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.