DQ: “Un-Black Boxing” the Humanity of Devices

Reading the New York Times’ iEconomy series (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) helped “un-black box” several things, including domestic and international labor involved in making and selling Apple products and their business practices.  While I had heard of Foxconn through the news, this was the first time I read about Apple’s corporate tax rate strategy, larger structural issues in the market that cause labor pressures, and the retail working conditions.

A Foxconn factory line. When we think about the labor and practices behind devices, this is probably what we think of, because of the focus of the news media. (Photo from the New York Times)

Labor in retail helps get devices into consumers’ hands (image from the New York Times)

I think there’s an interesting imbalance in general between what we consume related to new media, especially in the device market, and what we know about the processes and choices behind the devices, which the New York Times seems to be emphasizing in this series. I would ask how come we don’t know about these practices – the labor, the business strategies, the working conditions, etc.?  Does it need to take investigative journalism pieces like this one to expose it? Is it a lack of interest or care by consumers? Or do businesses intentionally suppress or make this information harder to find?  What is the role of the news media, or watchdog groups, if any, in un-black boxing the human stories within our technological devices? Is there a way to promote worker standards, greater public information about the manufacturing of devices, without harming competition in the marketplace? These may not necessarily be questions we need to grapple with – we can continue buying new technological devices blissfully unaware of the work that went into getting them into our hands – but they are questions we should be asking.

Welcome to the Bytegeist

Hello, my name is Richmond Wong. I am currently a junior at Cornell University, double majoring in Information Science and Science and Technology Studies.  In general, I’m deeply interested in the interaction between people and technology, whether on an individual level, like human computer interaction, or on a more aggregate social level, such as technology policy.  I’m interested the policy implications of science and new technology, especially information technology.

Many of these posts are or were intended for my class blog, for INFO 3200: New Media and Society, which I took in Spring 2013.  As such, some posts are cross-listed, though I will try to indicate which posts originated from the class blog.

You can find out more about me at my personal website.

DQ: Thinking Physically About the Internet – and the Environment

Andrew Blum’s discussion of the physical nature and infrastructure of the internet in Tubes and in his photo essay on Wired, helps open the black box of the internet, allowing us to peer into the inner physical workings of something that is often thought of in abstract or virtual terms. Like in our earlier discussions regarding new media hiding labor, new media can also hide the physical infrastructure under the internet, as well as the work needed to maintain it. How does recognizing the physical geography of the internet change our perspective on on our actions on the internet?

This is an issue that I have been exposed to and thought about before. I would point out one major implication of thinking about the internet in this manner is realizing its environmental effect. In the public discourse, new media are usually  thought of  as “environmentally friendly,” as they use less paper, require less travel by car and plane, and other reasons. Yet because of the physical nature of the internet, there are very real-world impacts on the environment that are often hidden within the “black box.” For instance, the New York Times discussed the power needs and pollution effects of data centers. The mining of metals for electronic devices can cause environmental harm. While the issue of the environment was outside of Blum’s scope, he did discuss how real world factors, such as the availability of massive amounts of power, helped decide where some internet centers should be located. What other problems are uncovered by recognizing the infrastructure of the internet?  Besides the environmental problems, are there social inequalities or social justice problems that occur based on the physical geography of the internet?  Should this change how we think about, and how we use the internet?  As our dependence on new media and internet technologies for information increases, we will have to start to confront these types of questions.

RB: The Paradox of UX Designers

As a relatively new entrant into the world of user experience (UX), and UX Design, the labor that they provide is something that is generally hidden when using information and communication technologies, especially those of new media. It is a common position, team, or even department at most internet companies, and I had never heard of such a job until I began taking human-computer interaction courses at Cornell.

As an example, I looked at Google’s UX & Design job page, where they list the following description:

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.” The job of our User Experience professionals is to make sure that our products are useful, usable and desirable to millions of users worldwide.

The old YouTube video player interface

The human labor exerted within this group includes creating designs, mock-ups and prototypes, doing research, user testing, and creating features that affect how users view and experience a service from Google, such as how the interactions needed to upload or watch a YouTube video, or how the Gmail interface looks. They don’t create content that end users produce or obtain, but they play a vital role in shaping how users experience the actual content of the media.

The new YouTube video player interface – human labor behind the design changes how people experience, receive, and interact with information


Downey often discusses in historical examples about how different labor helps information jump contexts, as his sources of labor are directly in the “path of transit” of information – the information has to pass through labor, which helps it “jump” contexts. I am not sure how much that applies in new media – much of the “path of transit” is sustained through technological links; the human labor helps create the platform where this takes place, but the information doesn’t pass directly through the laborers. In other words, UX Designers at Google don’t use their labor to directly format and deliver information, but rather use labor to create and decide how a platform will format and deliver information.

Ironically, much of the labor that UX Designers do is invisible, even though the end product is obviously visible, causing me to call this the paradox of UX Designers. Because the focus of their labor is on creating user experiences, the work that they do emphasizes the relationship between the end users and the technology (such as how does the user interact with Gmail, how do they experience working on Google Docs with other users?), which obscures the very real acts of labor that the UX designers themselves perform, rendering them invisible. Most people don’t think about why webpages are designed a certain way, or the research, iterations, and work behind it – the way it looks and feels is just the way it looks and feels.

An old design of Google Search

Given this, however, it is very important to recognize the labor that UX Designers do, because they are human too. They have their own beliefs, follow various social norms, and operate within a cultural context – and inevitably, some of these beliefs affect their labor, which can affect how users experience, send, and receive information. They are not impervious to creating biases; perhaps an interface for a Google service does not adequately serve someone with a vision disability, or a design may encourage users subconsciously to look at certain search results over others.

The current Google experience, such as instant results without pressing “enter,” and the current design, was created by human labor. This labor, and the cultural context in which it is performed, in turn are hidden, but still affect how users experience information.

Recognizing the role of UX Designers in the network is very important, because the way that we experience the not work is not necessarily the only way or even the best way to experience the network. The ways in which we experience how information is formatted and delivered is the consequence of human choices and actions, and explicitly recognizing the labor that creates our experience can help us be more critical and aware of possible biases in design, and maybe even more imaginative and creative in recognizing that the interactions that we have with information and technology are not the only way to do so.

DQ: Our Free Labor

Ross’ chapter is an excerpt from this book

Ross’ chapter, “In Search of the Lost Paycheck” describes shifting ideals regarding labor, and while these changes are not new, new media helps facilitate these changes. These could include the regular economic forces of pressuring workers to produce more at the same price (be more productive), but also the opportunities for new types of “free” labor. Some examples that Ross provides include data mining off of social network sites where people spend “social capital,” the increase of unpaid internships, and the perceived freedom and flexibility of mobile working.  Ross argues that it is the employers and companies, not the users or employees who benefit, by having user data to sell as a product, free interns to do work that used to be done by a paid worker, or be able to have employees work 24/7. In regards to the internet, Ross says

The real spoils, in other words, do not go to the aspiring stars, ranked and rated by the battery of metrics that measure Internet sentiment and opinion, but to behind-the-scenes content hosts and data miners, who utilize these and other metrics to guarantee their profits. (page 19)

This brought up an interesting viewpoint for me. Does our perception of how we use of social media, Google, or other new media change when we realize that these companies are profiting off information that we are giving up freely? Or do we value their services enough to provide our information “labor” free of charge (in exchange for social capital, or other services)?  And to what extent are we aware of these profits, and business models, and what power do we have to change them? Are we willing participants or cogs in a machine we don’t know even exists? Do we even have the choice of whether or not we want to provide the “labor” to these new media companies?

RB: The Economics of WordPress

I have used WordPress products on many occasions, whether it was integrating their open source blogging software into a website I was developing, creating a personal blog, or using it as part of this class (how’s that for meta?). I have realized, however, that these products are all free – ads are not displayed if I create a WordPress.com blog, and if I displayed ads while using their open source software, the profits would come to me, not to WordPress. At first, I thought that the blogosphere, perhaps like Wikipedia, works on a sharing economy model, where people find value in the shared discourse that the platform provides. While this may be true, WordPress, like Wikipedia still has to pay the real world costs of maintaining servers and the data that they have collected – and unlike Wikipedia, whenever I use WordPress, I never see requests for donations. So how does WordPress stay afloat, and what is their business model?

Well for one, I found out that WordPress does have a store – where users have the ability to purchase their own domain name, more advanced customization and theming options, HD video capabilities, extra storage space, live help, and ad-free sites. (Unlike my original thought, it appears that if one’s blog attracts enough traffic, WordPress will add advertisements into the site). Of course, the majority of WordPress bloggers don’t use these features. It seems that WordPress is taking advantage of a long tail – it is catering paid products to the niche markets, where there are less customers and less overall demand, but they can charge a higher price for premium products, and use that to cross-subsidize their free blogging platform.

WordPress is actually part of a larger group called Automattic.

In addition, on their about page, I was surprised to learn that WordPress is actually part of a larger startup group called Automattic. From their website, they say:

Automattic Inc. is a startup from a handful of people passionate about making the web a better place. We are strong believers in Open Source and the vast majority of our work is available under licenses like the GPL.

They believe in open source products, and provide many other services, both free and paid, open and closed source, including:

  • Jetpack – a currently free set of plugins for people hosting their own WordPress blogs
  • VaultPress – a paid service that backs up blog content
  • Akismet – a mostly paid service that helps prevent blog comment spam
  • PollDaddy – a survey creation service, which, like WordPress, offers a fairly comprehensive free service, but also has extra premium services available for purchase.
  • VideoPress – a premium service linked with WordPress that allows embedding HD videos into blogs
  • Gravatar – a service that creates user avatars
  • IntenseDebate – a free add on that allows for more dynamic commenting on blogs
  • After the Deadline – free open source intelligent language checking software
  • Plinky – a free website that asks users to create a short response to a given prompt
  • Code Poet – a free resource for WordPress coders and developers
  • WordPress VIP – a business and enterprise premium WordPress service.

Looking across Automattic’s products, there are both a number of paid and free services that they offer. Again, they probably make use of the long tail, as most likely the majority of their users make use of the free services, but the majority of the money comes from a smaller set of users who purchase premium or business products and services. These purchases help subsidize the costs associated with the free products. Furthermore, in some sense, Automattic may be making use of some vertical integration techniques, by not only creating a blogging platform, but creating plugins to analyze the blogs, creating extra commenting services, and offering content creation mechanisms through PollDaddy and VideoPress that can be shared on the WordPress blogging platform.  While WordPress is popular, it should be noted that it is also in competition with other blogging and content management platforms like Blogger, Tumblr, Weebly, Drupal, Joomla, and LiveJounral.

It is important to note that Automattic’s goals are to help provide open source products, but in order to maintain those free and open platforms, they have had to also offer various paid services to pay for those. Perhaps this implies that short of asking for donations, many new media companies are trying to find ways to balance the rhetoric and public ideas of a free (both literally and monetarily) internet, with the real costs associated with providing free and open products.

DQ: Is $0.00 Really the Future of Business?

Is the internet really shifting towards a completely free model?

I think that it is interesting that Chris Anderson’s article in Wired uses the example of the New York Times going to a free mode of access circa 2008, while since then, they and other media outlets, such as Time, The Wall Street Journal, and soon the Washington Post, have created paywalls in order to access content. To me, Anderson’s statement that:

A decade and a half into the great online experiment, the last debates over free versus pay online are ending

does not seem to be entirely true anymore. Arguably, the paywalls are not just protecting “premium content,” but almost all content. Another example is that Hulu used to be completely free, but now access to older episodes and older shows now requires a paid account. What could be causing these trends, and what is the potential impact? Following Lessig’s 2 economies basis, have these media companies, many of whom also distribute content in “traditional media,”  been trying to navigate their way between commercial and sharing economies over the last decade (and settling somewhere closer to the former)? Does the need to create paywalls suggest that we are in a part of Tim Wu’s “cycle,” in the problem discovery stage? And what are the implications of the continuing free versus pay debate?