Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reading :: Rhet Ops

Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare
Edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson

A while back, when Bill Hart-Davidson began tweeting about Rhet Ops (or is it RhetOps?), I asked him to clarify the concept further:
@billhd can you bottom-line the difference between #rhetops and propaganda?
He replied:
not clear to me in practice, but we use #rhetops to mark invocation of our disciplinary knowledge about the practice 
Bill is one of the smartest people in our field, and this is a reasonable distinction: "rhet ops" is not a phenomenon or existing type, it's an analytical concept meant to rhetorically examine arguments made by states (and perhaps nonstate actors) for military purposes. Or as they say in the introduction:
by mid-summer 2016 the project began to feel urgent as we collected an increasing number of stories under #RhetOps, a hashtag to mark convergences between digital rhetorical theory and military operations, that pointed to broader militarization of social media and the concomitant questions concerning the vulnerability of democracy (p.vii).
They explain that in this collection, they assemble "a diverse group of authors writing about the contemporary use of digital rhetoric by both state actors and military organizations as well as non-state actors whose motives involve carrying out violence" (p.5). They argue that military agencies are increasingly interested in digital rhetoric, and in addition, actors are increasingly using nonhuman agents in digital networks (p.6).

This concept seems like a good starting point. But after reading this collection, I still don't have a good idea of how RhetOps is operationalized. Each contributor seems to be working with a slightly different concept. For instance, John Gagnon lists 11 Minerva Initiative-funded projects that "clearly intersect in some way with rhetoric studies" (p.84)—these mainly seem to be grounded in psychology or sociology, although the author does not specify, and I strongly doubt that any of them involve rhetoric scholars. Based on this list, Gagnon speculates that "the Pentagon hopes to use such research for the purposes of weaponizing rhetorical knowledge" (pp.84-85). Fair enough: so did Pericles. In the next chapter, Brad Lucas claims that Vietnam War-era antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society "weaponized" the mimeograph machine and referred to the produced texts as "shotgun pamphlets," which Lucas characterizes as "textual weapons" (p.96). But I'm unclear whether Lucas' concept coheres with Gagnon's, or how rhetorical theory provides a deeper understanding than more established frameworks such as PsyOps.

I think that Angie Mallory comes closest to putting her finger on the central challenge in this collection. She explicitly discusses PsyOps (styled here as PSYOP) and attempts to define RhetOps against it (p.201). As she learned more about PSYOP, she realized that "they were oblivious to rhetoric and drew their entire background from psychology, and yet rhetoric was all about persuasive communication, which is what PSYOP experts do" (p.203). Yes: Other disciplines study persuasive communication, especially psychology but also other social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and economics. Rhetoric doesn't own persuasion and argumentation, and must demonstrate that it actually brings something to the table if it is going to participate meaningfully in this discourse. It's not just a matter of "guarding the borders of our academic fields so tightly," as Mallory adds (p.203)—it's a matter of delineating our unique contributions, and demonstrating that they are useful and  compatible with those of other disciplines.

Does this collection do that? Like many, it's a mixed bag. Some contributions do seem to provide principled analysis that is grounded in or unique to rhetoric. For instance, in their chapter on ISIS, Marcellino and Magnuson tie RhetOps to cultural understanding, and say that "one possible way to frame this rhetorical battle being fought in the Middle East is as a dialogue" (p.125). The authors offer a rhetorical analysis by comparing lexical and lexicogrammatical strategies (p.126). Similarly, Michael Trice uses genre ecologies to map out the discourse in GamerGate. These have potential to interface with other, more established social sciences.

But as a whole, RhetOps seems like an initial orientation rather than an operationalizable concept—and to be fair, I think that's Bill and Jim Ridolfo conceived this collection, as the beginning of a conversation that might eventually develop an operationalized concept. At least that's what I think its central contribution is—and I hope this conversation continues. If you are interested in joining this conversation, this collection is an important starting point.

Reading :: Digital Work and the Platform Economy

Digital Work and the Platform Economy: Understanding Tasks, Skills and Capabilities in the New EraEdited by Seppo Poutanen, Anne Kovalainen, and Petri Rouvinen

Digital platforms include digital labor markets (Upwork, Fiverr, Uber), but also "platforms that can manage [firms'] interface with the external market and society" (as Kenney et al. say in Chapter 1, p.13). Kenney et al. provide us with a taxonomy that includes

  • Venture labor
  • Contractors
  • Platform-mediated marketplaces
  • Platform-mediated in-person service provision
  • Platform-mediated remote service provision
  • Consignment content creators
  • Non-platform organization content
  • User-generated content (p.17)
This first chapter provided an excellent overview of platform work. And through the rest of the book, contributors discuss topics such as: theorizing platform work; understanding how it interacts with workers' health and safety; understanding changes to vocational education, employment agencies, and migrant labor; understanding how to measure productivity; and understanding cultural changes.

The last topic was especially interesting to me. Laura Seppanen and Seppo Poutanen use activity theory to theorize platform work, arguing that platform workers still tend to follow a price-based market logic (p.183). (They generously use my typology from All Edge.) 

If you are looking for an overview of digital platforms, I recommend this book, which provides a great overview as well as a wealth of sources.

Reading :: Heteromation

Heteromation, and Other Stories of Computing and Capitalism
By Hamid R. Ekbia and Bonnie A. Nardi

This book's central argument is that "digital technologies are responses to the predicaments and opportunities of capitalism" (p.7). "While others debate whether digital technologies are mere tools or drivers of social change, we regard them largely as a response to the dynamics of socioeconomic change" (p.8).

Based on Marx, they argue that labor is "a uniquely human capacity, which accounts for the production of economic value in capitalism" (p.12). In this context, they introduce the concept of heteromation, which is "the extraction of economic value from low-cost or free labor in computer-mediated networks" (p.xv). They ask:
  1. What are the social and technological processes through which economic value is extracted from digitally mediated labor?
  2. What is the nature of the value created in this process to allow capital to continue its necessary expansion?
  3. How are people incited to participate in this process? (p.3).  
 They argue that heteromation is "a capitalist innovation to deal with the tension that derives from [the] paradox" that Marx described, in which the rate of profit tends to fall due to "technologically driven rising productivity" (p.16). Heteromation represents "a new law of capitalist accumulation" (p.17) in which economic value is extracted "from uncompensated or low-wage labor, inciting participation through an intricate set of mechanisms comprised of social and emotional rewards, monetary compensation, and coercion" (pp.24-25). It extracts this labor via inclusion, engagement, and invisibility (p.39).

The authors deploy a variety of examples to make their argument: Mechanical Turk, social media use, kiosks, self-serve checkout at grocery stores. However, I found these examples to be too dispersed to cleanly make the argument the authors want to make.

For instance, take self-serve checkout—which (as the name suggests) disaggregates a component of service from the purchase of goods. The authors say that "a close look reveals that a good part of the labor is, in fact, done by another group of human beings—the consumer, the end user, an intermediary such as a family member, or in some cases, a new kind of casual laborer. This labor costs capital little or nothing" (p.108). Although automated grocery checkout is said to replace humans, the authors argue that "machines are not fully replacing humans, but rather reconfiguring the labor into the heteromated labor of end users who do the cognitive work" (p.110). The authors conclude that this work is "oxymoronically" called "self-service" when it is "no service at all" and instead hides the labor that the consumer ends up taking over (p.111).

But this argument seems to assume that service labor is an intrinsic part of what people are paying for, and thus they are being tricked into performing that labor themselves, while the company keeps the profits of their labor by charging for service that it does not produce. It's possible to view things differently: heteromation, in some cases, allows the provider to partially disaggregate service from the cost of goods. That is, before heteromation, the grocery store had to integrate the service of checkout into the cost of goods because otherwise people would walk out without paying, or pay the wrong price, or otherwise elide the transaction. With heteromation, some grocery shoppers are willing to perform that labor themselves, lowering labor costs in a business with notoriously thin profit margins. The service is no longer part of the goods. Consumers are evidently okay with this tradeoff—how many of us, given the chance, would choose a full-service gas station over a self-serve after comparing the price per gallon? For that matter, how many of us eat every meal at a restaurant (where the cost of labor and service is included in the price of the meal) rather than buying our own groceries and performing the labor of cooking at home?

The authors' argument also doesn't really engage with the relational aspect of value propositions (and I guess I would argue that Marx, who was specifically focused on commodities, doesn't either). For instance, the authors wrote this argument before COVID-19, and I'm writing this review afterwards. COVID-19 is a nice example of how value might change based on circumstances: I'm more likely to use, and see value in, a kiosk vs. a cashier now because the kiosk allows me to actively avoid germy people (I still have to touch the same germy keypad). What was an imposition in January is now, in April, an additional service, and I'm likely to seek out grocery stores that can provide this service. That is, heteromation is preferable for me and I might actually pay more for it because it provides the service of keeping me safer (just as people sometimes pay additional service fees to use ATMs).

The picture is more complicated, of course. Grocery stores still employ checkers, just not as many. They don't (yet) have a differential surcharge for human service. And automated systems do still have tenders, but the ratio of tender to checkout machine is more like 1:4 or 1:8. Finally, the provider may still keep charging for service that it is no longer providing—but to make that case, one would have to carefully disaggregate and examine these costs, and the authors don't do that.

In any case, this case—in which service is steadily disaggregated from cost of goods—seems rather different from the case of social media, in which people create value for the social media company simply by using its product. Or Mechanical Turk, in which people perform casual cognitive tasks.  Ultimately, I wanted the authors to make a stronger and more nuanced argument that these different cases did fit together, that they represented the same overarching trend, and that they all counted as labor.

As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts about this book. And for that reason, I recommend it—although I was not convinced by the argument, this argument gave me plenty to think about. The authors draw broadly on various literatures to define and describe heteromation, a concept that can underpin other investigations into distributed labor.

(back in the game)

I haven't stopped reading, but I did stop blogging for a while. Not consciously—but I had a lot of other things competing for my attention. The COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions have actually made things worse, since I've had to help transition the lower-division curriculum as well as my own, as well as a zillion other things.

As a result, I'm eight books behind on my review schedule. So I'll start digging out today.