Thursday, February 28, 2019

Working Conditions of Some Folks Who Feed Your Electronic Media Habits

Some pieces on the less visible side of our rapid adoption of electronic media.

Computer Games - From Real Life

"During a quarterly earnings call on February 11, Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard — one of the biggest companies in video games, publicly traded with a market cap of about $35 billion — announced excellent news for investors: His company had just completed a “record year” of revenue. But then he had even better news for them: Activision Blizzard was set to lay off 8 percent of their workforce, to further increase shareholder margins, meaning 800 employees would be losing their jobs.
The cycles of extreme crunch and job churn have meant that game employees often burn out after a few years in games: In 2017, the industry had the highest turnover rate of any in the country. Games companies are not troubled by this, because they bank on the aura that their products and their fan communities give them. The idealism and passion of the young people who come to games hoping to work in a field that inspires them and brings them joy end up making them ripe for exploitation, a pattern many young writers, actors, and musicians might recognize. At so-called triple-A studios like Rockstar or Ubisoft, they get chewed up and spit out in the name of creating an expensive few hours of pleasure for middle-class consumers."

Casey Newton's The Trauma Floor:  The Secret Lives of Facebook Moderators in America, tells the story of contract workers who screen FB posts to eliminate inappropriate posts.  It starts of at a training session:
"For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.
The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking." 
The piece goes on to talk about how these employees are NOT really FB employees and their pay and working conditions are much different from those in Menlo Park. Interviews with a number of former and current employees reveals high mental health problems, with sex and drugs a common way to cope.  While there are counselors, they aren't there all the time.   A long section in the middle discusses the difficulty of interpreting the rules for what is allowable and what isn't.  As you can imagine there is a fine balancing act between not offending people and not being overly protective.

"In some cases, the company has been criticized for not doing enough — as when United Nations investigators found that it had been complicit in spreading hate speech during the genocide of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. In others, it has been criticized for overreach — as when a moderator removed a post that excerpted the Declaration of Independence. (Thomas Jefferson was ultimately granted a posthumous exemption to Facebook’s speech guidelines, which prohibit the use of the phrase 'Indian savages.')"

The scores employees get keeps track of their accuracy.

Eventually gets to tour the Phoenix workplace under controlled conditions where employees say things aren't as bad as he's been led to believe.

And finally (for this post anyway) (and a slightly different focus)  "AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld" in Wired, by Kevin Kelly.  This begins with a description of AR as experienced by Mythbusters' Adam Savage:
“I turned it on and I could hear a whale,” he says, “but I couldn’t see it. I’m looking around my office for it. And then it swims by my windows—on the outside of my building! So the glasses scanned my room and it knew that my windows were portals and it rendered the whale as if it were swimming down my street. I actually got choked up.” 
Kelly gives an overview.  (Wired assumes everyone knows what AR means and doesn't define it.  But I suspect not all my readers do.  It stands for Augmented Reality.)
"The first big technology platform was the web, which digitized information, subjecting knowledge to the power of algorithms; it came to be dominated by Google. The second great platform was social media, running primarily on mobile phones. It digitized people and subjected human behavior and relationships to the power of algorithms, and it is ruled by Facebook and WeChat.
We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-­readable, subject to the power of algorithms. Whoever dominates this grand third platform will become among the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies in history, just as those who now dominate the first two platforms have. Also, like its predecessors, this new platform will unleash the prosperity of thousands more companies in its ecosystem, and a million new ideas—and problems—that weren’t possible before machines could read the world."

So what?

Every new technology inherently brings change to the society that adopts it.  I remember reading about an indigenous group of people's first contact with foreigners, who gave metal hatchets to people in the group.  The possession of tools like these had been restricted by tradition to village leaders.  Now everyone had such a tool and the whole social order of the community fell apart.

We've been on an incredible technology ride as we adopt one new technology after another with very little concern for how these technologies have and will impact us.  Digital imagery manipulation has destroyed the idea of photos and videos as reliable evidence of truth.  And the internet is currently being used to further destroy any notion of a provable truth.  Democracy requires a level of agreement on what is true.

But aside from the content of the internet and how it influences our world views, there is also the impact of how the technology is produced - the materials, the work settings, wealth redistribution.  And capitalism itself makes it hard to control the impacts of new technology.  Cloning and genetic modification of humans will happen (have happened?) despite strong ethical concerns.  Capitalists supply what they think they can profit from.  We know, for example, the free market plays a key role in the extinction of species - either because some part of them is valued like rhinoceros horns, or because their habitat is destroyed as a side-effect (externality) of resource development and the unregulated dumping of waste.

Before you give up because you think the problems are too great to solve, remember your own consumption and waste management strategies.  Talk about the side effects of computer games with your friends and relatives who made Activision Blizzard a $35 billion! company.

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