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. 

Jessa Lingel talks about Craigslist

Interview by Nazli Azergun

https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691188904/an-internet-for-the-people

Nazli Azergun: In your book, you describe craigslist as a precedent to current platform economy, almost as an ancestor platform that isn’t necessarily function like its current day counterparts. You also claim that craigslist is a holdout from the olden days of Web 1.0, enacting an ethics of collaboration and access––like an island in today’s gentrified ocean of Web 2.0 mentality. For those who are yet to read your book, could you tell us about the publics of craigslist? Who are these people who use craigslist today for finding a collectible item, hitching a ride, and whatnot––instead of its function-specific counterparts? Why do they prefer craigslist?

Jessa Lingel: Craigslist has always been home to a number of different publics. It’s been online since 1996, which is a very long time in the context of the Internet. In the early days, its home was the San Francisco tech scene, and the site built a reputation for finding elite tech jobs. Over the next decade, craigslist became incredibly popular, for everything from finding apartments to buying and selling used goods to getting dates. By the time I was conducting research, craigslist’s reputation had slipped somewhat, and many people associated it with seedy personals and bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. But for many folks I talked to, craigslist filled an important niche, helping them find temporary jobs, affordable used goods like cars and electronics, and places to live. All in all, I interviewed dozens of people who used craigslist.  None of them only used craigslist, instead it was part of a constellation of platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace and others. But what still draws people to craigslist after all these years is its simplicity, as well as the fact that it’s free from ads.

Nazli Azergun: You also talk about the transition from Web1.0 mentality to a Web2.0 one, which indicates a passage from openness, collaboration, and accessibility towards exclusivity and a world of pay-per-view. What, in your opinion, has caused this transition towards a more gentrified worldwide web? What is it with craigslist that it made it through this transition mostly intact?

Jessa Lingel: If I could point to a single thing that pushed us towards a more gentrified web, it would be Facebook. I know it’s kind of passé at this point to kvetch [complain] about Facebook but it’s difficult to overstate how important Facebook is as a turning point in digital culture. It’s not like there was a clean break, where before Facebook everything was anonymous, free and open, while after Facebook, the internet became commercialized and closed off. But as Facebook became the dominant platform, other modes of being online became less appealing to users, to the point that platforms like craigslist can seem hopelessly backwards or out-of-date. Unlike a lot of platforms, craigslist never went for major platform overhauls or redesigns. Instead it stayed true to the early 1990s internet values of its founder, Craig Newmark and its CEO, Jim Buckmaster. The platform reflects their ideas of what the internet should look like, and because craigslist has been run by the same people for most of its 25-year history, it’s never had to change its appearance or values. It’s never had to gentrify.

Nazli Azergun: You state that you intentionally omitted housing-related craigslist interactions from your book as they did not raise significant tensions among users. I think this is a very significant choice. How do you read this phenomenon, this lack of tensions? What does it tell you about the current state of housing markets, housing-related racism and discrimination, and the precarity of individuals, if anything?

Jessa Lingel: No book can cover everything, and although An Internet for the People is a deep dive into craigslist, there are a number of things I didn’t cover, like the events section, the message boards and housing.  I’m sure there are a lot of tensions to be uncovered about craigslist housing out there, but they didn’t pop up in my interviews. Because housing isn’t a major focus of the data I have, I can only make educated guesses about what craigslist has to show us about the current state of housing markets. One theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews was the idea that craigslist was part of “the poor people’s internet”, meaning that it was mostly a tool for people who felt excluded from fancy platforms. In terms of jobs, this meant looking for certain kinds of work on craigslist rather than more professionalized sites like Indeed. In terms of housing, the parallel would be that for people on a certain budget, it makes more sense to look on craigslist than on Zillow or Redfin.

One thing that COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is the intense divide between rich and poor in terms of property – while buying a second home has become popular in the midst of a pandemic, millions of poor people in the US are facing eviction and housing insecurity. A platform like craigslist could, perhaps troublingly, see a boom in the use of its housing section as poor folks look to it as a platform that’s geared towards affordable, temporary housing arrangements.

Nazli Azergun: Based on your book, I get the sense that craigslist has a particular ethical orientation regarding the monetization of user data and user anonymity. It exclusively seeks transparent monetization and considers anonymity as a useful tool instead of as a dangerous way of being online. How do you situate craigslist in the current universe of discussions around user data and privacy, especially in the context of competing approaches from the likes of Facebook, which seek infinite monetization at the expense of users’ rights, and the likes of EU legislation, which aims for transparency and user protection?

Jessa Lingel: Companies like Facebook would have us believe that user privacy is dead, and that their business models are the only ones that are sustainable. In terms of platform politics and privacy, the most important thing about craigslist is that it provides an example of how a platform can be successful and profitable without exploiting user privacy and turning people into data points. I am very much in favor of federal legislation for Big Tech, but I’m not sure EU legislation really goes far enough. Living in the US, I’m impressed by the willingness of the EU to go after Big Tech when it comes to anti-trust and the Right to Be Forgotten, and the EU General Data Protection Regulation has done some work to increase literacy around cookies. But ultimately, users are mostly just given a notification that their options are either to give up their data or not use the site. In the US, I’m hopeful that legislation around anti-trust and privacy will surface, without sacrificing the important protections of CDA 230, which protects websites from being held responsible for the bad acts of individual users. I don’t think the answer to needing more robust forms of content moderation should come at the cost of user privacy or platform experimentation.

Nazli Azergun: Finally, I think your work is an important piece of Internet history and many appreciate you as a successful historian of the Internet and digital culture. Could you give some tips on how to conduct good historical research on digital culture? What are your approaches to archives and methods?

Jessa Lingel: Thanks, I’m really glad you see the book that way. The most important thing with this book was getting Craig Newmark on board. Journalists haven’t always been kind to him or craigslist in the past, and so I wasn’t entirely sure he’d want to talk to me. But he wound up being the very first person I interviewed. He was very generous with his time and put me in touch with folks who’d been involved with craigslist during its early days. From there, my challenge was making sure I could talk to a range of people who had different perspectives on craigslist, because I didn’t want to be totally beholden to Craig’s views.

Aside from getting insiders on board, the best piece of advice I could give for digital history of a particular platform is to be really expansive in the initial literature review. It took me a long time to figure out the structure of this book, and what took shape grew out of reading widely on anything and everything related to craigslist – academic work, journalism, legal scholarship, as well as how-to guides for buying and selling online, true crime novels and even erotica. After categorizing the different themes that emerged across these sources, the book’s structure started to become clearer to me. It was both a blessing and a curse that there are no other monographs out there on craigslist – it meant I had total freedom to do what I want, but it also meant that there wasn’t much to contrast with. Reading widely was essential for helping me figure out what questions I should ask about craigslist, and what questions about the internet craigslist could help me answer.

Jasmine Folz on her dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation about free and open source software in India begins with a description of children dancing at a community centre in a Bengaluru slum. This community centre is run by the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, who invited me to spend the weekend with them in October 2016. Following the discussion of dancing I transition to a conversation I had with one of the activists, a middle class man in his 20s I call Rohit. He told me that these are the children of maids before sharing that he always felt he should be nice to maids but he had not considered their lives outside of his home. Working with these children has shifted his awareness of their lived experience and he now visits some of their homes in the slum. I then discuss the fact that although the free software activists have come together to promote free software, that this centre:

…represent[s] their significant commitment to using their mission as a technologically defined group toward social ends. The fact that the software they are using on the old PCs in the centre is free is imperative to the activists. However, the activists accept that to the students who visit the centre, the nuances of free software are almost irrelevant within the context of their need for practical help with school, exposure to the possibilities outside of their habitus, and a safe space to relax and just be kids.

I suggest this ability to downplay the groups’ stated mission can be understood as an extension of Indian middle class activism which has historically used a variety of tools to ameliorate social inequalities. The page then transitions to the next section of the chapter outlining the history of the middle classes in India during British colonial rule.

This test holds for my example. Indeed, this page epitomises much of my dissertation. Namely that free software in India is a technology which is mobilised towards social ends by a relatively elite group of practitioners attempting to improve their nation on multiple fronts. Rather than creating software, the Indian free software community spends most of its energies in the social work of evangelising to students, government, and industry. My dissertation ultimately argues for contextualising technology within political, economic, and sociological contexts as a corrective for much of STS which, despite its many valuable insights into how technology is created and understood, overly focusses on analysing circuits and flows of power all the while gliding over and around the structures that create, maintain, and reproduce power. Rather than describing how different actors are connected within networks which constantly, simultaneously reshape themselves, by showing how technology has developed and been wielded in different times and places to different political and economic ends we are better equipped to work towards mobilising technology for a different and more equitable future.

Jasmine Folz. 2019. Free and Open Source Software in India: Mobilising Technology for the National Good. University of Manchester, Phd.

Jasmine Folz is currently a senior social researcher for a small consultancy in London called Alma Economics.

David Flood takes the page 99 test

My dissertation examines everyday interactions between two groups of white people in the US who to all appearances should get along but don’t, despite their sustained efforts towards solidarity and a shared musical practice. They are divided by class. One group consists of rural working-class musicians who play in an informal amateur musical circuit in western North Carolina. The other group consists of transplanted musicians from coastal cities—mostly leftist activists—who have relocated to the area to pursue what they call ‘traditional music’ (more or less, the music that the working-class white people play: bluegrass, old-time, classic country). I show that their constant disagreements and misunderstandings emerge from classed differences at the rather profound level of ethics of sociality: what they think it means to be a good relational subject, or person.

I describe in and through musical sociality the ways that divergent and even antagonistic white racial identities (or ‘whitenesses’) were co-constituted with class difference, and came to powerfully shape people’s understanding of themselves and others in everyday life and politics. This differentiation is vital to understand in order to contextualize and respond to populism and ethnonationalism. In fact, for the rural working-class white people I describe, the primary cultural ‘other’ against whom they agonistically defined their own sense of good personhood was in fact urban middle-class white people. For the middle-class white people in question, working-class lifeworlds were a space where they projected many of the desires and anxieties of life in late capitalism.

This dynamic, needless to say, has historical antecedents. As such, page 99 of my dissertation is smack in the middle of a very long history chapter that ranges from Herder and the German counter-enlightenment to the particular ways that the long history of European folklore arrived in Appalachia proper. The page concludes with a quote from Cecil Sharp, a British folklorist and revivalist who exemplified a kind of fin-de-siècle leftism, combining his anti-modernist sentiments—derived in part from the British Fabian Socialism of the day—with a racial-cultural essentialism familiar in the lineage of Herderian thought.

Sharp writes about white Appalachian settlers of northern European descent, from whom he spent several years of World War I collecting putatively British folk songs:

“That the illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms.  The reason, I take it, why these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have acquired so many of the essentials of culture is partly to be attributed to the large amount of leisure they enjoy, without which, of course, no cultural development is possible, but chiefly to the fact that they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage.  Their language, wisdom, manners, and the many graces of life that are theirs, are merely racial attributes which have been gradually acquired and accumulated in past centuries and handed down… It must be remembered, also, that in their daily lives they are immune from that continuous grinding, mental pressure, due to the attempt to ‘make a living,’ from which nearly all of us in the modern world suffer.  In this respect, at any rate, they have the advantage over those who habitually spend the greater part of every day in preparing to live, in acquiring the technique of life, rather than in its enjoyment” (Sharp, 1917: 24).

As I show in the rest of the work, this danger—the re-inscription of white racial virtue—remains a stubborn peril of a white middle-class leftism that is unreflexive about and uninterested in class difference. Whether it’s contemporary white middle-class leftists purifying their own whiteness by ascribing the evils of racism or white supremacy solely to working-class voters, or folkloric paeans to the virtuous agrarian whites of the heartland: class is the spectre that haunts white liberalism.

 

Flood, David. 2017. Classed Cultural Ethics: Understanding Class Difference in the Contemporary US through Traditional Musical Performance and Radical Leftism. University of Virginia, PhD Dissertation.

Citations:

Sharp, Cecil J. 1917. English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians, Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons.