Word of the Week: Heteromation

In the past month I’ve read two reviews of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, which is, loosely, about how automation is de-skilling and de-humanising us.The first is a review by Evgeny Morozov  an unusual piece of writing, mostly for the reflective tone he takes. Morozov’s review is actually about the place of technology criticism and a call to politics. It’s a thoughtful piece and I enjoyed it.

There’s a particular kind of article about tech that sets my teeth on edge; the kind that sounds the death-knell for X or Y thing, proclaims the end/beginning; the eschatological kind. And isn’t it odd how eschatology and scatology sound similar. Actually it isn’t odd at all, because they share the same etymological root; eschatology arrives from the Greek for ‘out’ and intestines:  “seems to be derived from ἐξ (eks, out). Compare ἔγκατα (énkata, intestines)” (from here). This is what the other review by by Sue Halpern does in taking the ‘robots and algorithms [are] taking over’ line .

There’s an assumption built into this, of our separation from machines, code, algorithms, circuitry, hardware. Us and them. The narrative of machines taking over, de-skilling and ejecting humans from their jobs presents a scenario that is too black-and-white for me; it doesn’t look at ways in which human labour is exploited by how we produce a commodity called data that results in the eventual accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few companies and individuals. It ignores the reality that we are already a little hybrid, already a little cyborg and closely connected to our machines and algorithms. While Halpern does look at American unemployment rates over decades and is fairly measured, she ends with “We, the people, are on our own here—though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.”

So, the word of the week is heteromation, which is about those unfashionable things like labour, politics and social criticism, which discussions about tech sometimes forget are there, as Morozov laments.

You’d want to steer clear of most things prefixed by ‘hetero’ but heteromation, a new-ish concept, I think, is not one of them. Proposed by Hamid Ekbia and Bonie Nardi (2014), heteromation is about how automation does not necessarily erase labour or jobs, but rather, displaces them elsewhere.

The perspective of heteromation examines the social dynamics, forces and power relations that underlie how labour is divided between machines and humans, and why we come to believe that humans can do certain kinds of digital labour, and machines others. If automation was the first phase, of the machine taking centre-stage, and augmentation being another where the machine ‘comes to the rescue’, then heteromation is a third phase where ‘the machine calls for help’.

Through case studies of Mechanical Turk, citizen science projects like Fold It and video games, Ekbia and Nardi describe what heteromation is and how it works.  In the gaming industry, players sit on tribunals to police other players’ behaviours and respond to complaints, because responding to every email about players’ toxic behaviour is just not possible. Mechanical Turk, a product from Amazon, is a clearinghouse of humans tagging images, transcribing audio snippets and other such ‘data janitorial’ tasks for online services. Jeff Bezos’ infamous line describing Mechanical Turk was ‘you’ve heard as software-as-a-service; this is humans-as-a-service.’ On low-paid, temporary and short term contracts, Mechanical Turkers and other data janitors work in incredibly precarious conditions that would seem appalling if they were in a factory:

“Employers, therefore, must consider employees as functionaries in “an algorithmic system,” forcing the labor relation even further along the path of ruthless objectification than Ford or Taylor could have imagined. Those humans rendered as bits of algorithmic function disappear into relations with oblivious employers “on autopilot.” Workers are largely “invisible,””

Another recent, excellent read on digital labour is from the The New Inquiry that goes into some of the history and present of it. Here’s some lines from that piece called The Ladies Vanish (which starts with a killer story about a Google employee who was fired for asking questions about the women who scan the books in for Google Books):

“..almost 70% of mechanical turkers were women. How shocking: the low prestige, invisible, poorly paid jobs on the internet are filled by women. Women provide the behind the scenes labor that is mystified as the work of computers, unglamorous work transformed into apparent algorithmic perfection…The computer itself is a feminized item. The history of the computer is the history of unappreciated female labor hidden behind “technology,” a screen (a literal screen) erected by boy geniuses.”

There is still place for politics and social criticism Mr. Morozov, I guess it’s not the Nicholas Carrs who are doing it.




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