Tag: startups

High-Tech Hand Work: When humans replace computers, what does it mean for jobs and for technological change?

[Editor’s Note: This post was revised on 1/28/2016 on Ben’s request. See his note below.] Author’s Note: Since its initial publication, I have reframed this post to more fully integrate the argument and data. This revised post reflects these changes. Recent years have brought a resurgence of interest in how the rapid evolution of computer technologies is affecting work. Some have examined how smart machines are replacing manual labor, swallowing up the manufacturing jobs that have driven the growth of China’s economy. Others reveal how algorithms are supplanting knowledge workers. “Big data” and “machine learning” techniques help software engineers create algorithms that make more accurate and less biased judgments than well-trained humans. Software is already doing the work of medical lab technicians and replicating higher-order cognitive functioning, such as detecting human emotions and facial expressions, processing language, and even writing news articles. Technology has long played a role in both eliminating certain types of work and creating new opportunities. Today’s debates often echo those of the past: technophiles believe that “disruption” is a source of social progress, whereas detractors worry that the coming waves of automation will deepen the insecurity and exploitation of workers. Both sides, however, often overlook the surprising ways in which, rather than creating “frictionless” economies, automation can in fact intensify the use of human labor. In the remainder of this piece, I compare an exemplary study of the industrial revolution of the 19th century with a case study from the front lines of the automation revolution that many believe is now underway. In the Victorian era, new machinery did not replace human workers, but in fact often expanded their use. The same was true at a tech startup that I observed, where artificial intelligence was combined with the routinized application of human labor. Both of these cases draw attention to the specific ways in which technology restructures labor markets not only by eliminating jobs, but also by creating new types of work that must keep pace with machinery. (read more...)

Approaching the Infrastructure of Digital Media Startups

In the 1997 essay “Protected Mode,” the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler, with nostalgia for “the good old times” when using computers meant interacting with them in a way that made it impossible to ignore the reality of their basic hardware, expressed his disapproval of the user-friendliness of commercial software. In contrast to the true underlying operations of digital machines themselves, he asserted, commercial software hides from view the reality of computers’ operations determined at the level of material technological frameworks. “The higher and more effortless the programming languages,” he wrote, “the more insurmountable the gap between those languages and a hardware that still continues to do all of the work” (157). The problem with software, for Kittler, is that it seems to put the user in control when, in fact, what it really does is reduce the user’s agency by obscuring the user interface’s basis in hardware. Put in different terms, it performs an illusory reversal of the relationship between infrastructural and superstructural elements. One can only imagine that Kittler would be dismayed by the current state of digital media technology’s development in general and by the trend among technology startup companies toward increased reliance on cloud computing in the form of “infrastructure as a service.” At the same, I think this gestures toward a certain problem in the anthropological study of digital technologies. (read more...)