian with the hopes that what I have to offer as a youth researcher, technologist, and committed activist can be valuable. As an ally, I hope that I can help the Museum accomplish its dual mission of preserving and sharing the culture of Native peoples to advance public understanding and empower those who have been historically disenfranchised.
I am still trying to figure out how I will be able to be most helpful, but at the very least, please feel free to use me to share your thoughts and perspectives that might help NMAI advance its mission and more actively help inform and shape American society. I would also greatly appreciate your help in supporting NMAI’s education initiatives through a generous donation. In the United States, these donations are tax deductible.
What is “fairness”? And what happens when technology decides?
Fairness is one of those values that Americans love to espouse. It’s just as beloved in technical circles, where it’s often introduced as one of the things that “neutral” computers do best. We collectively perceive ourselves and our systems to be fair and push against any assertion that our practices are unfair. But what do we even mean by fairness in the first place?
In the United States, fairness has historically been a battle between equality and equity. Equality is the notion that everyone should have an equal opportunity. It’s the core of meritocracy and central to the American Dream. Preferential treatment is seen as antithetical to equality and the root of corruption. And yet, as civil rights leaders have long argued, we don’t all start out from the same place. Privilege matters. As a result, we’ve seen historical battles over equity, arguing that fairness is only possible when we take into account systemic marginalization and differences of ability, opportunity, and access. When civil rights leaders fought for equity in the 60s, they were labeled communists. Still, equity-based concepts like “affirmative action” managed to gain traction. Today, we’ve shifted from communism to socialism as the anti-equity justification. Many purposefully refuse to acknowledge that people don’t start out from the same position and take offense at any effort to right historical wrongs through equity-based models. Affirmative action continues to be dismantled and the very notion of reparations sends many into a tizzy.
Beyond the cultural fight over equality vs. equity, a new battle to define fairness has emerged. Long normative in business, a market logic of fairness is moving beyond industry to increasingly become our normative understanding of fairness in America.
To understand market-driven models of fairness, consider frequent flyer programs. If you are high status on Delta, you get all sorts of privileges. You don’t have to pay $25 to check a bag, you get better seats and frequent upgrades, you get free food and extra services, etc. etc. We consider this fair because it enables businesses to compete. Delta cares to keep you as a customer because they rely on you spending a lot more over the year or lifetime of the program than you cost in terms of perks. Bob, on the other hand, isn’t that interesting to Delta if he only flies once a year and isn’t even eligible for the credit card. Thus, Bob doesn’t get the perks and is, in effect, charged more for equivalent services.
What happens when this logic of fairness alters the foundations of society? Consider financial services where business rubs up against something so practical — and seemingly necessary — as housing. Martha Poon has done phenomenal work on the history of FICO scores which originally empowered new populations to get access to credit. These days, FICO scores are used for many things beyond financial services, but even in the financial services domain, things aren’t as equitable as one might think. The scores are not necessarily fair and their usage introduces new problems. If you’re seeking a loan and you have a better score than Bob, you pay a lower interest rate. This is considered acceptable because you are a lower risk than Bob. But just like Delta wants to keep you as a customer, so does Chase. And so they start to give you deals to compete with other banks for your business. In effect, they minimize the profit they make directly off of the wealthiest because they need high end customers for secondary and competitive reasons. As a result, not only is Bob burdened with the higher interest loans, but all of the profits are also made off of him as well.
For a moment, let’s turn away from business-based environments altogether and think more generally about how allocation of scarce resources is beginning to unfold thanks to computational systems that can distribute resources “fairly.” Consider, for example, what’s happening with policing practices, especially as computational systems allow precincts to distribute their officers “fairly.” In many jurisdictions, more officers are placed into areas that are deemed “high risk.” This is deemed to be appropriate at a societal level. And yet, people don’t think about the incentive structures of policing, especially in communities where the law is expected to clear so many warrants and do so many arrests per month. When they’re stationed in algorithmically determined “high risk” communities, they arrest in those communities, thereby reinforcing the algorithms’ assumptions.
Addressing modern day redlining equivalents isn’t enough. Statistically, if your family members are engaged in criminal activities, there’s a high probability that you will too. Is it fair to profile and target individuals based on their networks if it will make law enforcement more efficient?
Increasingly, tech folks are participating in the instantiation of fairness in our society. Not only do they produce the algorithms that score people and unevenly distribute scarce resources, but the fetishization of “personalization” and the increasingly common practice of “curation” are, in effect, arbiters of fairness.
The most important thing that we all need to recognize is that how fairness is instantiated significantly affects the very architecture of our society. I regularly come back to a quote by Alistair Croll:
Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources. The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others. And the more those predictions look like facts, the more justice looks like thoughtcrime.
The market-driven logic of fairness is fundamentally about individuals at the expense of the social fabric. Not surprisingly, the tech industry — very neoliberal in cultural ideology — embraces market-driven fairness as the most desirable form of fairness because it is the model that is most about individual empowerment. But, of course, this form of empowerment is at the expense of others. And, significantly, at the expense of those who have been historically marginalized and ostracized.
We are collectively architecting the technological infrastructure of this world. Are we OK with what we’re doing and how it will affect the society around us?
(This post was originally published on September 3, 2014 in The Message on Medium.)
I love data and I hate stats. Not stats in abstract — statistics are great — but the kind of stats that seem to accompany any web activity. Number of followers, number of readers, number of viewers, etc. I hate them in the way that an addict hates that which she loves the most. My pulse quickens as I refresh the page to see if one more person clicked the link. As my eyes water and hours pass, I have to tear myself away from the numbers, the obsessive calculating that I do, creating averages and other statistical equations for no good reason. I gift my math-craving brain with a different addiction, turning to various games — these days, Yushino — to just get a quick hit of addition. And then I grumble, grumble at the increasing presence of stats to quantify and measure everything that I do.
My hatred is not a new hatred. Oh, no. I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with measurement since I was a precocious teenager. I went to a school whose grades came in five letters — A, B, C, D, F (poor E, whatever happened to E?). Grades were rounded to the nearest whole number so if you got an 89.5, you got an A. I was that horrible bratty know-it-all student who used to find sick and twisted joy in performing at exactly bare minimum levels. Not in that slacking way, but in that middle finger in the air way. For example, if you gave me a problem set with 10 questions on it, where each question was harder than the last, I would’ve done the last 9 problems and left the first one blank. Oh was I arrogant.
The reason that I went to Brown for college was because it was one of two colleges I found out about that didn’t require grades; the other college didn’t have a strong science program. I took every class that I could Pass/Fail and loved it. I’m pretty sure that I actually got an A in those classes, but the whole point was that I didn’t have to obsess over it. I could perform strongly without playing the game, without trying to prove to some abstract entity that I could manipulate the system just for the fun of it.
When I started my blog back in the day, I originally put on a tracker. (Remember those older trackers that were basically data collectors in the old skool days??) But then I stopped. I turned it off. I set it up to erase the logs. I purposefully don’t login to my server because I don’t want to know. I love not knowing, not wondering why people didn’t come back, not realizing that a post happened to hit it big in some country. I don’t want the data, I don’t want to know.
Data isn’t always helpful. When my advisor was dying of brain cancer, he struggled to explain to people how he didn’t want to know more than was necessary. His son wanted the data to get his head around what was happening, to help his father. But my advisor and I made a deal — I didn’t look up anything about his illness and would take his interpretation at face-value, never conflicting whatever he said. He was a political scientist and an ethnographer, a man who lived by data of all forms and yet, he wanted to be free from the narrative of stats as he was dying.
As we move further and further into the era of “big data,” I find that stats are everywhere. I can’t turn off the number of followers I have on Twitter. And I can’t help but peek at the stats on my posts on Medium, even though I know it’s not healthy for me to look. (Why aren’t people reading that post!?!? It was sooo good!!) The one nice thing about the fact that 3rd party stats on book sales are dreadfully meaningless is that I have zero clue how many people have bought my book. But I can’t help but query my Amazon book sale rank more often than I’d like to admit. For some, it’s about nervously assessing their potential income. I get this. But for me, it’s just the obsessive desire to see a number, to assess my worth on a different level. If it goes up, it means “YAY I’M AWESOME!” but if it goes down, no one loves me, I’m a terrible person. At least in the domain that I have total control over — my website — I don’t track how many people have downloaded my book. I simply don’t know and I like it that way. Because if I don’t know, I can’t beat myself up over a number.
The number doesn’t have to be there. I love that Benjamin Grosser created a demetricator to remove numbers from Facebook (tx Clive Thompson!). It’s like an AdBlocker for stats junkies, but it only works on Facebook. It doesn’t chastise you for sneaking a look at numbers elsewhere. But why is it that it takes so much effort to remove the numbers? Why are those numbers so beneficial to society that everyone has them?
Stats have this terrible way of turning you — or, at least, me — into a zombie. I know that they don’t say anything. I know that huge chunks of my Twitter followers are bots, that I could’ve bought my way to a higher Amazon ranking, that my Medium stats say nothing about the quality of my work, and that I should not treat any number out there as a mechanism for self-evaluation of my worth as a human being. And yet, when there are numbers beckoning, I am no better than a moth who sees a fire.
I want to resist. I want serenity and courage and wisdom. And yet, and yet… How many people will read this post? Are you going to tweet it? Are you going to leave comments? Are you going to tell me that I’m awesome? Gaaaaaaaah.
(This post was originally published on September 24, 2014 in The Message on Medium.)
Technology is changing work. It’s changing labor. Some imagine radical transformations, both positive and negatives. Words like robots and drones conjure up all sorts of science fiction imagination. But many of the transformations that are underway are far more mundane and, yet, phenomenally disruptive, especially for those who are struggling to figure out their place in this new ecosystem. Disruption, a term of endearment in the tech industry, sends shutters down the spine of many, from those whose privilege exists because of the status quo to those who are struggling to put bread on the table.
A group of us at Data & Society decided to examine various different emergent disruptions that affect the future of work. Thanks to tremendous support from the Open Society Foundations, we’ve produced five working papers that help frame various issues at play. We’re happy to share them with you today.
- Understanding Intelligent Systems unpacks the science fiction stories of robots to look at the various ways in which intelligent systems are being integrated into the workforce in both protective and problematic ways. Much of what’s at stake in this domain stems from people’s conflicting values regarding robots, drones, and other intelligent systems.
- Technologically Mediated Artisanal Production considers the disruptions introduced by 3D printing and “maker culture,” as the very act of physical production begins to shift from large-scale manufacturing to localized creation. The implications for the workforce are profound, but there are other huge potential shifts here, ranging from positive possibilities like democratizing design to more disconcerting concerns like increased environmental costs.
- Networked Employment Discrimination examines the automation of hiring and the implications this has on those seeking jobs. The issues addressed here range from the ways in which algorithms automatically exclude applicants based on keywords to the ways in which people are dismissed for not having the right networks.
- Workplace Surveillance traces the history of efforts to using tracking technologies to increase efficiency and measure productivity while decreasing risks for employers. As new technologies come into the workplace to enable new forms of surveillance, a whole host of ethical and economic questions emerge.
- Understanding Fair Labor Practices in a Networked Age dives into the question of what collective bargaining and labor protections look like when work is no longer cleanly delineated, bounded, or structured within an organization, such as those engaged in peer economy work. Far from being an easy issue, we seek to show the complexity of trying to get at fair labor in today’s economy.
Each of these documents provides a framework for understanding the issues at play while also highlighting the variety of questions that go unanswered. We hope that these will provide a foundation for those trying to better understand these issues and we see this as just the beginning of much needed work in these areas. As we were working on these papers, we were delighted to see a wide variety of investigative journalism into these issues and we hope that much more work is done to better understand the social and cultural dimensions of these technological shifts. We look forward to doing more work in this area and would love to hear feedback from others, including references to other work and efforts to address these issues. Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
(All five papers were authored by a combination of Alex Rosenblat, Tamara Kneese, and danah boyd; author order varies by document. This work was supported by the Open Society Foundations and is part of ongoing efforts at Data & Society to better understand the Future of Labor.)
(Photo by David Blaine.)
On July 25th, I was asked to address thousands of women (and some men) at the 10th annual Blogher conference. I was asked to reflect on what it meant to be a blogger and so I did. You can watch it here:
Or you can read an edited version of the remarks I offered below
I started blogging in 1997. I was 19 years old. I didn’t call it blogging then, and my blog didn’t look like it does now. It was a manually-created HTML site with a calendar made of tables (OMG tables) and Geocities-style forward and back buttons with terrible graphics. I posted entries a few times a week as part of an independent study on Buddhism as a Brown University student that involved both meditation and self-reflection. Each week, the monk I was working with would ask me to reflect on certain things, and I would write. And write. And write. He lived in Ohio and had originally proposed sending letters, but I thought pencils were a foreign concept. I decided to type my thoughts and that, if I was going to type them, I might as well put them up online. Ah, teen logic.
Most of those early reflections were deeply intense. I posted in detail about what it meant to navigate rape and abuse, to come into a sense of self in light of scarring situations. I have since deleted much of this material, not because I’m ashamed by it, but because I found that it created the wrong introduction. As my blog became more professional, people would flip back and look at those first posts and be like errr… uhh… While I’m completely open about my past, I’ve found that rape details are not the way that I want to start a conversation most of the time. So, in a heretical act, I deleted those posts.
What my blog is to me and to others has shifted tremendously over the years. For the first five years, my blog was read by roughly four people. That was fine because I wasn’t thinking about audience. I was blogging to think, to process, to understand. To understand myself and the world around me. I wasn’t really aware of or interested in community building so I didn’t really participate in the broader practice. Blogging was about me. Until things changed.
As research became more central to my life, my blog became more focused on my research. In December 2002, I started tracking Friendster. (Keep in mind that the first public news story was written about Friendster by the Village Voice in June of 2003.) I was documenting my understanding of the new technologies that were emerging because that’s what I was thinking about. But because I was writing about tech, my blog caught the eye of technology folks who were trying to track this new phenomenon.
I became a blogger because people who identified as bloggers called me a blogger. And they linked to my blog. And commented on it. And talked about what I posted. I was invited to blog on group sites, like Many-to-Many, and participate in blogger-related activities. I became a part of the nascent blogging world, kinda by accident.
As I became understood as a blogger, people started asking me about my blogging practice. Errrr… Blogging practice? And then people started asking me about my monetization plans. Woah nelly! So I did some reflection and made a few very intentional decisions. I valued blogging because it allowed me to express what was on my mind without anyone else editing me, but I understood that I was becoming part of the public. I valued the freedom to have a single place where my voice sat, where I was in control, but I also had power. So I struggled, but I concluded that at the end of the day, I couldn’t keep this up if this stopped being about me. And so I decided to never add advertisements, to never commercialize my personal blog, and to never let others post there. I needed boundaries. I’d blog elsewhere under other terms, by my blog was mine.
I started thinking a lot more about blogging, both personally and professionally, when I went to work for Ev Williams at Blogger (already acquired by Google). My title was “ethnographic engineer.” (Gotta love Google titles.) And my job was to help the Blogger team better understand the diversity of practices unfolding in Blogger. I interviewed numerous bloggers. I randomly sampled Blogger entries to get a sense of the diversity of posts that we were seeing. And I helped the engineering team think about different types of practices. I also became much more involved in the blogging community, attending blogging events like Blogher ten years ago.
I made a decision to live certain parts of my life in public in order not to hide from myself, in order to be human in a networked age where I am more comfortable behind a keyboard than at a bar. But I also had to contend with the fact that I was visible in ways that were de-humanizing. As a public speaker, I am regularly objectified, just a mouthpiece on stage with no feelings. I’ve smiled my way through catcalls and sexualized commentary. Sadly, it hasn’t just been men who have objectified me. At the second Blogher, I was stunned to read many women blog about my talk by dissecting my hairstyle and clothing choices in condescending ways. I may have been a blogger, but I didn’t feel like it was a community. I felt like I had become another digital artifact to be poked and prodded.
My experience with objectification took on a whole new level in 2009 when, at Web2.0 Expo, my experience on stage devolved. I wrote about this incident in gory detail on my blog, but the basic story is that I talk fast. And when I’m nervous, I talk even faster. I was nervous, it was a big stage, there were high-power lights so I couldn’t see anything. And there was a Twitter feed behind me that I couldn’t see. As I nervously started in on my talk, the audience began critiquing me on Twitter and then laughing at what others wrote. It devolved into outright misogyny—the Twitter stream was taken down and then put back up. The audience was loud but clearly not listening to what I had to say. I didn’t know what was going on, and I melted. I talked faster, I stared at the podium. I didn’t leave stage in tears, but I thought about doing so. It was humiliating.
When I finally got off stage and online, I learned that people were talking about me as though I had no feelings. And so I decided to explain what it was like to be on that stage in that moment. It was gut-wrenching to write but it hit a chord. And it allowed me to see the beauty and pain of being public in every sense of the word. Being in public. Being a public figure. Being public with my feelings. Being public.
I’ve spent the last decade studying teenagers and their relationship to social media — in effect, their relationship to public life. Through the process, I’ve watched many of them struggle with what it means to be public, what it means to have a public voice — all in an environment where young people are not encouraged to be a part of public life. Over the last 30 years, we’ve systematically eliminated young people’s ability to participate in public life. They turn to technology as a relief valve, as an opportunity to have a space of their own. As a chance to be public. And, of course, we shoo them away from there too.
Because teens want to be *in* public, we assume that they want to *be* public. Thus, we assume that they don’t want privacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teens want to be a part of public life, but they want privacy from those who hold power over them. Having both is often very difficult so teenagers develop sophisticated techniques to be public and to have privacy. They focus more on hiding access to meaning than hiding access to content. They use the technologies they have around them to navigate their identity and voice. They are growing up in a digital world and they try to make sense of it the best they can. But all too often, they’re blamed and shamed for what they do and adults don’t take the time to understand where they’re coming from and why.
In spending a decade with youth, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be public. I’ve learned how to encode what I’m saying, layer my messages to reveal different things to different people. I’ve learned how to appear to be open and still keep some things to myself. I’ve learned how to use different tools for different parts of my network. And I’ve learned just how significantly the internet has changed since I was a teen.
I grew up in an era when the internet was comprised of self-identified geeks, freaks, and queers. Claiming all three, I felt quite at home. Today’s internet is mainstream. Today’s youth are growing up in a world where technology is taken for granted. Traditional aspects of power are asserted through technology. It’s no longer the realm of the marginalized, but the new mechanisms by which marginalization happen.
A decade ago, people talked about the democratizing power of blogging, but even back then we all realized that some voices were more visible than others. This is what sparked the creation of Blogher in the first place. Women’s voices were often ignored online, even when they were participating. The mechanisms of structural inequality got reified, which went against what many people imagined the internet to be about. The conversation focused on how we could create a future based on common values, a future that challenged the status quo. We never imagined we would be the status quo.
As more and more people have embraced social media and blogging, normative societal values have dominated our cultural frames about these tools. It’s no longer about imagined communities, new mechanisms of enlightenment, or resisting institutional power. Technology is situated within a context of capitalism, traditional politics, and geoglobal power struggles.
With that in mind, what does it mean to be a blogger today? What does it mean to be public? Is value only derived by commercial acts of self-branding? How can we understand the work of identity and public culture development? Is there a coherent sense of being a blogger? What are the shared values that underpin the practice?
I started blogging to feel my humanity. I became a part of the blogging community to participate in shaping a society that I care about. I reflect and share publicly to engage others and build understanding. This is my blogging practice. What is yours?
(This post was originally posted on August 6, 2014 in The Message on Medium.)
Earlier this week, Anil Dash wrote a smart piece unpacking the concept of “public.” He opens with some provocative questions about how we imagine the public, highlighting how new technologies that make heightened visibility possible. For example,
Someone could make off with all your garbage that’s put out on the street, and carefully record how many used condoms or pregnancy tests or discarded pill bottles are in the trash, and then post that information up on the web along with your name and your address. There’s probably no law against it in your area. Trash on the curb is public.
The acts that he describes are at odds with — or at least complicate — our collective sense of what’s appropriate. What’s at stake is not about the law, but about our idea of the society we live in. This leads him to argue that the notion of public is not easy to define. “Public is not just what can be viewed by others, but a fragile set of social conventions about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate.” He then goes on to talk about the vested interests in undermining people’s conception of public and expanding the collective standards of what is in.
To get there, he pushes back at the dichotomy between “public” and “private,” suggesting that we should think of these as a spectrum. I’d like to push back even further to suggest that our notion of privacy, when conceptualized in relationship to “public,” does a disservice to both concepts. The notion of private is also a social convention, but privacy isn’t a state of a particular set of data. It’s a practice and a process, an idealized state of being, to be actively negotiated in an effort to have agency. Once we realize this, we can reimagine how to negotiate privacy in a networked world. So let me unpack this for a moment.
Imagine that you’re sitting in a park with your best friend talking about your relationship troubles. You may be in a public space (in both senses of that term), but you see your conversation as private because of the social context, not the physical setting. Most likely, what you’ve thought through is whether or not your friend will violate your trust, and thus your privacy. If you’re a typical person, you don’t even begin to imagine drones that your significant other might have deployed or mechanisms by which your phone might be tapped. (Let’s leave aside the NSA, hacker-geek aspect of this.)
You imagine privacy because you have an understanding of the context and are working hard to control the social situation. You may even explicitly ask your best friend not to say anything (prompting hir to say “of course not” as a social ritual).
As Alice Marwick and I traversed the United States talking with youth, trying to make sense of privacy, we quickly realized that the tech-centric narrative of privacy just doesn’t fit with people’s understandings and experience of it. They don’t see privacy as simply being the control of information. They don’t see the “solution” to privacy being access-control lists or other technical mechanisms of limiting who has access to information. Instead, they try to achieve privacy by controlling the social situation. To do so, they struggle with their own power in that situation. For teens, it’s all about mom looking over their shoulder. No amount of privacy settings can solve for that one. While learning to read social contexts is hard, it’s especially hard online, where the contexts seem to be constantly destabilized by new technological interventions. As such, context becomes visible and significant in the effort to achieve privacy. Achieving privacy requires a whole slew of skills, not just in the technological sense, but in the social sense. Knowing how to read people, how to navigate interpersonal conflict, how to make trust stick. This is far more complex that people realize, and yet we do this every day in our efforts to control the social situations around us.
The very practice of privacy is all about control in a world in which we fully know that we never have control. Our friends might betray us, our spaces might be surveilled, our expectations might be shattered. But this is why achieving privacy is desirable. People want to be *in* public, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to *be* public. There’s a huge difference between the two. As a result of the destabilization of social spaces, what’s shocking is how frequently teens have shifted from trying to restrict access to content to trying to restrict access to meaning. They get, at a gut level, that they can’t have control over who sees what’s said, but they hope to instead have control over how that information is interpreted. And thus, we see our collective imagination of what’s private colliding smack into the notion of public. They are less of a continuum and more of an entwined hairball, reshaping and influencing each other in significant ways.
Anil is right when he highlights the ways in which tech companies rely on conceptions of “public” to justify data collection practices. He points to the lack of consent, which signals what’s really at stake. When powerful actors, be they companies or governmental agencies, use the excuse of something being “public” to defend their right to look, they systematically assert control over people in a way that fundamentally disenfranchises them. This is the very essence of power and the core of why concepts like “surveillance” matter. Surveillance isn’t simply the all-being all-looking eye. It’s a mechanism by which systems of power assert their power. And it is why people grow angry and distrustful. Why they throw fits over beingexperimented on. Why they cry privacy foul even when the content being discussed is, for all intents and purposes, public.
As Anil points out, our lives are shaped by all sorts of unspoken social agreements. Allowing organizations or powerful actors to undermine them for personal gain may not be illegal, but it does tear at the social fabric. The costs of this are, at one level, minuscule, but when added up, they can cause a serious earthquake. Is that really what we’re seeking to achieve?
(The work that Alice and I did with teens, and the implications that this has for our conception of privacy writ large, is written up as “Networked Privacy” in New Media & Society. If you don’t have library access, email me and I’ll send you a copy.)
(This entry was first posted on August 1, 2014 at Medium under the title “What is Privacy” as part of The Message.)
In 1968, Walter Cronkite did the unthinkable. After visiting Vietnam to assess the state of the war in light of the Tet Offensive, he produced documentary coverage of the situation. And then, to the shock of many, he concluded with his opinion. In an era in which reporters never stated their own assessment, this act stunned the nation. And if lore has any basis in truth, his statement altered the course of history. Although the accuracy is debated, President Johnson is reported as having said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson did not seek re-election that year.
I wake up each day to depressing news of what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. I read about America’s obsession with this war while ignoring what’s happening in Syria, while ignoring its own power games. I read through the histories of Middle Eastern politics, painfully aware of how the Palestinian people are perceived by other Arab nations and disgusted by the way in which each side is a pawn in others’ geopolitical games. I read the personal accounts of fear, anger, horror. And I listen to friends, family, and acquaintances spout racist narratives about the “other” side that make my blood boil. Painfully aware of just how divided the conversation has become, my data scientist partner Gilad Lotan obsessively scrapes social media conversations in an effort to understand how the news media from a country that he considers home could become so biased. I simply try to hold all of the conflicting perspectives in my head to better understand how we’ve gotten here. And the exercise makes me want to crawl into a hole and whimper.
I know that this war will continue. Maybe we’ll see a ceasefire this week, but that will not put the end to this war even if we label it differently in the next round. I know that there will be more innocent bloodshed. And the only outcome of this conflict will be increased intolerance. No good will come from this. Violence will not stop violence. Violence will not end poverty. Violence will not end social divisions. Violence will only increase hatred.
We can debate the particulars until we go blue. We can talk about particular decisions and pass judgment. But we’ll never get to a “right” answer. As Jon Stewart kindly illustrates, we can’t even have a civil conversation about Israel/Gaza without it devolving into a screaming match. We are, after all, trying to reduce a 3D puzzle into a 2D frame. Nowhere is this more clear then when you stand in the middle of the Old City in Jerusalem. Generation after generation of war has buried cities and built new ones on top of old ones. Which layer is legitimate? The first? The last? The most populous? The most harmed? The most powerful? Time creates the third dimension, creates the elevation. No good comes from declaring one layer legitimate.
Like Gilad, I’m watching social media — the tool I’ve spent the last 10 years studying — being used to fuel these fires. Far from engendering enlightenment or enabling civil conversation, I’m watching personalization allow people to revel in their intolerant ghettos, oblivious to how one-sided their perspective has become. I’m watching televised and written media consumed in a segregated fashion. And I’m watching people actively avoid perspectives that make them uncomfortable or otherwise make an effort to truly grok a different world view. Media may be framed as a tool to create an informed citizenry, but people’s biased engagement with it can be used to create ugly silos justified in their own hatred.
And so I go back and re-watch Cronkite’s conclusion, hoping that somehow, somewhere we’ll see an intervention as powerful as this one while also fully aware that the war continued on for seven more years after he asked the American people to reflect. We no longer live in a world where one man can get up on television and humbly profess his opinion such that the world takes stock. The question is: how can we collectively reach an unsatisfactory conclusion and come out as honorable people?
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
(This post was originally published on August 4, 2014 in The Message on Medium.)
In detailing the story of “Jane Doe,” a 16-year-old transgender youth stuck in an adult prison in Connecticut for over six weeks without even being charged, Shane Bauer at Mother Jones steps back to describe the context in which Jane grew up. In reading this horrific (but not that uncommon) account of abuse, neglect, poverty, and dreadful state interventions, I came across this sentence:
“While in group homes, she says she was sexually assaulted by staffers, and at 15, she became a sex worker and was once locked up for weeks and forced to have sex with “customers” until she escaped.” — Mother Jones
What makes this sentence so startling is the choice of the term “sex work.” Whether the author realizes it or not, this term is extraordinarily political, especially when applied to an abused and entrapped teenager. I couldn’t help but wonder why the author didn’t identify Jane as a victim of human trafficking.
Commercial sexual exploitation of minors
Over the last few years, I’ve been working with an amazing collection of researchers in an effort to better understand technology’s relationship to human trafficking and, more specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the politics of sex work and the political framing of sex trafficking. What’s been infuriating is to watch the way in which journalists and the public reify a Hollywood narrative of what trafficking is supposed to look like — innocent young girl abducted from happy, healthy, not impoverished home with loving parents and then forced into sexual acts by a cruel older man. For a lot of journalists, this is the only narrative that “counts.” These are the portraits that are held up and valorized, so much so that an advocate reportedly fabricated her personal story to get attention for the cause.
The stark reality of how youth end up being commercially sexually exploited is much darker and implicates many more people in power. All too often, we’re talking about a child growing up in poverty, surrounded by drug/alcohol addiction. More often than not, the parents are part of the problem. If the child wasn’t directly pimped out by the parents, there’s a high likelihood that s/he was abused or severely neglected. The portrait of a sex trafficking victim is usually a white or Asian girl, but darker skinned youth are more likely to be commercially sexually exploited and boys (and especially queer youth) are victimized far more than people acknowledge.
Many youth who are commercially exploited are not pimped out in the sense of having a controlling adult who negotiates their sexual acts. All too often, youth begin trading sex for basic services — food, shelter, protection. This is part of what makes the conversation about sex work vs. human trafficking so difficult. The former presumes agency, even though that’s not always the case while the latter assumes that no agency is possible. When it comes to sex work, there’s a spectrum. Sex work by choice, sex work by circumstance, and sex work by coercion. The third category is clearly recognizable as human trafficking, but when it comes to minors, most anti-trafficking advocates and government actors argue that it’s all trafficking. Except when that label’s not convenient for other political efforts. And this is where I find myself scratching my head at how Jane Doe’s abuse is framed.
How should we label Jane Doe’s abuse?
By the sounds of the piece in Mother Jones, Jane Doe most likely started trading sex for services. Perhaps she was also looking for love and validation. This is not that uncommon, especially for queer and transgender youth. For this reason, perhaps it is valuable to imply that she has agency in her life, to give her a label of sex work to suggest that these choices are her choices.
Yet, her story shows that things are far more complicated than that. It looks as though those who were supposed to protect her — staff at group homes — took advantage of her. This would also not be that uncommon for youth who end up commercially sexually exploited. Too many sexually exploited youth that I’ve met have had far worse relationships with parents and state actors than any client. But the clincher for me is her account of having been locked up and forced to have sex until she escaped. This is coercion through-and-through. Regardless of why Doe entered into the sex trade or how we want to read her agency in this process, there is no way to interpret this kind of circumscribed existence and abuse as anything other than trafficking.
So why isn’t she identified as a trafficking victim? Why aren’t human trafficking advocacy organizations raising a stink about her case? Why aren’t anti-trafficking journalists telling her story?
The reality is that she’s not a good example for those who want clean narratives. Her case shows the messiness of human trafficking. The way in which commercial exploitation of minors is entwined with other dynamics of poverty and abuse. The ways in which law enforcement isn’t always helpful. (Ah, yes, our lovely history of putting victims into jail because “it’s safer there.”) Jane Doe isn’t white and her gender identity confounds heteronormative anti-trafficking conversations. She doesn’t fit people’s image of a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. So it’s safer to avoid terms like trafficking so as to not muddy the waters even though the water was muddy in the first place.
(This entry was first posted on June 19, 2014 at Medium under the title “Why Jane Doe doesn’t get to be a sex trafficking victim” as part of The Message.)
Only two hours before the nightmare that would unfold, I was sitting with friends sharing my loyalties to travel programs. I had lost status on nearly everything when I got pregnant with my son (where’s parental leave??), forcing me to rethink my commitments. I told everyone about how I loved the fact that Avis had been so good to me, so willing to give me hybrids when they were available. I had been in an Avis car for 20 of the 28 days that month and I was sad that I didn’t have a hybrid in LA but the customer service rep was super apologetic and I understood that it was a perk, not a guarantee.
When I got into my car at 10PM that night, I discovered I had a flat tire. Exhausted and jetlagged, I called Roadside Assistance and braced myself to begin the process. I didn’t give it much thought given that I was 7 miles from LAX where it’d be easy to exchange a car. And it’s LA, land of cars, right? I had gotten stuck in much worse situations, situations without phone service. When I got the rep on the phone, we went through the process and I said that I didn’t feel safe driving significantly on a spare, especially not in LA. I asked how long for an exchange because we were so close. He said it’d be longer. I asked how long but he didn’t know; he said he’d text me when the order was placed. I figured go ahead and I can always call back and shift things. It was dark, I was falling asleep, and time passed.
An hour later, I still hadn’t heard anything. I called back, now much more frustrated. They told me that they still didn’t know. I pushed and pushed and they told me it’d probably take 4 hours. WTF? Are you serious!?!? How long for a spare to be changed I asked? Another 90 minutes they told me. They wanted me to wait until 12:30AM to get a spare tire on my car or until 3AM to get a replacement. I told them that this wasn’t safe, they asked if I was in a life-threatening emergency. No, it just wasn’t safe for me to sleep in my car in the middle of Los Angeles. I asked if I could just take a cab to the 24/7 LAX counter and hand over the keys. No, I couldn’t get a new car without giving up the old one and they wouldn’t receive the keys without the car. They reminded me that I was liable for the car. At one point, he recommended that I just leave the keys in the unlocked car. At this point, I knew the rep knew zero about the context in which I was in. Los Angeles. Late at night. In the dark. I was furious. Luckily, I have friends in Los Angeles. One is a late night owl and agreed to take the keys and do the exchange. I got driven to the hotel, angry as hell.
They texted us that they’d arrive at 4AM to pick up the car. They didn’t show up. At 9:30AM, I called back furious. They blamed the towing company and said another 30 minutes. Eventually they showed up at 11:30AM. Luckily, my friend was amazingly awesome and managed to make it work even though she worked and had to juggle. At 4PM, I called Avis to make sure they had the car. Nope. And they couldn’t close the account or look up the repair information. Roadside assistance told me to call customer service, customer service told me to call LAX rental directly, LAX rental sent me to his manager who went straight to voicemail. Not surprisingly, they didn’t return that phone call. I tweeted throughout and the only response that I got from the Avis rep was a polite note to say that they hoped everything worked out. I wrote back that it absolutely had not and got zero response. I wrote to the Avis customer service and the Avis FIRST email. No response. So much for being a valuable customer. Luckily I had done all of this through Amex Business Travel who was just awesome and leveraged their status to push Avis into taking care of it and giving me a refund.
I know lots of people have horrible customer service experiences with companies like Avis, but I’m still stunned by the acceptability of what unfolded. The way in which such treatment is considered acceptable, normative even. The absolute lack of accountability or recognition of how outright problematic that experience was. It all comes back down to markets and “choice,” as though the answer is simply for me to go to another company. Admittedly, I will walk away from Avis and my status now but it’s not simply because I think that a different company will be better. It’s because the entire experience soured me on the very social contract that I thought I had with Avis.
What if I was in a city where I didn’t have friends? What if I had been in a more remote setting (like I had been for 14 of the 20 days of rentals this month)? What if I had a plane to catch? I thought the whole promise of roadside assistance was that Avis would be there for me when things went haywire. Instead, they passed the buck at every turn, making it clear that they refused to take responsibility for their vendors. One of the phone reps eventually went off script and noted that some of the company policies are disturbing. But he was clearly resigned to it.
As customer service has become more automated, more mechanized, companies create distance between them and their customers. We aren’t people. We are simply a pool of possible money, valued based on our worth to the company. They do enough to keep us from going elsewhere if we are valuable, but otherwise do everything possible to not take responsibility. They don’t want us calling in so they pass the buck to keep their numbers and they stick to their scripts. The low-level employees have no power and they know darn straight that when we ask for their managers, we’ll never reach them. This is what Kafka feared and the reality of it is far more pervasive than we acknowledge in a market economy.
Old industries rage against new startups who are seeking to disrupt them, but what they don’t take account for is the way in which customers are fed up being beholden to the Milgram-esque practices of these large companies. When all goes well, working with big companies can be seamless. But when it doesn’t, you’re on your own. And that’s a terrifying risk to take. Cars break down, flights get delayed, hotels get oversold. The risks are more upfront with new disruptors but, above all else in peer economy stuff, you often get to interact with people. It’s not perfect – and goddess knows that there are incidents that are forcing the peer economy companies to develop better protections – but somehow, it feels better to know that you’ll be interacting with people, not automatons.
I rent cars for work travel mostly because I like listening to NPR when I’m moving around. I like being able to explore when I don’t know where to eat and this has historically made it easier. But I’m reassessing that logic. I never want to have a repeat of the hellish night that I went through this week. I don’t trust Avis to be there for me. I have a lot more faith in the imperfections of the network of Uber drivers than the coldness of the corporate giant. When they leave you stranded, they leave you *really* stranded. As for my non-urban car rentals, I need to figure out what’s next. I am very angry at Avis. Truly, overwhelmingly offended by how they’ve treated me this week. Also, scared. Scared of what happens the next time when the circumstances aren’t as functional. But are any of the other companies any better? Do we really have market choice or is it a big ole farce?