Jonathan Zittrain’s “Minds For Sale” and Ubiquitous Human Computing

Business man with computer screen for headStrapped for cash (or have some time to kill)?

Here’s a deal for you: If you can figure out how to control the bubble size in carbonated beverages, or can find a novel approach to protecting corn from insect damage, the website Innocentive will broker a deal where your idea could be purchased for $20,000.

Or maybe chemical compounds aren’t your thing? Head over to Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk program, and make $1 for identifying in 100 pictures whether the person in the photo is male or female, or earn 5 cents for every city and country you match with the correct overseas zipcodes.

Still need more work? If you successfully pass the interview process at LiveOps.com (also known as the “contact center in the cloud”), you could soon be a call-center employee taking someone’s drive thru order from the Jack-in-the-Box from across town, simply sitting at home on your couch connected to the drive-thru module via your laptop.

Each of these is an example of Ubiquitous Human Computing, a term coined by Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain used to describe the trend to network and distribute mindpower as a fungible resource on the web.

Last Week, Zittrain came to speak about this topic at Santa Clara University in his lecture entitled “Minds For Sale”, where he dynamically discussed the myriad of issues we are faced by this new wave of the internet.

Out of the many interesting topics Zittrain covered, a few ideas stood out to me:

Customer service operators at workOne question that Zittrain raised was what effect ubiquitous human computing would have on society. With contracting jobs available at our fingertips, how will the lines between “work” and “home” continue to be blurred?

The company LiveOps.com, for example, allows people to work from their home as call center employees for everything from fast-food chains to political campaigns, and represents a different model for employment than the typical worker/boss hierarchy, Zittrain says.  LiveOps enables people to work anywhere (presuming they have a computer), and anytime (whether for 5 minutes, or 5 hours) depending on the person’s availability; thus, if a person wants to take some Jack-in-the-Box orders for 10 minutes while in between errands, Liveops allows him or her to do so by simply signing in and signing out at his convenience.  Zittrain presented an advertisement with the slogan “Become a Mompreneur“, intended to target stay-at-home mothers looking to be employed in small increments throughout the day.

But he questioned what kind of impact these types of “contracting” jobs could have in the future. Will we grow into communities where people are sitting in parks on their computers, one person ordering a pizza from a Liveops contractor sitting across the way?  In his article on Ubiquitous Human Computing, Zittrain writes,

“One can visualize in the near future a subway car packed with people, each far less attuned to the local environment and to each other than even with today’s distractions of newspapers and iPods. Instead, they will stare into screens even for just a few minutes and earn as much money in that time as their respective skills and stations allow.”

And he rightfully notes that with computer-mediated convenience, also comes computer-mediated control.  Liveops, for example, documents its contractors performance based on statistical metrics of timeliness and efficiency, measured even down to the second of how fast someone answers a Liveops call.  This introduces a categorically different model from the typical workplace, Zittrain suggests, where employees don’t have any flexibility or slack like they would as a typical employee, but are instead measured solely by these quantifiable measurements.   And if a contractor is inefficient, Liveops has no obligation to keep them employed — they can be dropped and replaced by another contracted employee at anytime.  Does this model lead us down a track towards people being treated less like human beings and more like computers, Zittrain asked?  And one wonders this in general: will ubiquitous human computing make us more like task-mastering computers, and less like humans?

This issue seems even more relevant to the next topic: Amazon’s Mechanical Turks.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turks is a service that allows people to complete tasks for small amounts of money– often 1 to 15 cents –that are considered exceedingly simple but require human intelligence because computers are, for whatever reason, unable to carry them out. Examples of a “mechanical turks” include identifying keywords to describe a photo on Google image search, summarizing a website for a search function, or matching names with e-mail addresses — tasks that, at this point, are too complicated for a computer, but are fairly simplistic for a human being.

HiResMost people think of these tasks as mindless and just something to pass the time – but Zittrain pointed out some interesting ethical questions that can arise related to these tasks. He pointed out the issue of alienation, which refers to the idea that people are being asked to do a task having no idea of what it relates to.  (In other words, with mechanical turking, you can complete a task but have no knowledge of what company or person you are completing the task for.)  Why is this issue?  Well, consider the following scenario:

You are completing the “mechanical turk” of clicking through a series of pictures, simply identifying if the person in the photo is male or female.  You’re earning some small sum of money — a few dollars, maybe–while watching TV and just breezing on the internet.  But what if, in helping categorize the gender of a person in a photo, you are in fact helping to identify and catalog the images of protesters at a rally who will then be arrested based on information you helped provide?  Because you have no knowledge of who commissions the turk, you could be contributing to a cause — political, religious, social — that you might not condone if there were full disclosure.  Zittrain raises this as an important question going forward: If we don’t have transparency on who is commissioning these tasks, how can we know if we are contributing to something that may be out of line with our moral principles?

Picture 1Zittrain’s talk also raised a lot of questions about honesty on the internet in regards to marketing and consumer reviews. He cited one website called Subvertandprofit.com, which allows a person to pay money to have his or her article “Digg’d” (for non “diggers,” Digg.com is an aggregate social news site where users vote on popular stories — and the more votes, the more publicity).  You can also pay money to get people to give your product a 5/5 positive review on Amazon.com or other review sites.  Essentially, if you shell out the cash, you can control the type of reviews your product can get.  Should we condone this type of practice online, Zittrain asked? How will we know who to trust online if reviewers are being paid to give good reviews?

Captcha codes are another area that breeds dishonesty online. Captchas are codes which were created to eliminate online spam–they require a human user to read and type out the letters presented, thereby confirming that the website user is in fact a person and not a computer program trying to spread spam:

Picture 5

But spammers have learned to get around this hurdle by eliciting their own “mechanical turks” to solve Captchas for them. For example, some programmers have designed free pornography that can be viewed if one just simply enters in a Captcha code; basically, spammers trick pornography viewers into solving Captchas for them, and then use those solved codes to spam whatever blog or website featured that Captcha. On a massive scale, this leads to Captcha codes being solved left and right by people who don’t even know that they are contributing to this internet spamming scheme (again raising the issue of alienation on the web). Zittrain even described what he called “Captcha sweatshops”, where people are commissioned to solve these codes all day long–a new type of digital labor for the 21st century.  As ubiquitous human computing advances, one wonders, what will happen to honesty, trust and ethics on the internet?

Picture 9The last point I thought was fascintating in regards to ubiquitous human computing was the idea of citizen surveillance. Zittrain pointed out a website marketed to engage citizens in border control, where people can watch surveillance footage of the borders and report to the website if they “see anything unusual.” If enough people respond with concern, patrol men will be sent out to the border to survey the problem.  Essentially, people can watch the borders 24 hours a day, looking for any behavior they might deem suspicious.

But is citizen surveillance something we should be encouraging in this way? And one wonders, what might this look like in the future if surveillance intensifies, and people are constantly being commissioned to report on the behavior of others recorded on surveillance camera footage streaming online?

All in all, Zittrain’s lecture raised many fascinating questions about the future of the internet in regards to the distribution of human mindpower. Zittrain himself admits feeling ambivalent towards this trend: excited about its possibilities, but also anxious about its downsides. I share his ambivalence; there are obvious benefits (like idea sharing on Innocentive) and significant drawbacks (like turning us into cogs in a machine) to this type of networking.

But what I admired most about Zittrain was his approach to the topic — he is really the consummate example of a Technological Citizen.  His goal is to get people talking about the path we are going down, and have us all evaluate whether it is the right path to be on. He encourages people to get out of the all too popular camps that arise around issues in technology, the first which claims it’s “too early to tell if this will be a problem” and the other that insists “it’s too late to do anything about it now anyway.”

If we examine these issues now, he says, we can have some sway in bringing about changes that help move us in a direction where privacy, autonomy, and human values are taken into consideration.  If we wait too long or never address these questions, he warns, we might continue down a road that leads to a place we don’t want to end up in, where our minds are for sale, and we’re nothing more than human machines.

What do you think about ubiquitous human computing? Do you share Zittrain’s concerns, or have additional concerns of your own? Alternatively, what benefits do you see to ubiquitous human computing?

Watch Jonathan Zittrain explain Ubiquitous Human Computing in the interview below:

To check out Jonathan Zittrain’s Book, The Future of The Internet And How To Stop It, click here.

cover-2

9 Responses to “Jonathan Zittrain’s “Minds For Sale” and Ubiquitous Human Computing”

  1. mconway says:

    It is interesting to ponder the future based upon these innovations Zittrain discusses… People, in these times, are being treated less like individuals and more like tools or “cogs” to achieve an end. Long gone are the days in which job security was assured for most workers. As Zittrain explores the idea of “mechanical turks,” we are confronted with the morals of anonymity and how alienation of information can subjugate workers into supporting immoral goals. He brings up valid points, yet now at the time of recession, easy money for those struggling to find employment is appealing and many will find solace in the ignorance anonymity provides.

    In regards to LiveOps, such technological advances are characteristic ventures of a growing global community. Although its implications sound alarming and potentially “mechanic,” we cannot disregard the benefits to stay at home/single parents. My mom works from home as a legal accountant and its benefits to myself and the rest of my family has been resounding. I do agree that the example of traveling on a subway train or answering a drive order on a park bench in Montana for a Jack in the Box in Colorado is chilling, it is apart of the ascent towards McLuhan’s “global village.” Its inevitability is real, and although its potential mechanization of human interaction is different, it is something to which Zittrain says we must question and alter now or forever conform to its consequences.

    • lfalzarano says:

      I completely agree with your point about the benefits of doing work from one’s house – my mom is also a stay-at-home accountant, and this gives her an incredible amount of flexibility and control over her schedule. Not to mention, it’s way more convenient. However, there are significant differences between stay at home workers and these mechanical turks. To start, stay at home workers are much more informed about the projects they’re working on. For example, my mom interacts with the people she does taxes for: she meets with them in person or talks with them over the phone, she learns all about their situations and often a bit about their personal lives, and puts a great amount of thought into how she might best prepare their returns. Mechanical turks, on the other hand, have no idea who they’re working for or what projects their work is contributing to. As the article mentioned, this raises a lot of ethical concern: you have no idea if you’re contributing to something morally objectionable.

      Also, in regards to your first point: it seems to me like people have always been treated like cogs or simple means to end. Just look at the way nearly all monarchs have treated and used their subjects, or the way business owners mistreated and exploited their workers during the Industrial Revolution. And job security has never, ever been guaranteed. Also, it is possible to work for a corporation that does morally questionable things without anyone’s knowledge: Enron had some pretty shady accounting practices that nobody knew about until their stocks hit the floor.
      In sum, humans have always exploited one another and done questionable deeds; modern technology simply augments and aids in this.

    • sam.amoriarty says:

      As the Internet continues to develop, anonymity poses many problems.

      I agree that the idea of “mechanical turking” is attractive to citizens specifically during times of recession. We tend to seek economic reward though, or obtain the latest technology, without realizing the consequences of our actions.?

      Jobs from home provide much flexibility for families. My mom also works from home which has helped my family a lot.

      These technologies being created are useful, but I find it alarming how the rates of human interaction continue to decrease. Utilizing technologies such as LiveOps is not bad, however I feel we need to make changes before things go too far and we no longer communicate with one another on a human level..

  2. Dmeyers says:

    I find the content in this post quiet thought-provoking from a legal stand-point. Liveops.com seems to be a technologically-driven shortcut around minimum wage laws and employment contracts. Among other things, it is based on the exploitation of a loophole in American employee rights laws. With Liveops (and to a lesser degree Amazon’s Mechanical Turks) employees are sporadically employed while observing little or no employee rights – no severance package, no bonus system, no minimum wage laws, no mandatory 15 minute breaks, no overtime or holiday payment system, no Equal Opportunity Act. Yet, somehow it doesn’t even seem like Liveops really needs to be held to the same standard as other employers in America. Liveops is a legitimate business that works to employee people, yet there doesn’t seem to be a need to hold them to the same employer standard that all the other businesses in the US are held to. Why is this? Maybe the answer is because it is a mediator between employer and employee, rather than an actual employer in itself. Maybe because it is so new and advanced of a technology that lawmakers have yet to discover its potentially malignant side-effects. While the answer may not be cut and dry, it does identify a problem on the horizon for those in the legal and legislative field. What other legal issues are on the horizon, spurred by the rampant advancement in technology?

    • ecbrown says:

      I agree with this post in that this idea poses many legal questions. As mentioned above, there are no mandatory breaks, severance packages, bonus systems, etc. This poses a problem in that eventually there will be law suits among the employees. While people may find this employment convenient, at some point someone will want more. At this time there are no laws structuring the basis of the employment which leaves a gap for legal issues. As I have focused on responding the legality issues, I think that there is room for improvement and as our technology advances and this idea becomes a well-known phenomenon, I’m sure the legal issues will be sorted out.

  3. s.moriarty says:

    I find this article and Jonathan Zittrain’s ideas very intriguing and prevalent as technology continues to dominate our world and seemingly run our day-to-day lives. Technology not only aids us in completing tasks but also changes our mindset. What would happen to our society if everyone viewed human bodies as machines? As the lines between home life and work life are blurred, so are the ideas of mind, body, and spirit with machine.

    Scott Kirsner, a journalist involved in the start of Boston.com, shared an article and his opinion in the Innovation Economy section of Boston.com on April 1, 2012 (http://www.boston.com/business/technology/innoeco/2012/04/my_life_as_a_micro-laborer_exp.html). This shared column provides first-hand experience and insight of someone trying to break into the market of “micro-labor.” The opportunities seem endless (even three years after TheTechCitizen’s orginial post) while the profit limited; the ratio of hours “turking” to earned wages is outrageous.

    What will the long-term effects of these jobs do to the work forces in the United States and other countries? Daniel Chandler’s mention (in his essay Technological or Media Determinism) of Christopher Evan’s declaration is completely accurate and relates to the issues Zittrain explores, “the computer…transform[s] ‘world society at all levels’” (Evans 1979, cited in Robins & Webster 1989, p. 24).

    • sam.amoriarty says:

      As the Internet continues to develop, anonymity poses many problems.

      I agree that the idea of “mechanical turking” is attractive to citizens specifically during times of recession. We tend to seek economic reward though, or obtain the latest technology, without realizing the consequences of our actions.?

      Jobs from home provide much flexibility for families. My mom also works from home which has helped my family a lot.

      These technologies being created are useful, but I find it alarming how the rates of human interaction continue to decrease. Utilizing technologies such as LiveOps is not bad, however I feel we need to make changes before things go too far and we no longer communicate with one another on a human level.

  4. sam.amoriarty says:

    As the Internet continues to develop, anonymity poses many problems.

    I agree that the idea of “mechanical turking” is attractive to citizens specifically during times of recession. We tend to seek economic reward though, or obtain the latest technology, without realizing the consequences of our actions.?

    Jobs from home provide much flexibility for families. My mom also works from home which has helped my family a lot.

    These technologies being created are useful, but I find it alarming how the rates of human interaction continue to decrease. Utilizing technologies such as LiveOps is not bad, however I feel we need to make changes before things go too far and we no longer communicate with one another on a human level.

  5. lfalzarano says:

    I thought the point about the programmers using people to solve CAPTCHAS for them was really interesting. I’ve heard about spammers using underpaid workers for such a purpose in an article by Charles C. Mann in the September 2006 issue of Wired Magazine, and I’d wondered how exactly they’d found and hired people to do such work. I pictured them hiring teenagers and college kids and paying them minimum wage, but the technique mentioned in this article makes more sense, as it doesn’t cost anything.

    In any case, I agree that the anonymity of the mechanical turk situation does pose serious ethical concerns. I think a way to fix this would be by decreasing the amount of secrecy around this work: tell people who they’re working for, and what project they’re contributing to. Of course, one could never be sure that one is being presented with the truth. Then again, such a dilemma could easily happen in a real life situation as well: I often help my mom prepare tax returns by typing numbers into tax programs, which is mindless, simple work that could easily be assigned to a mechanical turk. I can’t be completely sure as to what she does with these numbers after I type them in; it’s possible she manipulates them illegally to make it look like her clients owe less than they do. However, she is my mother, and I’ve heard enough to trust that she does ethical work.
    In sum, it is necessary that we are mindful about what our toils contribute to, no matter what we’re doing.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

WordPress Themes