Category Archives: Political economy and visibility

The technology cycle and Walmart

Apparently, Walmart needs its workforce to have cellphones.

An announcement by the company stating that about 750k employees in the US will be given $500 Samsung phones for free by year’s end was reported widely this week. Walmart’s US workforce in 2017 was 1.5m, so if there have not been dramatic changes in this figure, the policy would cover about half of the chain’s employees. Since Walmart is one of the largest employers in the country, this initiative is bound to be one of, if not the largest of its kind. Also, given the significant proportion of low-wage jobs in the company’s workforce, the benefit is a considerable one.

The company indicated it has taken this step in order to transition away from the dedicated handheld devices its associates previously used in their stores. The result is a hybrid arrangement. Employees get the device, case, and protection plan for free (they still presumably are on the hook for their own voice & data plan), but they

will only be able to use work features on the new Me@Walmart while on the clock.

Although it would be fair to assume that the use of cellphones for personal matters is already discouraged (or prohibited altogether) for Walmart employees on the clock, this policy nudges them toward an equilibrium (use of an employer-gifted device as one’s primary cell phone) where such behavior becomes technically impossible.

As for non-work-related use, Walmart

promised that it would not have access to any employee’s personal data and [they] can “use the smartphone as their own personal device if they want, with all the features and privacy they’re used to”

which has a bit of an ominous ring, for those who consider the overall landscape of surveillance capitalism, cellphones’ key role within it, and the importance of habituation for the smooth functioning of the system.

Of course, Walmart’s convergence to an Amazon-style micro-management-by-app of its employees’ physical movement through its warehouses is the big story, driving the program. However, it is interesting to note a few concurrent dynamics. On the one hand, in the span of one generation cellphones have followed the whole arc of the technology/political economy cycle, from luxury fashion items for conspicuous consumption to basic infrastructure indispensable for working-class jobs. In situations of economic crisis, falling purchasing power, and widening wealth differentials, it can prove economically advantageous for employers to provide them outright as a fringe benefit. On the other hand, the intertwining of the private and the public, work-life and down-time in contemporary America has decisively affected how people access the Internet. This fact was made apparent to white-collar employees working remotely during the pandemic, but as always the most extreme and direct consequences will be experienced by those most directly exposed to market forces and least able to bargain over employment conditions.

Bessemer blues

The recent, decisive defeat of the unionization drive in Amazon’s fulfillment facility of Bessemer, Alabama can be understood to teach many lessons, not necessarily mutually complementary. First of all, specifically local conditions were in play, which can call into question the overall strategy of attempting to start the U.S. unionization of Amazon from the Deep South. The outcome, however, can equally be read as a sign that, in the current crisis economy, workers are prepared to put up with more or less any employer practices and work conditions whatsoever in order not to jeopardize their employment status, especially for jobs with efficiency wages. It can, alternatively, be seen as confirmation that giant tech companies, for all their claims to discontinuity and disruption, have mastered the traditional playbook of pugilistic industrial relations developed by old-economy businesses in the past fifty years. It can be interpreted as a statement that the progressive electoral coalition that swept the Democratic Party back into power at the federal level between November and January has not effected a sea-change in public opinion with regard to labor rights and representation. It can further be considered, in conjunction with the easy passage of Prop. 22 in California last Fall, as evidence that there is scant public belief that the ills of the soft underbelly of the tech economy can be righted by means of twentieth-century policy solutions.

Whatever the lessons learned, the unavoidable conclusion is that, in the United States at least, the power of Big Tech will not be reined in by organized labor alone (despite the fact that industrial militancy in the Amazon workforce continues, in less conventional and institutionalized ways). Nonetheless, recent media attention focused on Amazon workplace practices has created a series of PR embarrassments for the company: it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately cement a certain organizational reputation, and if such a reputation in turn can have regulatory or, especially, financial implications down the line (as has recently been the case in other jurisdictions).

Routinization of influence, exacerbation of outrageousness

How is the influencer ecosystem evolving? Opposing forces are in play.

On the one hand, a NYT story describes symptoms of consolidation in the large-organic-online-following-to-brand-ambassadorship pathway. As influencing becomes a day job that is inserted in a stable fashion in the consumer-brand/advertising nexus, the type of informal, supposedly unmediated communication over social media becomes quickly unwieldy for business negotiations: at scale, professional intermediaries are necessary to manage transactions between the holders of social media capital/cred and the business interests wishing to leverage it. A rather more disenchanted and normalized workaday image of influencer life thereby emerges.

On the other hand, a Vulture profile of an influencer whose personal magnetism is matched only by her ability to offend (warning: NSFW) signals that normalization may ultimately be self-defeating. The intense and disturbing personal trajectory of Trisha Paytas suggests that the taming of internet celebrity for commercial purposes is by definition a neverending Sisyphean endeavor, for the currency involved is authenticity, whose seal of approval lies outside market transactions. The biggest crowds on the internet are still drawn by titillation of outrage, although their enactors may not thereby be suited to sell much of anything, except themselves.

Behavioral redefinition

Vice reports on a Tokyo-based company, DeepScore, pitching software for the automatic recognition of ‘trustworthiness’, e.g. in loan applicants. Although their claimed false-negative rate of 30% may not sound particularly impressive, it must of course be compared to well-known human biases in lending decisions. Perhaps more interesting is the instrumentalization cycle, which is all but assured to take place if DeepScore’s algorithm gains wide acceptance. On the one hand, the algorithm’s goal is to create a precise definition for a broad and vague human characteristic like trustworthiness—that is to say, to operationalize it. Then, if the algorithm is successful on its training sample and becomes adopted by real-world decision-makers, the social power of the adopters reifies the research hypothesis: trustworthiness becomes what the algorithm says it is (because money talks). Thus, the behavioral redefinition of a folk psychology concept comes to fruition. On the other hand, however, instrumentalization immediately kicks in, as users attempt to game the operationalized definition, by managing to present the algorithmically-approved symptoms without the underlying condition (sincerity). Hence, the signal loses strength, and the cycle completes. The fact that DeepScore’s trustworthiness algorithm is intended for credit markets in South-East Asia, where there exist populations without access to traditional credit-scoring channels, merely clarifies the ‘predatory inclusion’ logic of such practices (v. supra).

Market concentration woes

Just followed the Medium book launch event for the print edition of Cory Doctorow’s latest, How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (free online version here). The pamphlet, from August 2020, was originally intended as a rebuttal of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism [v. supra]. The main claim is that the political consequences of surveillance capitalism were not, as Zuboff maintains, unintended, but rather are central and systemic to the functioning of the whole. Hence, proposed solutions cannot be limited to the technological or economic sphere, but must be political as well. Specifically, Doctorow identifies in trust-busting the main policy tool for reining in Big Tech.

With hindsight of the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, two points Doctorow made in the presentation stand out most vividly. The first is the link between market power and the devaluing of expert opinion that is a necessary forerunner of disinformation. The argument is that “monopolies turn truth-seeking operations [such as parliamentary committee hearings, expert testimony in court, and so forth] into auctions” (where the deepest pockets buy the most favorable advice), thereby completely discrediting their information content for the general public. The second point is that most all of the grievances currently voiced about Section 230 (the liability shield for online publishers of third-party materials) are at some level grievances about monopoly power.