Julia Ticona on her book, Left to Our Own Devices

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/left-to-our-own-devices-9780190691288

Ilana Gershon: If you found yourself talking to a voice actor in a coffee shop about your book, how would you explain what it was about?

Julia Ticona: They’d likely have more to tell me than I’d have to tell them! After asking a few too many questions about their gigs and the tech they use, I would simply say that Left to Our Own Devices is about how workers like them use digital technologies to make a living. Over the past few decades, we’ve all become more aware about the pressures toward more and more precarious work. In the recovery from the Great Recession, as jobs returned, we saw stark differences in the quality of these jobs, they were part-time, with few benefits, unstable schedules, and came with titles like contractor, temporary worker and seasonal associate. In reality, these changes have been brewing since the 1970s. What I show in the book is the way that digital technologies, especially smartphones, have quietly become the hidden infrastructure that facilitates these new kinds of work.

For the landscapers, retail workers, and freelance writers I interviewed, digital technologies were central to their abilities to navigate precarious labor markets. Across social classes, these workers all constructed what I call “digital hustles” that were creative and resourceful responses to insecure labor markets. The digital hustle is a complex project that requires a vast amount of unpaid labor to coordinate schedules, maintain their clients and cultivate new forms of income, maintain their connectivity, and comply with the rules of online and workplace norms. I also found that while the deft and savvy use of digital technologies was an economic imperative for workers across many different types of labor markets – their practices weren’t only oriented toward the market, they were also oriented toward the self. Precarious workers’ digital technologies also played an important role in their construction of identity and dignity. From promptly answering text messages from clients to adeptly finding internet when your data runs out, executing a successful digital hustle proved that they were good at their jobs.

Digital technologies are important to these workers’ ability to survive, but it’s also important to point out that this doesn’t mean we can give everyone a phone and call it a day. Digital technologies in precarious work gave me a window to understand the cracks in a system where individuals are being literally left to their own devices to deal with economic insecurity. These technologies are so consequential because we’re relying on them to solve social problems they were never meant to solve. More access and more phones aren’t going to be the thing that saves us, a social safety net that is either completely or mostly decoupled from work might be…but also, yes please let’s also have the phones and internet too.

Ilana Gershon: How do you think your methodology affected what you were able to learn?

Julia Ticona: The book is based on 100 in-depth ethnographic interviews with high and low wage precarious workers that I conducted in four different cities in the US. Ethnographic interviewing is an interviewing technique as well as a way of understanding interviews as a unique kind of social interaction. This method draws on traditions in both sociology (my home discipline), and anthropology. It encourages me to understand interviewees’ answers, not as straight-forward reporting of what happens when they use their technologies to hustle for work, but meaningful accounts that can tell me about the larger cultural frames that people use to make sense of their work and their lives. More concretely, when I’d ask people to tell me stories about a time when a coworker used their technologies in a way that annoyed them, I interpreted these answers for what they could tell me about how the interviewee understood certain activities as trespassing the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate tech use in their specific context, not as evidence of what their colleagues were doing at work. As a result, this method is particularly good at understanding interviewees’ use of cultural expectations to make sense of their own lives but has limitations in that I wasn’t able to observe these interactions as they unfolded in context.

In-depth interviews – and to an extent, many other qualitative methods – are shaped by the ways interviewees interpret us and our role in the context of the interview. As a researcher, I participate in my interviewees’ process of meaning-making, and how what they understand shapes what they decide to tell me in ways that go far beyond shallower understandings of “trust” and “rapport” – which is how these issues are often addressed in qualitative methods training. There’s a long tradition of White ladies like me studying marginalized people, and several of my interviewees referenced the complicated legacies of this tradition. There is no space outside of these tensions, no method or research design that can “solve” for these legacies and differences in power. For me, grappling with this serves as a productive limit to my ability to claim knowledge about any person or social process, and a reminder that I share expertise with the participants in this and all research projects.

Ilana Gershon: Your book complicates more simplistic accounts of the digital divide, exploring how people experienced forms of predictable instability in terms of digital access.  How were people’s experiences of work affected by the kinds of digital access they had?

Julia Ticona: More recently, the story researchers have been telling about the digital divide recently is that it’s not really about access, because the costs of connectivity have come down and more people are accessing the internet on their phones. This has led many social scientific researchers to study other important kinds of inequalities – in skills, participation, motivations – but I’m really not done studying access. There’s a lot more critical work to be done on what we’ve called the “first level” of the digital divide.

In chapter 2, I detail the ways that low-wage workers face forms of what Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier have called “predatory inclusion.” These forms of inclusion happen all over the economy, wherever people are blocked from accessing something necessary – housing, student loans, and in the case of my research – the internet. Predatory inclusion happens when internet and mobile providers – who excluded people from access for many years – facilitate access for these populations on terms that cancel out the benefits of inclusion, like when they offer phone leasing programs that seem to make phones more affordable by breaking up the huge up-front cost over time, but actually end up charging people more than the price of a phone if they had been able to pay for it all at once up front.  Whether we see it in the student loan crisis or in paying for a smartphone, these are forms of exploitation of the poor. The book makes the argument that it’s not only exclusion from access that creates social inequalities – but inclusion too.

Ilana Gershon: What does comparing low wage and high wage workers’ use of digital technologies let you know about class divides in the contemporary United States?

Julia Ticona: One of the things I wanted to do with the book was to shift the perspective from thinking about digital inequalities to primarily one of thinking about the problems that come from exclusion to thinking about the terms on which people are included into connectivity. This wasn’t only because more and more people are including themselves into these networks, but also because it makes it much more clear that this is an issue that doesn’t only affect those who struggle with connectivity, but also those who hardly ever have to think about it. I wanted to tell a story about the shared experiences that precarity engenders, while also attending to the vast differences in the contexts where people find themselves and the resources they have to cope with precarity’s consequences. One of the most striking places I saw this sense of “shared, but different” was when I asked people – usually at the end of an interview – about their current phone & internet plan, and if they liked it. Everyone knew their provider – T-Mobile, Verizon, and so on – and I’d ask casually if they knew how much their bill was – nearly every high wage worker I interviewed wasn’t quite sure how much they paid and gave me a ballpark, while most of the low-wage workers not only told me about the plan they currently had and exactly how much it cost, but also the companies they were considering switching to and their prices. Comparing the experiences of workers across class allowed me to examine the role of privilege, not only the role of constraint, in shaping people’s relationship to their work and their technologies.  This is increasingly important, otherwise we’re left thinking that anyone with a cell phone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Our current system of connectivity is set up to allow some of us to ignore or forget the privileges we have that set us up for success with our technologies and our work, this forgetfulness is a moral hazard of living in precarious times and one I hope that comparative research like mine can help push back against.

Ilana Gershon: How do people’s class position affect what counts as a digital skill and the kinds of skills people develop to navigate contemporary work?

Julia Ticona: In some of the more celebratory accounts of the gig economy – the high wage workers I interviewed – freelance IT consultants, creative directors, and communication strategists – seem to be the winners of the new economy. Their intellectual and creative skills are in high demand, they’re adept at using technology to do their jobs and market themselves, and they enjoy freedom and flexibility of independent work. But, when we compare high and low wage workers, what I found was that it was the context of their work, rather than any special individual skill, that go a long way to explain their success. In chapter 3, I talk about an interview I did with a highly paid government contractor who openly searched LinkedIn for new jobs while in the office because she knew that if anyone saw her, they wouldn’t even blink because she also needed to network for her current project. Meanwhile, I talked with a retail worker in a consumer electronics store who was encouraged to use her personal phone to look up pricing for customers because the store’s desktops were hopelessly outdated. She needed to fill in some required paperwork and was using her phone behind the front desk and her manager saw her and thought she was ignoring a customer and passing the time on her phone and gave her a stern warning about it.

I show the ways the institutions of high-wage gig work allowed high-wage workers to exercise the so-called skills that were punished in low-wage workplaces. Instead of skills, I offer the idea of “digital privilege” to point out that the very same skills in the hands of individuals in different classed institutional arrangements, are received in very different ways. It’s this privilege, not skills, that made their digital hustles look smooth and seamless. Constraint and hurdles to access aren’t the only things that shape digital inequalities, privilege does also, and only understanding one side of that equation leaves out some important parts to our understanding of these phenomenon. 

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