Saturday, December 24, 2005

The geography of "wiretapping" labor

What do you know, less than twenty-four hours after I said I wouldn't be posting, a revelation in the New York Times this morning that I'd like to dissect a bit. The article, "Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report" [] discusses new background information about the Bush administration's executive-ordered practice of surveillance over international communications without customary court approval:

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

So right from the start, our old telegraph-era spatial and technological metaphor of "wiretapping" is a bit inadequate to analyze what's going on. The "wiretap" idea assumes a geography of sender, receiver, and intermediary "wire" which can be "tapped" either at the sender's end, at the receiver's end, or somewhere in between -- wherever is technologically convenient and/or legally allowable. The wires, sticking with this historical analogy, might be corporate-owned physical capital, but are erected on government-granted right-of-way. But the technological and political geography of "analyz[ing] large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States" at the "main arteries" of the US telecommunication system is quite different.

The way the Bush administration has described (and justified) its actions so far fits into the old "wire tapping" metaphor: "President Bush and his senior aides have stressed that his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to the monitoring of international phone and e-mail communications involving people with known links to Al Qaeda." But the actual labor of identifying which virtual "wires" to "tap" is far more thorny and complicated: "What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation."

From "wire tapping" to "data mining" the scale and meaning of surveillance changes significantly. The NYT article reminds us that "The use of similar data-mining operations by the Bush administration in other contexts has raised strong objections, most notably in connection with the Total Information Awareness system, developed by the Pentagon for tracking terror suspects, and the Department of Homeland Security's Capps program for screening airline passengers. Both programs were ultimately scrapped after public outcries over possible threats to privacy and civil liberties."

The cooperation of corporate owners, managers, and workers in "data mining" activity is much more crucial as well, according to anonymous sources in the article: "A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists. [...] Several officials said that after President Bush's order authorizing the N.S.A. program, senior government officials arranged with officials of some of the nation's largest telecommunications companies to gain access to switches that act as gateways at the borders between the United States' communications networks and international networks. The identities of the corporations involved could not be determined."

Further, when mining this data at the level of the "telecom switch," even within one particular corporation's control at a time, it is not always apparent whether the geography of the telephone call or Internet transaction is intended to involve the US, or whether it simply reaches US-based equipment as a consequence of decisions made about the topological efficiency and market cost of global corporate communication networks: "The switches are some of the main arteries for moving voice and some Internet traffic into and out of the United States, and, with the globalization of the telecommunications industry in recent years, many international-to-international calls are also routed through such American switches."

Now, I'm not pointing out these moments of the article in order to make a claim about whether or not our government should or should not engage in such data mining. But I find it disturbing that the President refuses to actually engage in this debate openly, using a century-old "wire tapping" metaphor for a new-economy "data mining" activity. With the well-documented unwillingness of the Bush administration to make its decision-making processes transparent and open to public debate -- from its corporate-friendly energy policy, to its use of taxpayer-paid and placed opinion columns and video news releases in support of its policies, to its decision to link Iraq to 9/11 in a metaphorical "War on Terror" -- I don't think it is unreasonable to ask for explanation and justification of a major shift in surveillance policy.

The final point to consider comes out at the end of the NYT article, when it is revealed that not only might the Bush administration be exceeding its legal authority in its post-9/11 surveillance practices, but that it has actually used its coercive power to create a corporate and technological environment more amenable to such practices: "One outside expert on communications privacy who previously worked at the N.S.A. said that to exploit its technological capabilities, the American government had in the last few years been quietly encouraging the telecommunications industry to increase the amount of international traffic that is routed through American-based switches." In other words, actions taken unilaterally by the US government in pursuit of its own definition of a "War on Terror" are helping to change the geography of information flow, information surveillance, and information profit on a global scale. From an administration -- and a party -- which claims to value the working of the "free market" and claims to eschew regulation of that market, such coercion over the "space of flows" of global communication for particular national security ends is a contradictory moment that might reveal a rift between the "fiscal," the "defense," and the "libertarian" pillars of the current US conservative/Republican movement.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Happy winter, everybody.

Don't expect posts for awhile, as I decompress and retool for next semester. But thanks for reading and have a happy winter festival of whatever sort you prefer. (Or, if you're in the southern hemisphere and it ain't winter there, please accept my sympathies.) P.S. The winter image comes from the superb open-source sky simulation program Stellarium, which I recommend for inquisitive children everywhere this gift-giving season. Useful information labor indeed.

Ho ho ho,


Friday, December 09, 2005

Video games: Labor or recreation?

OK, I just had to mention this article in the New York Times today ( about a new form of "outsourcing" (and, in this case, "offshoring") of information labor.

One of China's newest factories operates here in the basement of an old warehouse. Posters of World of Warcraft and Magic Land hang above a corps of young people glued to their computer screens, pounding away at their keyboards in the latest hustle for money.

The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

"For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters," said a 23-year-old gamer who works here in this makeshift factory and goes by the online code name Wandering. "I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I've had. And I can play games all day."

What amazes me is not so much the idea that this labor is flowing to low-wage, minimal-regulatory areas of broadband connectivity, but that the market for this service is so tied to what is supposed to be a form of recreation. How do videogames and video game access subscriptions make such profit if they are seen as so much drudgery?

It is also interesting to note the ways in which these avatar-builders are portrayed in the article. The stand-in gamers, who "range from 18 to 25 years old," are allegedly "not willing to do hard labor" according to one gaming-labor company owner. "If they didn't work here they'd probably be working as waiters in hot pot restaurants," he said, "or go back to help their parents farm the land - or more likely, hang out on the streets with no job at all." I wonder how other gaming workers beyond the single example quoted in the article -- many of whom apparently sleep and eat at these "gold factories" in order to hold down 12- to 18-hour shifts -- see themselves. Playing videogames for half a day straight, in an officially illegal industry where abuses might go unnoticed, subject to quotas like in any other factory environment and earning only 25 cents an hour, doesn't sound "lazy" to me (as the sources quoted in the article would suggest).

Friday, December 02, 2005

Learning from graduate student labor

Sandra Tam, a Ph.D. candidate in social work and women’s studies at the University of Toronto has written a nice essay over at Inside Higher Ed ( on "Demystifying the Intellectual Work of Grad Students" that confronts some of the persistent contradictions wrapped up in information labor. For example, she points out that "people’s acceptance of scholarly endeavors and graduate studentship as a privileged type of work often occurs at the same time that they disparage the actual associated academic activities" and products which result from this work -- accusations of elitism coupled with anti-intellectualism. But instead of just laying out some of the polarizing misperceptions that emerge about information labor, Tam asks why such misunderstandings are produced and reproduced in the first place:

On another level, the comments suggest that the intellectual work of academics and graduate students does not fit with other types of work, such as physical, manual, skilled trades, professional, service, care, and/or domestic labor. Perhaps people are just not familiar with scholarly work of graduate students and academics. Perhaps I need to explain what is it that I do between the figurative hours of 9 to 5. Some aspects of my work are more obvious than others. People generally accept that graduate students take courses, research articles, or teach, which involves developing courses, preparing materials/lectures, grading assignments, and/or academic counseling of students.

However, most of my time is spent thinking, reading and writing. There is less vocabulary for describing what I actually do when I think, read and write. How do I target what to read, which databases to search, which email lists and professional associations to subscribe to? How do I decide which conferences or lectures to attend, whom to network with, and which journals to submit my articles to? In addition, there is academic grunt work, for example, coffee making for conferences, data processing, transcription and assorted clerical tasks, babysitting professor’s children, or attending academic and community events and meetings to build future research alliances.

The rest of Tam's article explores one aspect of the invisibility of graduate-student academic labor by invoking a concept from feminist studies known as "provisioning":

Feminist economists developed and defined provisioning as the work of securing resources and providing the necessities of life to those for whom one has relationships of responsibility. Provisioning is introduced to make observable a wide range of work and work-related activities that reflect how young marginalized women are creatively surviving by juggling pressures and responsibilities of school, work, and family, while planning careers in an uncertain labor market. In a similar way, provisioning reveals the tasks and details of what I do as a doctoral student.

Provisioning might indeed be useful to explore the grey area of "employment versus education" which doctoral candidates inhabit. (Witness the acrimonious debates right now, both at private institutions like New York University and public institutions like my own UW-Madison over the dual nature of Teaching Assistant working conditions -- "are they workers or are they students" -- with no room for any dialectical understanding that in the process of producing knowledge and becoming knowledge-producers, they might be both.) But I think Tam's essay should point us as well to the ways that even post-Ph.D., salaried or waged information labor -- and academic information labor in particular -- might be misunderstood and mischaracterized (or, perhaps I should say, differently understood and contentiously characterized).

The fragmented space and time of information labor (am I "working" at home, late at night, when I brainstorm ideas for my next class or my next book on my laptop computer?), the polarized "front stage" and "back stage" performances of academic responsibility (time in the classroom is valorized, but time sending emails, compiling bibliographies, and blogging weblogs is not), and the differential social and temporal scales of research even among faculty in the same department (contrasting folks expected to author a dozen articles a year in collaboration with a group of smart Ph.D. students with people like me who need three years or more to conceptualize, research, and write a sole-authored book) all stand in stark contrast to many other kinds of labor. It seems to me that building a new vocabulary to describe, analyze, and legitimize graduate student work -- the kind of vocabulary which Tam suggests is currently lacking -- would benefit those of us in academia who are former graduate students as well.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The many debates over standardized testing in public schools

(Hi folks. Here's a holiday blog post as I take a breather from the last read-through of my new book manuscript, due at the publisher this week. Information labor indeed.)

Standardized testing in the public schools connects with the idea of "information labor" on multiple levels. It is a practice intended to accurately measure the level of knowledge acquisition and information-manipulation training of children who, presumably, will soon be active producers, citizens, and individuals in an increasinly information-intensive economy, polity, and society. In addition, it is a practice often used to measure the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and school boards in producing such knowledge and skills in students -- with the threat of failure in these endeavors ranging from firing at the individual level to privatization at the institutional level. And, of course, standardized testing is "information labor" in and of itself for those students who must study, practice, and take the exams themselves.

So I read with great interest an article in the New York Times today ( on the contradictory results coming out of the Bush Administration's public school testing practices at both the national and state levels, as mandated by the "No Child Left Behind" regulations:

A comparison of state test results against the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, shows that wide discrepancies between the state and federal findings were commonplace.

In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency on state reading tests, while only 18 percent of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency on the federal test. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Texas and more than a dozen other states all showed students doing far better on their own reading and math tests than on the federal one.

The chasm is significant because of the compromises behind the No Child Left Behind law. The law requires states to participate in the National Assessment - known to educators as NAEP (pronounced nape) - the most important federal measure of student proficiency.

But in a bow to states' rights, states are allowed to use their own tests in meeting the law's central mandate - that schools increase the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency each year. The law requires 100 percent of the nation's students to reach proficiency - as each state defines it - by 2014.

States set the stringency of their own tests as well as the number of questions students must answer correctly to be labeled proficient. And because states that fail to raise scores over time face serious sanctions, there is little incentive to make the exams difficult, some educators say.

What was even more fascinating (and disturbing) to me than these results, however, was the way the article portrayed their reception by various interest groups:

The battle lines have long been sharp in the testing debate. Most corporate leaders favor national testing, said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives.

Opponents include liberal groups that dislike all standardized testing; the testing industry itself, which has found lucrative profits in writing new exams for all 50 states; and political conservatives who fiercely resist any intrusion on states' rights to control curricula and tests.

To me the vast disparity in national versus state test results is disturbing because it undermines not only the very goals of "No Child Left Behind" (that all children reach a socially-agreed-upon level of proficiency in the socially-agreed-upon "basics" of education such as reading and math) but because it undermines the _process_ through which NCLB is supposed to reach these goals -- certifying "successful" versus "failing" teachers, schools, and school districts, as a prelude to diverse and as-yet-undefined set of penalties and remedies which might range from state takeover to federal voucher programs. The various interest groups described in the article all hold different positions, not only on the value of standardized testing as a diagnostic tool itself, but on the set of options, outcomes, and opinions tied into the whole philosophy of NCLB. By simplifying the views of so-called "liberals" into "disliking all standardized testing", or by splitting off "political conservatives" without considering the complementary fractions of conservatism in the public schooling debates such as social conservatives and economic conservatives, such complexities fall out of the debate.

I suppose the NYT would classify me as a "liberal against testing" in this regard. Personally, I consider myself more of a "progressive pragmatist" who is not against testing itself. In my own personal history I benefitted greatly from my own effort, ability, and luck in successfully scoring high on college-entrance and college-credit tests during high school, and it would be a bit dishonest for me to now disavow testing -- especially since my job as a university professor puts me in the position of trusting this testing process with regard to my students.

But that doesn't mean that I think our current form of standardized testing is either fully complete or fully coherent in measuring ability, accomplishment, or future potential; or that I agree with any possible use to which the results of standardized tests might be put, often to deny further participation in the educational process either to educators or to those that they attempt to educate. Again, my personal experience reminds me that, coming from a privileged cultural position, many tests made sense to me simply because of my long exposure to them or my shared cultural background with the test-writers; that my abilities with regard to artistic expression, creative thinking, political activism, or scientific wonder were never "tested" by the Educational Testing Service; and that if more class time had been taken to teach me and my peers to a test, we would have missed out on other important educational messages and lessons which can't be reduced to a filled-in circle on a Scantron sheet.

"Liberals" and "conservatives" alike may appreciate the rational ideal of testing, but may disagree both between these groups and within these groups, on the proper uses to which testing must be put. The current evidence that the philosophy and implementation, rewards and penalties, rhetoric and reality of NCLB are not matching up on the most basic level of standardized test scores should reopen debate on the rest of the regulations -- have the current administration and congress crafted a plan which serves the interests of social justice, or one which serves the interests of the status quo? Have they listened to the lobbying pressure of a profit-driven information industry, or of progress-minded information professionals?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Random observations on information labor at the 2005 SHOT conference, Minneapolis

Just returned from my one annual academic conference, the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) meeting, which was held this year in Minneapolis, MN. Other folks blog choice sessions from conferences like this in realtime, but not me. However, I've been thinking that this year my interaction with the events of the conference was structured and bracketed by information technology in new ways, so I thought I'd ponder some of them.

- I registered for my hotel online, but was forced to send my conference registration in by physical mail. I wonder if this meant more early registrations or more late registrations.

- I paid $12 per day for parking, and $10 per day for wireless Internet access. Each of these represents about 1/10th the cost of the actual hotel room.

- The wireless Internet access which I purchased only worked in my hotel room (actually the whole floor, which coincidentally included the pool). If I wanted access in the lobby I had to purchase it again, from a different provider. This meant I was constantly running back to my room throughout the day (because I'm too cheap to pay for something twice.) I had a fun time imagining how in the future we'd have to pay for air, electricity, and water on a micro-locational-specific basis as well ...

- The actual conference rooms and exhibit halls were unable to receive any wireless Internet access, paid or not. People who relied on such connections for their presentations were out of luck. And a bunch of colleagues who had brought laptops found themselves huddled in the hotel lobby, checking email, finishing up grant applications, weblogging, or just checking the news. I suspect some of them were creating ad-hoc computer-to-computer networks for the purpose of trading files and messages ...

- For the first time I not only used my portable computer to craft my presentation comments at the conference site, but read my comments from the screen like a teleprompter and then emailed my comments to colleagues who had asked for them, a short hour after the presentation concluded. I felt strangely disconnected when I returned home, without any "conference clean up" emails to send.

OK, enough rambling. I'm finishing up my second book this month so posts to the weblog will be light. But wanted to let my vast cadre of readers (all three of them) know that I'm still here. Cheers,


Friday, October 21, 2005

Tools for college teaching aid in clearing copyright but abandon defense of fair use

An opinion piece today in Inside Higher Ed by Cornell professor Tarleton Gillespie has some smart things to say about academic online courseware vendors (a market becoming more and more concentrated), tools to enable micropayments for intellectual property royalties in the university context, and the erosion of any sort of institutional or professional defense of "fair use" principles for nonprofit social goals (such as education). The genesis of his column was the press release that "Last week, the Copyright Clearance Center announced that it would integrate a 'Copyright Permissions Building Block' function directly into Blackboard’s course management tools. The service automates the process of clearing copyright for course materials by incorporating it directly into the Blackboard tool kit; instructors post materials into their course space, and then tell the application to send information about those materials to CCC for clearance." Gillespie goes on to explain the ramifications of this new technological environment:

Some have argued that fair use is a practical solution for the complex process of clearing permission. If I had to clear permission every single time I quoted someone else’s research or Xeroxed a newspaper article for my students — figuring out who owns the copyright and how to contact them, then gaining permission and (undoubtedly) negotiating a fee — I might be discouraged from doing so simply because it’s difficult and time-consuming. In the absence of an easy way to clear copyright, we have fair use as a way to “let it slide” when the economic impact is minimal and the social value is great.

Others argue that fair use is an affirmative protection designed to ensure that copyright owners don’t exploit their legal power to squelch the reuse of their work, especially when it might be critical of their ideas. If I want to include a quote in my classroom slides in order to demonstrate how derivative, how racist, or maybe just how incompetent the writer is, and copyright law compelled me to ask the writer’s permission to do it, he could simply say no, limiting my ability to powerfully critique the work. Since copyright veers dangerously close to a regulation of speech, fair use is a kind of First Amendment safety valve, such that speakers aren’t restricted by those they criticize by way of copyright.

This distinction was largely theoretical until organizations like CCC came along. With the help of new database technologies and the Internet, the CCC has made it much easier for people to clear copyright, solving some of the difficulty of locating owners and negotiating a fair price by doing it for us. The automatic mechanism being built into Blackboard goes one step further, making the process smooth, user-friendly, and automatic. So, if fair use is merely a way to account for how difficult clearing copyright can be, then the protection is growing less and less necessary. Fair use can finally be replaced by what Tom Bell called “fared use” — clear everything easily for a reasonable price.

If, on the other hand, fair use is a protection of free speech and academic freedom that deliberately allow certain uses without permission, then the CCC/Blackboard plan raises a significant problem.

Another set of questions emerges from a different direction, if in its zeal to lessen the risk of having to fight legal battles (or even answer legal questions) over fair use, universities compel faculty and staff to use particular courseware systems (or any other tools involving automatic rights-clearance modules -- web design tools next?) from particular vendors for their teaching and/or research. This restricts the pedagogical freedom of instructors but serves to homogenize and standardize course offerings into models which can more easily be sold to wider markets of students willing and able to pay higher prices for more technologically-mediated educational products. In short, the "politics" of courseware artifacts and systems that Gillespie points us to may have far-reaching effects.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Public libraries and Sunday labor (updated)

From the Capital Times today:

Sunday at the library popular, expensive
Mayor's budget cuts those hours

By Lee Sensenbrenner
October 18, 2005

Madison could be nearly the only city in Dane County not to have any Sunday library hours under the 2006 operating budget proposed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.

Cieslewicz's plan to save money by keeping the Central Library closed on Sundays instead of being open Sundays from October through April has become an early chafing point as the city moves toward adopting a budget next year.

Madison Public Library Director Barb Dimick told the Board of Estimates Monday that 1-5 p.m. period that the Central Library is open on Sunday sees higher traffic and use than most other four-hour periods in the schedule and is "a peak period during winter."

It's a popular time for family excursions, she said. And it's a time when downtown streets near the library, 201 W. Mifflin St., do not charge for parking.

But it's also a time when the staff is paid overtime, or one-and-a-half times their hourly rate, because of their contract. The Sunday hours were added in the late 1990s, Dimick said, and at the time that meant accepting overtime payments.

She said that the union contract with library staff is up for negotiation next year. As it stands, eliminating Sunday hours would mean a $60,000 savings in the $202 million budget.

Sun Prairie, Verona and Middleton all keep Sunday library hours.

I wonder how such a move would affect the effort to gain funding and legitimacy for a renovation of the Central Library building -- an effort which has been underway for years.

I wonder if this is a moment when those who want government to prioritize access to information (especially for those whose work schedules limit the hours that they can patronize libraries) should make their voices heard.

I wonder if there is anything in the professional or academic literature on libraries and community about the costs and benefits -- not just in dollars and cents, but in community goodwill and social capital -- of keeping libraries open seven days a week.

UPDATE 18 Oct 2005: One of our smart SLIS students pointed me to an article which begins to answer these questions:


Here's a good start:

Title: A Defense of Opening the Public Library on Sunday.
Subject(s): PUBLIC libraries; LIBRARY users
Author(s): Hennessy, Frank
Source: Library Journal, 05/01/85, Vol. 110 Issue 8, p25, 2p
Abstract: Proposes and defends the position that public libraries be
open on Sunday by discussing the concept of time allocation and its
implications for the cost of library service. Author's perception on
the value of time as a resource; Correlation between income, education
and time spent in library use; Implications of availability of time on
Sunday for library users; Recommendation of flexible week timings for
library staff.
AN: 7558839
ISSN: 0363-0277
Persistent link to this record:
Database: Academic Search Elite

Hennessy is CORRECT, simply calculating the cost of time + overtime is
an incomplete calculation.

The article by Hennessy makes some interesting arguments, all of which have to do with the social construction of time -- the idea that any given hour at the library for one person is not the same as the same hour at the library for another person. Rather, for different groups of users with different resources and needs, library availability at different times and days of the week has differing value. For example, "Education has a direct effect on individual library productivity. The higher the education level, the more adept a person is at using the library, resulting in a decrease in time spent" but an increase in the value of that time. Thus keeping the library open on Sunday needs to be considered, especially for economically disadvantaged and/or less educated users whose time in the library is not as "productive" as that of affluent or highly-educated users, as an "efficient allocation of resources which results in the lowering of time cost to the library user." Doesn't roll off the tounge for a soundbite in the local media, but these are the kind of careful and nuanced arguments that information managers need to make in order to advocate on behalf of their current and prospective patrons.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Information labor behind the new video iPod

A couple of articles today note the objections of several creative production labor unions -- including the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guilds of America (East and West) -- over the arrangements that ABC/Disney has made with Steve Jobs and Apple Computer to provide downloadable video content to iPods. When you purchase an episode of "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives" for $1.99, does a fair percentage of that fee flow back to the creative information labor that produced the content?

A Reuters/Hollywood Reporter story posted on Yahoo news [] considers whether the "cable model" or the "DVD model" is the appropriate royalty example:

WGAW continues to believe that the proper formula is the existing one covering pay television. That entitles writers to 1.2% of the entire producers' gross. DGA has an identical formula, while SAG gets 3.6% and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) gets 5.4%.

The DVD formula, by contrast, is much less lucrative for all of these guilds because it pays a slightly higher percentage based on only 20% of the wholesale receipts. The remaining 80% is withheld by the studios to cover manufacturing, distribution and marketing costs.

Interestingly, a key point in the debate seems to be the commodity status of a download -- is it a transmission, like a cable TV signal, or a product, like a physical DVD? A further article in Variety [] sheds some more light on this distinction:

All the guilds operate under a DVD residuals formula that has been in place for two decades. The rate -- which allows studios to exclude 80% of gross revenues prior to calculating residuals -- was tilted toward studios to help the fledgling videocassette technology at the time.

As a result, the credited writers of a moderately successful film selling 1 million DVDs and generating $15 million in wholesale revenues would split a payout of around $50,000, compared with an estimated $10 million profit for the studios.

At negotiations last year, all the guilds failed to budge studios from their resistance to changing the formula. The studios contended that DVDs were not ancillary income; they essentially kept studios afloat with only one in 10 features recouping costs from domestic box office and only four in 10 recouping after all revenues come in via foreign box office, TV and DVD.

With the battle over royalty rights in for-profit broadcast content heating up, we should not forget that much of the activity behind "video podcasts" actually comes from the free labor of activists, enthusiasts, and artists who currently provide their product/service for free. Ironically, Apple computer may be contributing to this side of the question as well, as it announced that its new consumer iMac models would now come preequipped with onboard video cameras -- ready out of the box for grassroots first-person podcasts of all sorts. Whether people consider such activities as labor or entertainment, at least such experimentation might remind audiences that crafting video productions takes time, effort, skill, and ... work.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Debating telework at a state university (long)

Here at my workplace, a big midwestern state research university, there's been a draft policy circulating dealing with "telecommuting" that I find quite interesting -- as does the local labor union (which I happen to belong to), United Faculty and Academic Staff:

Telecommuting Policy - University of Wisconsin - Madison

UW-Madison recognizes the value of telecommuting for both employee and
employer. Telecommuting is a cooperative arrangement* based on the needs
of the job, the department or unit, and the university. The following is
the telecommuting policy for academic staff, classified and limited
employees of the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus.


• Telecommuting – Telecommuting is a voluntary* workplace alternative
where supervisors agree to allow an employee to regularly perform some
or all assigned duties at home or another location. This may involve the
use of telecommunications (cellular phones, faxes, calling cards,
pagers, etc.) or computer technologies. A telecommuting agreement
document detailing mutually agreed* upon work schedules, accessibility
levels, equipment purchases/loans-service purchases and any other
pertinent issues must be completed and signed before beginning
telecommuting. A telecommuting agreement is not required for occasional
situations in which the employee works at home.

• Telecommuting Agreement - a document that describes a specifically
approved telecommuting work arrangement, and any necessary
equipment/services needed.

Employee Selection Criteria and Conditions

The Supervisor, Department Chair, and Dean/Director will review the
telecommuting request taking into account the factors listed below.

• Needs of the department or unit
• Needs of the employee
• Employee's work duties and the ability to measure or assess work performed
• Availability and costs of needed equipment
• Employee's current and past job performance, as documented in
performance evaluations, including time management, organizational
skills, self motivation, and the ability to work independently
• Assessment of other employees (e.g., interest, skills, unit longevity,
etc.) in the immediate work unit performing similar responsibilities.
• Effect on service
• Effect on the rest of the work group, unit or department
• Measurable objectives and results mutually agreed to by the employee
and the supervisor
• Other items deemed necessary and appropriate

Telecommuting is a prerogative of the University, not an entitlement of
employees. It is approved on a case-by-case basis consistent with the
mission of the University and the respective department or unit.

Telecommuting is not a substitute for dependent or day care.

*If the employee accepts the telecommuting arrangement as a condition of
employment when hired into the position, the employee will not be able
to unilaterally terminate the agreement; it can only be terminated by
the employer.
Page 2 – Telecommuting Policy Cont.

Compensation and Benefits

Telecommuting is a management tool allowing for flexibility in work
options. It does not change the basic terms and conditions of
employment. Compensation and benefits will be set forth in University
policy or union contract, whichever applies. The telecommuter's salary,
job responsibilities, and University benefits do not change as a result
of telecommuting.

Telecommuting Agreement and Form

A completed Telecommuting Agreement Form (attached) is required and must
be signed by the Supervisor, Department Chair, Dean/Director’s Office
and the telecommuter. Copies of these documents should be kept in the
employee’s personnel file; and be forwarded to Risk Management if
University equipment is loaned to the employee. This agreement will be
reviewed and updated at least annually, and as the specifics or
equipment/services are modified.

Work Schedule and Overtime

The work schedule of the telecommuting employee will be determined by
the Supervisor and will be documented in the telecommuting agreement.

The working of overtime, accrual of compensatory time, accrual and
charging of leave time will be subject to the same rules and regulations
as are in place at the designated University work location.

With advance notice, an authorized University representative may make
on-site visits to the telecommuter's work location.

Equipment and Information Security

• University-provided equipment at home is not an entitlement of
telecommuting employees. Depending on the job, equipment needs for
telecommuters will vary and are determined by the supervisor.

• Telecommuting employees must abide by the University's policies
covering information security, software licensing and data privacy.

• Telecommuting employees must abide by University Purchasing and
Accounting policies for all purchases and expenditures incurred for
telecommuting equipment or services. The telecommuting agreement will be
required as documentation for purchases and expenditures related to
telecommuting and must be attached to all transactions.

• Maintenance on University-owned equipment will be performed only by a
University authorized technician. The employee will be responsible for
bringing the equipment to the employer-designated repair location.
Necessary maintenance and repairs on University-owned equipment will be
performed at the University's expense.

• Maintenance and repair of employee-owned equipment is the
responsibility of the employee. The University is not liable for such
equipment even if the employee is engaged in University work at the time
of malfunction.

• Upon termination of the telecommuting agreement or employment, the
employee must return all University-owned equipment to the University.

Although my own salaried, exempt position means that I wouldn't be covered by the telecommuting agreement in question, I'd like to offer some thoughts on this very timely discussion of telecommuting policy for two reasons:

(a) as a faculty member split between two departments, I'm privileged to have a university-provided laptop computer and cell phone, along with the freedom to work remotely from home, from coffeeshops, etc. when performing various work-related tasks, and i would like to see the very real benefits of technology-enabled alternative work times and spaces brought out to more UW-Madison employees if possible; and

(b) I actually do research on the way new information technologies transform the time, space, and social relations of the workplace, so this discussion might be something I can contribute to. But please take my (rather long, sorry) comments as just a first-pass reaction to what I see as a constructive but flawed first-draft at a telecommuting policy ...

(1) “UW-Madison recognizes the value of telecommuting for both employee and employer.”

First of all, I would suggest that the agreement outline some of the possible benefits to employees and to the employer, to make clear both the purposes that telecommuting is intended to serve and the limits of telecommuting’s usefulness. For example, from the point of view of the employer, telecommuting can reduce the need for office space, parking space, and lighting/heating/electricity energy costs. But, telecommuting should not be thought of as an alternative to providing adequate equipment, workspace, transportation, childcare, work hours, supervisiory feedback, and opportunities for advancement to employees.

From the point of view of the employee, telecommuting can reduce the need for or time of travel from home to office, and subsequently reduce gasoline costs or other travel costs. But, telecommuting should not be an alternative to: (1) providing adequate work quality and/or work hours to an employee; (2) providing adequate office space and/or office equipment to an employee; (3) providing adequate parking or mass-transit options to an employee; and (4) as the document already states, “Telecommuting is not a substitute for dependent or day care.” (While this might seem obvious to some, a quick look through the management-oriented literature on telecommuting shows photo after photo of young mothers at home with small children on one hand and a computer/telephone on the other. Ridiculous, gender-biased assumptions are still pretty common.)

We should also recognize the potential (but not inevitable) urban-wide benefits of telework, such as possible overall reduction in travel, pollution, congestion, and energy use. (This is tricky, though, because home-based work has its own energy, pollution, and travel costs as well.)

(2) “Telecommuting is a cooperative arrangement* based on the needs of the job, the department or unit, and the university”; “Telecommuting is a voluntary* workplace alternative where supervisors agree to allow an employee to regularly perform some or all assigned duties at home or another location.”

It seems clear from the rest of the text that the proposed UW-Madison telecommuting policy makes telecommuting neither cooperative nor voluntary. As the document goes on to specify, “Telecommuting is a prerogative of the University, not an entitlement of employees.” Further, a footnote in the document states that “*If the employee accepts the telecommuting arrangement as a condition of employment when hired into the position, the employee will not be able to unilaterally terminate the agreement; it can only be terminated by the employer.” Thus telecommuting as defined by UW-Madison is an arrangement which may only be chosen by the employer, not the employee, and may even be mandated by the employer as a condition of continued employment. This is not cooperation, but coercion.

I would suggest that the policy make clear that upon entering into a “telecommuting agreement,” either the employee and/or the employer may terminate the agreement with adequate prior notice, and that such termination by either side should, by itself, in no way affect the continuation or definition of the employee’s job.

(3) “A telecommuting agreement is not required for occasional situations in which the employee works at home.”

I think this is a reasonable loophole. I would add “or at an alternate work location,” because not all telecommuting takes place at home.

(4) “The Supervisor, Department Chair, and Dean/Director will review the telecommuting request taking into account the factors listed below. [...]”

In addition to the factors listed, I would add “safety, security, and ergonomics of the proposed alternate work site,” both for the protection of the employer and for the protection of the employee.

(5) “With advance notice, an authorized University representative may make on-site visits to the telecommuter's work location.”

This is a tough one. When the alternate work location is the employee’s home, I think the employee should hold a right of privacy and be able to prohibit visits from the employer or the employer’s representatives. However, in order to ensure workplace safety, security, and ergonomics, or to install, maintain, and upgrade equipment, or even perhaps to drop off and pick up work in physical printed form, some contact with representatives from the workplace seems not only desirable, but inevitable.

I would suggest specifying some specific reasons that such visits might be required and/or requested, and specifiying some specific rules about what should happen if employees refuse such visits. For example, if an employee is not willing to have workplace representatives visit the site to perform equipment installation, maintenance, or upgrade, then perhaps that employee would not be able to have university equipment on site.

In any case, the ultimate right of refusal of any visit must rest with the employee if the alternate work site is the home. But at the same time, if the employer deems such visits crucial to the telecommuting arrangement, then it would seem that this would be grounds for terminating the telecommuting arrangement.

(6) “University-provided equipment at home is not an entitlement of telecommuting employees. Depending on the job, equipment needs for telecommuters will vary and are determined by the supervisor”; “I understand that costs related to remodeling and/or furnishing the work space shall be non-reimbursable/non-payable by the UW.”

The risk with these provisions as currently stated is that only those employees who supply their own telecommuting equipment (whether that is a computer, a printer, or a high-speed internet connection) will be allowed to enter into telecommuting agreements.

I would suggest that the language change to indicate that if the university decides a telecommuting arragement is warranted, and if the employee does not possess or does not wish to use personal equipment in support of the arrangement, then the university should pay to install all necessary equipment for the arrangement at the employee’s site (including any site modifications which might be necessary).

(7) “The employee will be responsible for bringing the equipment to the employer-designated repair location. Necessary maintenance and repairs on University-owned equipment will be performed at the University's expense.”

I think the transport of equipment to and from the alternate work site should be the responsibility of the employer, but at the very least, this should be something that is negotiated and specified within each individual telecommuting contract, and not assumed to be the employee’s responsibility.

(8) Finally, I would suggest some added language to protect the telecommuting employee:

Make sure that telecommuting employees receive adequate information about what is going on in the “physical” office, adequate information about job opportunities which might otherwise be relayed through physical bulletin board postings, casual conversation, and the like, and reasonable accomodations to be present in the decision-making processes of the unit in which they are employed. This might mean making sure that information gets communicated by email as well as by an announcement in a physical meeting, or by email as well as by printed memo. But from what I’ve seen in the research on telecommuting, the social and occupational disconnect from office life and further career opportunities is a great risk to telecommuters themselves.

Make sure that performance reviews of telecommuting employees take into account the difficult nature of working under conditions of self-supervision and “out of sight, out of mind” of fellow employees, which may be a negative effect on, say, employee peer reviews of performance.

Talk about telecommuting -- or, as I prefer, “teleworking” -- as part of a general strategy to not only provide flexibilty in the location of work, but in the time of work. In other words, combine with programs for time-shifting work, starting early or leaving late to avoid commuting bottlenecks, flexible work hours and work schedules for both employer and employee efficiency, and job sharing.

For people interested in some background reading on research pertaining to home-based-work, telecommuting, and the more general category of “telework,” I’d suggest the following references:

Sheila Allen and Carol Wolkowitz, Homeworking: Myths and Realities (London: Macmillan, 1987).

Eileen Boris and Cynthia R. Daniels, eds., Homework: historical and contemporary perspectives on paid labor at home (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

Andrew Gillespie and Ronald Richardson, “Teleworking and the city: Myths of workplace transcendence and travel reduction,” in James O. Wheeler, Yuko Aoyama and Barney Warf, eds., Cities in the telecommunications age: The fracturing of geographies (New York: Routledge, 2000), 228-248.

Ursula Huws, Werner B. Korte and Simon Robinson, Telework: Towards the elusive office (Chichester ; New York: Wiley, 1990).

Patricia L Mokhtarian, Gustavo O Collantes, and Carsten Gertz, “Telecommuting, residential location, and commute-distance traveled: Evidence from State of California employees,” Environment and Planning A 36:10 (2004), 1877 - 1897.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Book review: Levy and Murnane, The New Division of Labor (2004)

I wrote a review of Frank Levy and Richard Murnane's new book _The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market_ (2004) for the _International Review of Social History_ and thought I'd post an excerpt below, since I haven't had time to blog on much else this week.

Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane have written an engaging and accessible introduction to the political economy of a very specific but very important type of ‘‘information labor’’: that subset of work which is amenable to ‘‘computerization,’’ which in some cases means outright substitution of computer algorithms for human labor (a classic ‘‘deskilling’’ argument), and in other cases means careful augmentation of human labor through interactive software (a classic ‘‘upskilling’’ argument). The main point that the authors make is that these two simultaneous paths to what might be called the ‘‘digitalization of labor’’ are quite distinct, in both the kinds of tasks they encompass and the kinds of workers they affect. As computers colonize more and more industries and occupations, Levy and Murnane present a detailed analysis of what these electronic tools can and can’t do to predict that certain workers will continue to benefit while others will increasingly suffer in a ‘‘hollowing-out of the occupational structure’’ (p. 4) – a nuanced ‘‘digital-divide’’ scenario which can only be addressed, the authors conclude, through state intervention and educational reform.

Levy and Murnane begin by noting that, although ‘‘all human work involves the cognitive processing of information’’ (p. 5) there are many different kinds of information processing, only some of which are easily and affordably coded as computer algorithms. For example, the pattern-recognition (and consequent tactile dexterity) performed by even the most low-wage service workers remains uncomputable – don’t expect to see robot janitors any time soon. Similarly, complex communication tasks, such as those used by middle-income salespersons and educators, remain out of the computer’s reach. And finally, tasks that require novel and open-ended problem-solving, often called ‘‘symbolic analysis,’’ are restricted to human creativity (though computers are often used as productive tools by such high-wage workers). But any task which may be broken down into a discrete and finite set of steps and ‘‘rules’’ is potentially computable, and thus jobs which consist in whole or in part of such tasks will be increasingly endangered as the capital cost of computing power continues to fall. And crucially, ‘‘A task, once computerized, is potentially easy to replicate and so invites intense competition’’ (p. 54) with such information technology penetrating quickly through whole industries and occupations.

Levy and Murnane then move from a consideration of what kind of tasks favor computer substitution vs computer complementarity to what kind of workers will see their jobs eliminated by computers vs enhanced by computers. Not surprisingly, education is the key intervening variable. ‘‘Rapid job change raises the value of verbal and quantitative literacy’’ (p. 101), the authors argue, because reading and mathematics skills are ‘‘enabling skills’’: skills that are ‘‘necessary but not sufficient for economic success’’ (p. 103), especially in an increasingly information-based economy. Thus labor-market entrants who have had the opportunity to hone these enabling skills (e.g. college graduates) should fare much better than labor-market entrants without such skills (secondary-school dropouts or, sadly, even many secondary-school graduates, according to the authors).

Levy and Murnane back up these claims using historical labor market data from the United States. ‘‘In 1979, the average thirty-year-old man with a bachelor’s degree earned just 17 per cent more than a thirty-year-old man with a high school diploma. Today, the equivalent college–high-school wage gap exceeds 50 per cent, and the gap for women is larger’’ (p. 6). Similarly, they point out, while only 24 per cent of US workers used a computer on the job in 1984, now over 50 per cent of US workers do so (p. 105). These parallels represent a causal link, argue the authors – though they leave many of the details out of this book, instead referring readers to a 2003 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, written with David Autor, which details the quantitative data and formulae that ground these assertions.

Given this increasing divide in ‘‘enabling skills,’’ wages, and occupational choices, what is to be done? Limiting their prescriptions to the US context, Levy and Murnane do not shy away from the obvious policy questions here, but instead assert that ‘‘the nation cannot rely on for-profit firms as the primary institutions responsible for teaching the enabling skills needed to excel at complex communications and expert thinking tasks’’. Instead, ‘‘America’s schools will continue to be the critical institutions responsible for teaching American children the enabling skills’’ (p. 130). While Levy and Murnane in general recommend a social policy where ‘‘the better-off pay compensation through taxes or charity’’ (‘‘[c]ompensation will not come through the market since the market is creating the winners and losers in the first place’’ (p. 155)), their most specific proposal revolves around a vision of ‘‘standards-based education’’ – setting clear goals for student progress, standardizing instruction to meet these goals, and measuring student progress toward these goals ‘‘frequently’’ enough to make sure they are attained (pp. 134–135).

The rest of the review critiques their final recommendations a bit, but I'll save that for folks who want to search out the original. It's a good book.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Paying for Katrina by attacking knowledge and culture

The website Inside Higher Ed reported briefly today on "a document, released Wednesday by Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives, that lays out potential cuts Congress might make in the federal budget to free up funds to pay for the huge job of rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars."

The House Republicans gave their plan the military-sounding name "Operation Offset" and described "$929 billion in possible cuts over 10 years". Amazingly, some of their proposals are not only attacks on the essential public support of knowledge production and cultural production which otherwise slip through the cracks of "market failure," but also seem to fly in the face of the whole point of rebuilding the Gulf Coast -- and New Orleans especially -- in a responsible, functional, sustainable manner. Some examples:

$840 million a year, or $8.6 billion over 10 years, in subsidized Stafford Loans for graduate students. The document says that most financially needy graduate students are likely to have had government help as undergraduates, and that they "make an informed decision to invest in their own futures and should bare [sic] the costs of schooling."

$722 million over 10 years for the Leveraging Educational Assistance Program, which provides federal matching funds to state need-based aid programs. LEAP is no longer necessary, the Republican panel argues, because "almost all states operate programs far larger than the federal contributions."

$2 billion over 10 years for the National Science Foundation's Math and Science Program, which the committee argues duplicates Education Department efforts to prepare teachers and develop instructional materials.

So, presented with a stark depiction of structural and racially-linked poverty in New Orleans, the ignorance and apathy toward which help turned a manageable and forseeable disaster into a human tragedy, these lawmakers would like to pull money from graduate, need-based, and mathematics education. Because of course education does not at all help people lift themselves out of poverty, right?

About $3.8 billion over 10 years by ending federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. The panel argues that "the general public benefits very little" from the two agencies, and that they could be "easily be funded by private donations."

So, after lamenting the loss of New Orleans because of its cultural importance to the nation and the globe, we end all federal funding of cultural production, because such production has so little benefit for the general public?

$6.5 billion over 10 years from withdrawing federal aid to the AmeriCorps and other national service programs.

Given the clear service needs in New Orleans -- and opportunities for providing poor youth with job skills and education funding by bringing them into service programs -- this one makes my head swim.

And finally,

$1 billion over 10 years for the Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results Program, which provides graduate fellowships and grants for environmental researchers. The program is "duplicative" of other federal research efforts, the panel says.

Yes, we certainly wouldn't want an oversupply of envionmental researchers to tell us about the toxic flooding, loss of wetlands, climate change, and human-environment interactions of urban growth that clearly, absolutely, had nothing to do with the plight of the Gulf Coast under Katrina in the first place.

Alright, apologies for the snide tone of some of these responses, but seriously, how about if we pay for putting the devastated areas and lives of Hurricane Katrina back together by asking American individuals and corporations to pay for it through progressive taxation tied to wealth, seeing as we all as American citizens and firms have a clear economic and social interest in keeping this part of the country productive, vibrant, and safe?

Or maybe we should simply reign in the spending on certain military operations and no-bid defense contracts with "little benefit to the general public". But that's another story.

The commodification of knowledge (and knowledge work) via Google

A short article in the New York Times this week discusses the "Google Answers" service where users ask a question, propose a fee for the answering of that question, and await an answer from self-styled experts who (presumably) use Google to find the answer. Google of course gets a cut of the e-bay-like transaction:

When David Sarokin finishes his day job as an environmental scientist in Washington, he heads home to a second batch of questions. He is one of several hundred humans who work for Google, answering questions from users who aren't satisfied with their results from the automated engine that made Google famous.

The queries that users bring to Google Answers ( touch on all parts of life, but they usually cannot be reduced to a few keywords. One incoming freshman at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., for instance, asked for help finding a parking spot near campus. A stargazer asked the name of the two planets rising early in the northwest sky, and a homeowner wanted a "romantic and literary" name for a new house.

Google Answers is one of several services creating an online commons for impromptu research., for example, markets the services of traditional professionals like tax lawyers and computer technicians. And some sites, like, maintain a no-fee exchange of questions and answers - though tipping is permitted.

On Google Answers, Mr. Sarokin scans the list of new questions frequently and chooses those he feels he can answer. In some cases he uses his scientific background, but in others he just relies on a well-honed talent as a general researcher.

"We get questions both merely odd, and others pretty incomprehensible, and I tend to steer clear of both," he said. "But now and then, I can't resist."

The oddest of all, he says, had him trying to determine what female vampires wear and "how to defend oneself, as the questioner felt the need to do so would soon arise."

For this answer, Mr. Sarokin received 75 percent of the $4 that the questioner paid Google. The questioner sets the price, and the researchers must decide whether the fee merits the time they are likely to invest in providing an answer.

The questions stay active for 30 days, and the user can increase the fee if no one seems interested. If the answer is excellent, a questioner can add a tip not shared with Google - a practice that about three-quarters seem to follow, according to one survey by the researchers.

Mr. Sarokin once earned $120 for researching the need for a scientific expedition floating in the pack ice in the Arctic. Another effort brought $25 for turning up data on the number of computer crimes committed in 2004. Google imposes a cap of $200 on the fee, and it is not uncommon for people to offer the maximum if they need the answer quickly and want to grab the attention of the researchers.

Colin Colby, the Bates freshman who needed a parking space near campus, said he was happy to pay $200 for an answer that came within 72 hours with the name of a woman who had parking spaces to rent.

The interesting thing to me is how such a service, if it became popular (which, in all honesty, I kind of doubt), would affect the other specialized services that Google is engaged in -- such as "Google Scholar" which attempts to return web resources that have only been produced through the peer-reviewed, corporate-academic research process. Or the new Google attempt to digitize all of the print materials in the University of Michigan library (among others) and provide an indexable search to their contents (but not their copyrighted contents themselves) to web-seekers. Might these bits of Google-mediated information be assigned a dollar value through the Google engine as well?

We have a long tradition of subsidizing expert information-seekers for the benefit of all, without regard to ability to pay, in our society -- the library reference desk is a prime example. We also have a long tradition of relying on trained experts -- like, say, an engaged and inquisitive press -- to seek out socially-useful answers. Have these committments and expectations evaporated? What about the expectation that public education and university education will train individuals to use tools -- like libraries, and newspapers, and, yes, Google itself, for crying out loud -- to ask and answer important questions for themselves? Would broad popularity of, and endemic reliance upon, "Google Answers" undermine such efforts?

Dystopian or utopian scenario, depending on your positionality: Will the next generation of Google-groomed university students begin to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of classes they attend, based on the Google-market value of the facts that they learn there? Will chastened university research review committees find that they have to evaluate a faculty member's market-based output in facts and trivia, as calculated through the Google filter, in making a case for tenure? Or will state legislatures abandon even more of their funding role for public education and research, claiming that teachers at all levels should act as entrepreneurs, selling piecewage facts, figures, and parables over Google-affiliated school web sites in order to supplement sub-minimum-wage salaries?

OK, maybe I'm having a science-fiction moment here. But the question I'm trying to illustrate (if not "answer") is -- how do information valuing and commodification practices in one area of social/political/economic life affect the commodification and valuing of information labors in other areas of social/political/economic life? Answer me that, Google.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Universities are not businesses (updated)

A blurb in Inside Higher Ed today mentions a new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy entitled "Is Outsourcing Part of the Solution to the Higher Education Cost Dilemma: A Preliminary Examination". Apparently the report finds that privatizing some of the "business" functions of college and university institutions is common, but that on the other hand, privatizing "core" knowledge-production and -dissemination functions is rare, citing "the significant barriers that exist to outsourcing any areas at the core of what higher education does: teaching, research and public service."

In addition to the concerns that exist about outsourcing in any setting lack of control, possible declines in quality and customer satisfaction, and blows to employee morale college and university officials are particularly wary of perceived damage to the sense of institutional culture and community, the report says.

"Colleges and universities simply have different ways of getting things done than businesses," it says. "In addition to encouraging, indeed mandating, a consensus approach to decision making, the protection of shared governance and academic freedom is paramount. In short, a major barrier to outsourcing in higher education is the very essence of the organization."

As one place where "shared governance" (direct-democratic decision making) and "academic freedom" (freedom of thought, speech, belief, research, and activism, especially when any of these represent a minority concern as compared to mainstream society) are still valued, instead of asking "why doesn't the university run more like a business?" I wonder what the university as an institution of democracy and freedom can teach other knowledge-production and knowledge-dissemination professions, from software development to journalism, librarianship to law.

Update 21 Sep 2005: Today the same Inside Higher Ed site has an interview with the authors of a new book entitled Remaking the American University (Rutgers University Press), in which the authors mentioned what they thought the "most worrisome" current trend in higher education was:

What worries us most is that universities and colleges have become so preoccupied with succeeding in a world of markets that they too often forget the need to be places of public purpose as well. We are serious in arguing that universities and colleges must be both market smart and mission centered. Not surprisingly, then, we are troubled by how often today institutions allow their pursuit of market success to undermine core elements of their missions: becoming preoccupied with collegiate rankings, surrendering to an admissions arms race, chasing imagined fortunes through impulsive investments e-learning, or conferring so much importance on athletics as to alter the character of the academic community on campus.

By far the most troublesome consequence of markets displacing mission, though, is the reduced commitment of universities and colleges to the fulfillment of public purposes. More than ever before, these institutions are content to advance graduates merely in their private, individual capacities as workers and professionals. In the rush to achieve market success, what has fallen to the wayside for too many institutions is the concept of educating students as citizens — graduates who understand their obligations to contribute to the collective well-being as active participants in a free and deliberative society. In the race for private advantage, market success too often becomes a proxy for mission attainment.

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lawmaker explores curtailing democracy in the information workplace

Here in Wisconsin, our flagship state research university is a public relations mess. Various "scandals" involving a handful of academic professionals who are being investigated for behavior which might lead to their demotion or dismissal have apparently been used as a way to legitimize cutting university funding, increasing student tuition, and refusing to deal with organized teaching assistants fairly at the bargaining table, from my point of view. Nevermind that any organization as large as the University of Wisconsin university system is bound to have some regular personnel problems, and nevermind that as a publicly-accountable and (somewhat) publicly-funded organization, the University's systems for dealing with these problems tend to be more just and transparent than you would ever find at a private, for-profit, capitalist corporation. Somehow at least one state legislator is questioning whether the University's deliberative, democratic decision-making structure might be the core problem here, according to a Capital Times article:

The state might want to consider stripping the University of Wisconsin faculty's statutory right to share in the governance of the university, a top lawmaker said.

Faculty and academic staff have long had the right to participate in the policymaking process at the university. That right is more than just an administrative rule; it is enshrined in state law.

But Rep. Suzanne Jeskewitz, R-Menomonee Falls, said the faculty's right to shape university policy could be an obstacle to making important changes to the university's employment practices. Lawmakers and university officials are conducting a wide-ranging discussion about such controversial practices as offering backup positions and keeping felons on the payroll. Faculty will need to be consulted if changes to such practices are to be made.

Shared governance rules also allow faculty the right to be represented on search committees for deans and top administrators, and committees examining important university issues, like the production of UW logo clothing with sweatshop labor.

I'm constantly amazed at how those very people charged -- and entrusted -- by the public to uphold democracy are so quick to try to squelch democratic representation and decision-making processess in any institution besides their own -- whether that's the neighborhood councils of Baghdad or the union halls of Milwaukee. Those who favor "running government like a business" seem to forget that business is inherently non-democratic: decisions are made by a select few, based either on hierarchical bureaucratic position or on ownership rights, not on proportional representation or on contribution to the value and profit produced by the firm. I certainly hope our university administration stands up against accusations that faculty participation in policymaking is somehow an "obstacle" to improving the university. Faculty -- along with academic and support staff and graduate students -- ARE the university. The fact that we produce knowledge and knowledge-workers, and not retail commodities, puts us in the rare and privileged position of having some measure of control over the conditions of that production. We need to stand up for that control and advocate that more institutions, not fewer, follow the model we set.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Libraries and risk management and vulnerable populations

I'm angry at the apparent incompetence and indifference from officials at all levels of power which has resulted in the most vulnerable social segment of the population of the city of New Orleans being treated like animals, or criminals, or worse. I didn't think this weblog would be the proper place to vent my own tears on this issue, until I was forwaraded a note about how the American Library Association has a web page devoted to its Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Many of these notices list efforts to find out if library personnel, library buildings, and library holdings have survived flood, wind, and fire damage. But some are of a different nature. For example:

Here in Calcasieu Parish we have had many hurricane evacuees coming to our libraries throughout the parish to use our internet computers. Yesterday we collected and dropped off donated books and magazines at the civic center Red Cross shelter and opened up a computer lab in our downtown meeting room for the exclusive use of evacuees (it is within walking distance of the civic center). Every branch is reporting waiting lines for using the public computers. Staff have created a web page with links for the evacuees and are constantly updating it. Reference staff at the various libraries are gathering and distributing information to evacuees in their communities. Children’s librarians are setting up story programs with the Red Cross.

Such efforts from the non-profit information professions -- as with efforts announced by midwestern state universities that they would provide spaces for students and faculty displaced from their Gulf Coast homes, jobs, and schools -- are heartening in the face of so much state mismanagement and chaos, especially with regard to the largely poor and largely African-American citizens still -- days later! -- fending for themselves in the former city of New Orleans. I can't help but wonder, though, what might have happened differently if local information agencies like public libraries -- or public schools, community centers, and the like -- had been involved beforehand in emergency planning and preparedness processes. For example

(1) These are agencies which are best positioned to "get the word out" to local residents about evacuation routes, contingency plans, weather warnings, basic survival tools, and the like;

(2) These are agencies which know best the literacy and education and mobility level of their local publics and can help emergency management officials craft messages and outreach strategies that actually reach and affect their target audiences; and

(3) These are agencies with longstanding storage, transport, and information-communication networks of their own which may be quickly mobilized in the event of emergency.

What would happen if public library managers around the country, in both large urban and small rural library systems, took on a "homeland security" role as well? What would happen if some of the programming in public libraries included disaster education, risk awareness, and community asset inventories? What would happen if libraries took seriously the notion that not just printed and magnetic media, but community experience as embodied in local institutions, organizations, households, and leaders represented the "informational capital" which they were held responsible to preserve and distribute?

Maybe if someone had asked a day-to-day working librarian in New Orleans for input on the city, state, and federal emergency "plans" which have evidently failed so miserably, that librarian would have been able to answer: "There are lots of people in this city who don't have cars, who don't follow storm predictions on the Internet, who don't have the literacy skills to read FEMA forms, who don't have the economic resources to afford flood insurance, or who for any number of reasons simply won't be able leave their homes, their families, and their lives in this city during an emergency unless you are able to come and get them and treat them with the respect they deserve, right now."

P.S. On a related note, here's the Craigslist for Katrina aid, a novel example of Web-based emergency response (hope it turns out to be useful to some). I'm assuming you know how to get to the sites for Red Cross, America's Second Harvest and the like if you have money to donate.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Scientific illiteracy in the information-rich US

With rational policy on everything from the benefits of genetic research to the risks of terrorism in modern urban society dependent on the public's (and the government's) understanding of basic scientific principles, a recent story in the New York Times on scientific illiteracy is alarming indeed. According to political science professor Jon D. Miller of Northwestern University only about a quarter of Americans are "scientifically savvy and alert":

American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Interestingly, Miller himself locates the failure as starting all the way back with our public school systems, which he says are underfunded: "This country cannot finance good school systems on property taxes". I personally would push this argument further and wonder what the "uneven geography" of scientific literacy in the US looks like. Which school systems produce the most scientifically illiterate students (either in numbers of students falling below a threshold of understanding, or lowest overall misunderstanding for a comparable population of students). But I too suspect that with more resources devoted to teaching students about the natural, material, physical, and human-built world and the science, natural history, mathematics, and engineering which underlie it, scientific literacy could be greatly improved.

It seems like there are more dots to be connected, however. We may be living in an "information economy" as measured by our production, consmption, and productive use of information-processing devices and information-rich media, but if we are to claim that we live in a "knowledge society" then we need a different set of measures. A society with twenty-first century technology should be appalled to find out that any significant percentage of its children live comfortably with "common sense" ideas that were discredited in the seventeenth century.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Ostensibly saving paper, but really making labor, at a state university

I've written before on this blog using the example of my state's recent years of university budget-cutting to illustrate how public and legislative support for both the quality and quantity of information labor -- and education for future information laborers -- can so easily evaporate or become sidetracked into sensationalist trivia. Here's another good example from a fellow university in our state system. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh this year, professors in the College of Letters and Sciences are now prohibited from handing out paper syllabi in an effort to save pennies:

In making cuts, Zimmerman says, the college tries to protect its academic mission and the syllabus policy would never have been adopted if anyone thought it would hurt students. He adds that many professors elsewhere have already stopped handing out syllabuses. “A good number of people we’ve spoken to have never even seen a hard copy of a syllabus,” he says.

From an educational perspective, the policy could help students if they go to professors’ Web sites before classes start, and either read or print out a copy. “If they think about class before they show up the first day, it might enhance student learning,” he says.

The bait and switch here is typical of much writing on the "effects" of cyberspace on material labor practices -- an assumption that one can unproblematically replace the other. "Telecommuting" replaces travel using automobiles, "telemedecine" replaces rural health care clinics, "distance education" replaces the construction of pesky brick-and-mortar classrooms, and of course Google replaces the public library. Right? But such facile comparison hides the complexities of virtual and material practices.

With regard to syllabi, we need to think of them not simply as equivalent material artifacts where one has physical costs and one is virtually free, but artifacts that are produced and used in particular ways for particular purposes. For example, I'm a professor at a big state university who prints out paper syllabi for all of his students on the first day of class -- whether that class has 500 students or 5 students. I believe students will be able to follow along with my explanation of the class purpose, method, and details better with a physical piece of paper before them. I believe they will be able to better decide whether to take my class if they have that piece of paper to regard over dinner that night. And I believe that if they take my class, that piece of paper will serve as a valuable reminder of what they learned later. I've kept paper syllabi from classes I took two decades ago in college.

Yet at the same time the printout of my class syllabus comes directly from the website I create for my class. The printout has the URL of the website prominently displayed. I advise and expect my students to visit the "live" class web site weekly in case something changes or in case I have good information to add. Both informational artifacts serve a different purpose in education, and have different space/time roles. Together they enhance each other.

They both have different production and labor dynamics as well. The paper syllabus, presented on the first day, forces me, the instructor, to have my course worked out in detail weeks beforehand. The web syllabus allows me to be dynamic in my educational practices -- to a degree. I know the students have the original printout and I restrain myself from deviating too much from my original plan. Plus, the paper syllabus can be printed out "in batch" at very low capital and labor and spatial/temporal costs, in a centralized, specialized copy center (reaping economies of scale and expertise). If I had all my own students print their own syllabi, it would take a myriad of decentralized printers, all of which need service, toner, electricity, and attention. I would be trading off my own brief labor and the paid labor of professional printing staff for the much more time-consuming, unpaid labor of my students, plus the largely invisible but costly labor of network printer support staff.

Even when one actually counts the dollars and cents, the policy doesn't add up:

The college never figured out the exact cost of printing syllabuses, he says. But copies cost the college about 2 cents a page, nearly all of the university’s 11,000 students take at least some classes in the college, and syllabuses run from a page to 15 pages.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate shows that if each of these students took 2 L&S classes with a syllabus of 10 pages each, the total cost per semester would be $4,400. That's about the cost of ten distributed printers -- which will likely break down frequently -- or perhaps one-tenth the annual salary of one service person to keep those printers in working order. I'd take the copying if I were truly interested in cost-cutting.

This whole issue -- and so far my whole response to it -- has been over a triviality which distracts the public, the legislature, the university staff, and the students from the real issue:

Zimmerman says that the Wisconsin system’s budget “has been cut relentlessly” and that deans have no choice but to try to save every penny. Zimmerman has been dean for 14 years, and his college’s budget (about $18.5 million) is down from where it was when he started. Not a single unit in his college is receiving more money now than when he started, despite inflation generally and huge increases in costs such as scientific equipment.

Education is being sacrificed here to other state priorities -- and private profits -- over a decades-long term, and we're arguing over two-cent copies, blaming professors who want to educate their students in the most effective way they know how. Incredible.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Is Disney abusing Chinese workers to make books to sell to US kids?

I need to start this post by reminding readers that Disney is a transnational media firm, courting an international consumer market with largely Western European- and US-inspired media products of all sorts, which owns, among other properties, ABC. I also need to mention that I could find nothing about this story on the ABC News web site.

A report in the UK Guardian today was headlined "Disney accused of labour abuses in Chinese factories." I don't usually reprint whole articles verbatim on my weblog, but in this case I think I should:

Walt Disney said yesterday it had hired an auditor to investigate claims of widespread labour abuses in Chinese factories that make children's books for the company.

A report from the National Labor Committee, a human rights group, alleges that workers are forced to be at factories for up to 15 hours a day, are paid below the minimum wage and denied holiday, overtime and maternity pay. It was based on interviews with 120 workers at five factories in Shenzhen province.

The report says one company, Hung Hing Printing, has one of the worst records in the province for industrial accidents. One 24-year-old woman was crushed to death in 2002 by a hole-punching machine and a man killed when he accidentally touched an exposed mechanism. Crushed hands and fingers from unsafe machinery are common occurrences, it alleges.

Interviews and video footage from the plants were supplied by a Hong Kong-based human rights organisation, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour.

"At one printing factory producing Disney books, there are four to five accidents a week. People lost their fingers and palms," said Billy Hung, coordinator of the group. "But ... the factory just hires new workers and the accidents simply continue."

Workers said they had to meet targets or lose pay, which meant they usually worked longer than the official 12-hour day. The group claimed workers were paid just 35 cents (20 pence) an hour, below the region's minimum wage of 42 cents an hour.

Supervisors are also said to scream insults at workers such as: "You are a stupid pig." According to testimony, workers often faint due to the intense heat and fast-paced work. One said: "In meetings management would say, 'if you faint, you deserve it and I won't sympathise with you'. "

Disney said it took the allegations "very seriously" and had asked the non-profit social auditing firm Verité to investigate. The firm said it would "take the appropriate actions to remediate violations found".

The report also claims that Disney audits are a sham and that workers are coached on what to say or face being fired.

At another firm, Nord Race in the city of Dongguan, staff are paid just 33 cents an hour. The report claims the firm demands 13- to 15-hour shifts, seven days a week, in stifling heat. Workers have no health insurance and if late, they lose half an hour's wages for every minute they miss, it claims.

Nord Race denied the claims in a statement to the Associated Press and said it complied with Chinese labour laws.

The report has been published at a sensitive time for Disney, just a month before Hong Kong's Disneyland theme park is officially opened.

This story should remind us that, far from "virtual" and "weightless," the global information economy -- both in its hardware products like CD players and computers, and in its software or content products like books, CDs, and DVDs -- is still a material, messy, and often dangerous production economy. Formed in 1981, the National Labor Committee is one of the many global activist organizations which, in its own words, believes:

Transnational corporations now roam the world to find the cheapest and most vulnerable workers. The people who stitch together our jeans and assemble our CD-players are mostly young women in Central America, Mexico, Bangladesh, China and other poor nations, many working 12 to 14-hour days for pennies an hour. The lack of accountability on the part of our U.S. corporations--now operating all over the world, and the resulting dehumanization of this new global workforce is emerging as the overwhelming moral crisis of the 21st century. The struggle for rule of law in the global economy--to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the millions of workers producing goods for the U.S. market--has become the great new civil rights movement of our time.

You might remember the NLC as one of the organizations involved in the 1996 Kathy Lee Gifford / WalMart sweatshop debate. More information on their Disney report, and their other projects, can be found on their web site.

More information on Disney is available from independent sources, including a list of their media holdings (compiled by the Columbia Journalism Review) and an investor's fact sheet by Hoover's.

You may of course want to get Disney's side of this story as well. Visit their corporate website at -- especially their public relations statement on international labor standards.

The company has not yet issued a press release on its web site responding to the NLC accusations.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Only half of those taking ACT college entrance test have adequate reading skills (updated)

No pretense at rigorous analysis today, only a lament.

I remain convinced that "reading skills" are key to individual, corporate, regional, and national success in the ever-changing information economy and culture we find ourselves in. So you can imagine my dismay at this New York Times report:

Only about half of this year's high school graduates have the reading skills they need to succeed in college, and even fewer are prepared for college-level science and math courses, according to a yearly report from ACT, which produces one of the nation's leading college admissions tests.

The report, based on scores of the 2005 high school graduates who took the exam, some 1.2 million students in all, also found that fewer than one in four met the college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects tested: reading comprehension, English, math and science.

I would argue that this indicates that, despite Republican-led "education reform" legislation over the last five years, children are being "left behind." Perhaps "taxpayer revolt" movements which argue that quality schools shouldn't be so expensive have had something to do with this too. Maybe the general and repeated anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitude of the Bush administration is coming through loud and clear to our young people. I just don't know. But as a state university educator who teaches a core writing course to hundreds of undergraduates a year, I know that I and my rather low-paid teaching assistants will be next in line to face the challenge of educating this cohort. It's a position from which I think I can quite clearly see the connections between investing in public schools and investing in productive economies. Why can't enough taxpaying private property owners and/or enough taxpaying private corporations see that connection too?

P.S. A related article today, from the Associated Press, on public schools:

Forty percent of public school teachers plan to exit the profession within five years, the highest rate since at least 1990, according to a study being released Thursday.

The rate is expected to be even greater among high school teachers, half of whom plan to be out of teaching by 2010, according to the National Center for Education Information.

Retirements will open up entry-level slots for younger, and cheaper, teachers, which may help ease school budgets a bit. Then again pensions will still need to be paid out to retirees, probably for a long time. Hopefully this demographic shift in teaching won't be used as yet another excuse for defunding education at this critical time in our nation's history. Otherwise, the students of tomorrow will be just as ill-prepared as those of today as they face the expanding universe of cacophonous but detail-rich media, the global panopoly of interests and beliefs which are far more complex than the simplistic struggle of "freedom versus terror," and the end of a century of petoleum dependence which will have devastatingly differential effects in rich, militarily-secure countries versus poor, conflict-ridden ones.