On the Mekong River: The Latehomecomer

The twelfth longest river in the world, the Mekong is known in both Laos and Thailand as the mother river. Along the border between Laos and Thailand it stretched three-fourths of a mile wide. The Mekong River saw the deaths of more Hmong people than any other river.

The Hmong had been people from the mountains. They were not good swimmers. Only the men, when they were boys, had gone shing and learned a little bit about the push and pull of water. They knew how to keep aoat. They knew a little about how to move in water. Few of the women or children could swim at all. My mother and my grandmother both did not.

The Latehomeomer – Kao Kalia Yang

A World without Email: Initial Reactions

As I am reading the new book A World without Email by Cal Newport, I cannot help but thinking about the neoliberal self-help undertone of the book. The book’s premise is that our way of work communication is deeply broken, and in order to increase work productivity, we should change this emailing system. Besides, the book’s various big claims without any evidence such as emailing has stalled America’s GDP growth rate has given me many cringes. The book falls into the self-governing genre, or the idea of self-governance if there’s a problem. This idea is akin to Facebook’s attempt to self-govern hate-speech, harassment, misinformation, and porn. Third party’s involvement in making sure that Facebook is held accountable is irrelevant. I value that the book indeed points out an important workplace communication problem, which is emailing. However, the explanation, and the possible solutions that the book proposes are alarming to me. The goal of the book is to help knowledge workers unlock productivity. In other words, if you follow the book’s advice, you will be more productive. Read: produce more outputs in a shorter amount of time. The goal of the book is not to help knowledge workers to figure out work/life balance, and get back to the managers and say that it’s way too much, and you’ve gotta stop.

Even though the book never self-claims that it’s a research book, it is definitely filled with social science research, mostly coming from psychology. This is a strength of Cal Newport’s writing. He’s able to summarize a vast amount of literature, and makes academic literature read-able to the wider public. Well yes psychology and organization psychology in particularly has been obsessed with the idea of how one could self-govern, and self-improve to increase organizational productivity. The field definitely embodies the modern science of governmentality, a term that Foucault coined. In a capitalist society, in our case now more like a neoliberal society, one has to self-govern to fit its goal. In the classical capitalism, workers need to be on time, and clock in the appropriate number of hours to fit its production goals. In the neoliberal society, everyone is an entrepreneur. They should take risks, and achieve financial fulfillment while also having an authentic sense of self. In the current incarnation of neoliberalism whereby knowledge workers such as AI researchers, ML engineers, academics, and journalists are delivering more valuable outputs for society, their ways of working should be scrutinized. And of course, there’s a way to fix their supposedly “broken way of working.” There are more hours to squeeze in for them to produce more knowledge work.

The book sometimes lacks the “epistemological humility” if it is a research book. At one point in the introduction, the book posits that probably email is the reason why American GDP growth rate has been stalled in the past three decades. This is a totally unsubstantiated idea without any data and real evidence to back up. Connecting GDP growth to the cause of email as a mechanism is totally a wild conjecture. Maybe there’s some evidence to suggest this idea at a firm level, which I highly doubt. Projecting this idea on an economy level is simply not true, and dangerous.

On the one hand, I appreciate Newport’s well written analysis of how emailing interferes with one’s ability to do “deep work.” As an academic, I acknowledge that emailing does get in the way my brain works. Sociologists of technology and work have also written about how communications tools such as cell phone and email have affected workers’ subjectivity, concentration, and interfered into their personal lives. Most sociological research shows that these communications tools are way to squeeze more productivity out of workers without much successful large-scale resistance strategies. In other words, workers are entering in a rat race, and feeling burned out over time. On the other hand, I think he totally misses the entire political economy of how knowledge workers currently work. Maybe cutting down on email is an option for a professor with tenure (such as himself), a software engineer with a 6-figure salary. It’s not an option for an adjunct (like myself), or a freelance journalist (such as the majority of journalists), or podcast editors (such as most professional podcast editors).

Knowledge workers mean many different categories in this current world, and the type of workers that Cal Newport talks about are the few that have the luxury of full-time work, and not having to worry about where their next gig is. In other words, Newport writes for the privilege few whose jobs are not yet affected by the gigification of the economy. Knowledge gig workers such as freelance graphic designers have Upwork and Fiverr to work as their main platforms to find gigs. While it’s true that their work requires concentration, it’s also true that most of their “work” hours are spent on finding another gig. They have to be “always on” if they want to get a request from another work “requester.” Their boss will not wait if they do not respond to the on-demand request immediately. Similarly, freelance journalists’ work hours are not only in writing an important investigative piece, but spending almost the same number of hours to pitch the idea to news organizations that would constantly bid down their price per piece, thus make them work even longer hours.

What is dangerous about what Cal Newport suggests is that only our way of working is broken, our economy and how the work structure is designed is completely flawless. I call this “aspirational neoliberal thinking.” If you can think and work like the winners of this knowledge economy, you will come out at the end successful. The entire background of full-time jobs disappearing is irrelevant in Newport’s increasing productivity discussion. Put it simply, the picture that he is painting is that if you have a job, be ultra-productive with or without email. If you don’t have a job, it’s also ok to not have emails and be productive. This book fits into the dominant narrative of American society: productivity is important, and we should all strive to be productive all the time. The book serves to validate the dominant self-governing ideology and disregards structural issues such as unionization, automation, labor law, compensations, and workers’ bargaining power.

At one point in the book Newport cites an example of an American academic couple who spent a short amount of time in Germany then came back to the US. They described their work time in Germany as “leisurely,” taking long lunch breaks walking around the campus which has a castle on it. They romanticized their time in Germany and attributed their feeling good time in Germany as not having emails. This recounting of a story again totally misses the entire work, organization, and cultural structure of Germany that separates work/life, and leave workers (in this case tenured academic workers) with a lot of bargaining power. In other words, the retelling of the story is relatively naive, and missing a lot of the causal factors that actually shape how a worker feels at work. Emailing is not the only reason that an American knowledge worker feels burned out. Emailing is one of the many ways that shape American workers’ subjectivity at work and outside of work hours. The underlying issue is that they have less power relative to capital owners, who are increasingly relying on technology to monitor, and extract their labor. Legal systems, organization work culture, and even self-help books are reinforcing, and upholding this existing power structure that makes the worker feel like they have to work more to get more out of their knowledge. But the question is to what end?

I am still reading the book. Once I finish the book, I will write another follow up about whether the framework espoused in this book actually works, or whether the book is another self-help book that valorizes the self-governing productivity ideology, and helps cement a toxic work structure and culture that suggests that workers burnout problem is their own problem. Why burnout not a medical condition whereby workers can legally take paid days off? Why it’s either super productive and burnt out, or quitting your job? Why workers have to choose between being super productive or not having a job at all?

Anti-vaccination & Dying of Whiteness

Yesterday, I watched a news segment that reported the rates of COVID vaccination in rural counties in the Midlands of America. One county had only 5% vaccination rate despite the relative abundance of vaccines. This scene was the opposite of what has been happening in urban centers of America. New Yorkers have been scrambling to get a vaccine appointment as the New York state just announced that people who are 30 years and older are now eligible. The bottleneck in big cities are the lack of supplies, and the availability of vaccine appointments which are released on a daily basis by different vaccine centers. This entire labyrinth of bureaucratic mess has created so much anxiety for residents. In theory the technology is there to make things more streamlined. But well it’s America! There are an abundance of resources as well as an abundance of systematic redundancies and bureaucratic paperwork that everyone has to go through.

Now back to the story of lower rates of vaccination in rural counties, whose demographics are almost exclusively white. The news reporter interviews folks who are on both sides of the vaccination debate: those who have been vaccinated, and those who refuse to get vaccinated. The reasons anti-vaccine people give have to do with freedom of choice, that they know how to protect their bodies, and they don’t want government’s intrusion in personal choices. This is the narrative that one often hears about in the US: the government violates one’s choices over one’s body, and lifestyle. In a sense, these folks reproduce the narrative that the government is not in the business of my governing my body. The government should be out. The few who have been vaccinated make the case that they don’t understand why people do not take it. There are no reasons not not get a shot. I wish that the news segment would go deeper into presenting more voices because I want to hear more about the nuanced differences in perspectives between genders, households, and age cohorts. However, the viewers are only given a limited amount of information in this 24/7 news cycle. In order to do a more systematic analysis of why and how anti-vaxxers deny their right to be protected, one would have to conduct a lengthy social research. I ought to say this is an extremely important and interesting research right now.

One interesting bit of information that folks on both sides of the vaccine debate both agree on in that particular town is that everyone has received information from Facebook. In other words, what we are seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise of health information sharing groups on Facebook which provide users with both information, and misinformation. Facebook has become a public square where important public health information is being distributed, debated, and also distorted. This piece of information gives us some insights in the importance of Facebook in our public life in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The moment when the news segment fades away to give air time to other news, I could not help but think about the book “Dying of Whiteness.” The main argument in the book is that rural white folks in the heartland of America would rather die or make themselves and their families suffer in regards to public health because of the deep rooted resentment towards imagined others (mostly black and brown folks, and immigrants). This resentment politics permeates in all aspects of life. The idea of not getting vaccinated because of distrust against the government, to protect one’s freedom is definitely also rooted in this resentment politics. However, in this case, it seems that this is the resentment against the government which has become intrusive, as well as the idea that our (white) way of living is being threatened by a government that increasingly does not look like us. Even if our health, our family’s health, and our community’s health are worsened because of our actions motivated by resentful affects, as long as we can use our bodies to protest government’s action, we have at least won a symbolic battle. This is to me scary, and dangerous. Yet living in America for about 10 years, I no longer feel that this is a place where lives are respected, and that human beings are valued. Maybe this is where this society is going. Maybe the hardening of one’s heart is happening in America.

Epistemology of Ignorance

Epistemology of Ignorance: Whites do tend to have, however their own peculiar inclinations, affects, practices, and modes of perception. Mills has developed the influential idea that whites operate with what he calls an epistemology of ignorance: a set of substantive epistemic practices designed to protect their belief that society is basically a meritocracy, people of color are responsible for their troubles, and racism is a thing of the past. Mills’ persuasive point is that, in our shared world, with its recurrent headlines about police shootings and disparities in poverty and unemployment, it takes no small amount of work to interpret these facts as consistent with raceless meritocracies. “Part of what it means to be constructed as white,” he reasons, is to operate with “a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social identities.” This means that white children are systematically taught to become delusional.

The Future of Whiteness – Alice Alcoff

Whiteness Unmarked!

As “whiteness” has lost its unmarked, default status, we now have more scholarship on white women in the military, or white men’s level of participation in sports, or white family formation.

Linda Alcoff

Journalists and Bloggers Benefit from Urban Poverty

A growing list of bloggers and citizen journalists offer to deliver drillers’ content to vast new audiences. Given the resources required to provide wide exposure, these individuals turn out to be quite distinct from their clients. Demographically, they tend to look a lot like those assisting drillers in making music videos – they’re older, more middle-class, and often college-educated. Despite their social, economic, and sometimes racial differences, these people are increasingly responsible for curating images not only of their clients but of urban poverty more broadly. In fact, much of what the public knows about the city’s urban poor communities is based on the work of bloggers who intentionally deflate and profit from negative stereotypes.

Forrest Stuart

Hyper Education vs. Neoliberal Parenting

Most parents do not readily accept that they reproduce a neoliberal parenting model and, instead, are quick to criticize “tiger parenting” as a distinctive problem. Hyper education does not seem child centered (despite Indian American parents and children’s references that it can be) but appears plainly geared toward human capital development and a future work self. What should be recognized is its overlap with mainstream contemporary parenting that is equally invested in preparing youths for work and adulthood, and critiques of it should be made correspondingly.

Pawan Dhingra

Hyper Education

Three reasons emerged for their choice of academic achievement: a sense that other popular pursuits (e.g., sports) are not viable for them, a need to build up human capital given their lack of social capital and possible race-based hurdles in college admissions, and parents’ own familiarity with extracurricular education based on their upbringing. The result is an investment in education as an after-school activity and having more of, although not a complete, say in children’s pursuits. This is an Asian American style of concerted cultivation, one that resits assimilation into the mobility strategies of their American peers, which they fear will not serve them as they do others.

Pawan Dhingra

New Year Reading Progress

In the last post, I wrote that I would read 8 different books, which are a mixture of fictions, short stories, and sociology monographs. So far, after the first week of the year 2021, I have finished one novel. The novel is Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. The novel deals with a very heavy subject matter. It is about serious mental health, and immigration family relationship. To a large extent, it is also about love, family relationships, strong female figures, and racialization of Asian individuals in Western society. This was definitely a page turner for me. I devoured the novel in one day. Now my next goal is to make headway with my sociological reading. To start off, I’ll take a read of Front of the House/Back of The House.

January Books

Following are the books that I have planned to read for a long time. Because it’s my winter break here, I’ve got more time at hand to read novels, and sociological books that I want to catch up on reading. January’s reading list is a little bit longer than usual, and hopefully I can go through all of them in time for the new semester to begin.

December Books

Following are the books that I have been reading this month:

They are my fun reading, and have nothing to do with sociology. Yet they give me a lot of ideas about how to write, how to describe, and how to portray a real human with layers of emotions and reasons. Two books have to do with immigrant experiences, my typical go-to genre lately. One deals with abrupt societal changes; and the other two are sci-fi. I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but I’m trying, and will get there eventually.

On Death

Anthropologists have written a lot about deaths, about how controversial the ways people come to terms with the moment when their loved ones die might be (Scheper-Hughes, 1992). Or once their loved ones have passed how they talk about them, how their stories are being told over and over again, and how these stories are related directly to how the nation and the collective come to terms with its divided and violent past (Kwon, 2013). Deaths are in essence revealing, essential, and philosophical. They affect the individual, the collective, and the national.

Death and dying have been on my mind a lot lately. Partly it has to do with COVID-related anxiety. I watch the news on a daily basis, and everyday I am reminded of the number of people around me who have left this earth, or how terrible their final moments were. Partly, one of my close relatives is in and out of hospital in Vietnam with a terminal cancer disease. Chemotherapy has disfigured his body. It has made him age faster than anything I knew in life. I remembered when my mom told me that one of my cousins had given birth to a stillborn, when I was far away in Atlanta in my first semester in college, I cried. I cried for the baby. I cried because I did not know where to go, or with whom can I grieve. The act of grieving alone was terrifying, and terrible.

A few weeks ago I decided to pick up the novel Three Junes. It had been on my reading list for a while. And finally I got to read it. It took me a month to read bits and pieces of it. At the beginning, it saddened me because the novel was about death. Pages after pages talk about how a person deals with death in different situations: disease-related death, old-age natural death, suicide, etc. It made me depressed. It made me anxious about different ways that one can lose their loved ones, and different terrifying ways that one has to face death, process it, and overcome it. These thoughts scared me. The novel however takes a positive turn at the end when it talks about the continuity of life, of birth, and that death and life are intertwined, and that death is a part of life. Death is not negation of life, but simple a part of it. This ending makes my heart lighter. However, the reality, and the encompassing feeling that death is surrounding me could not really go away.

This might be a question for myself: how can I process, understand, overcome death when it’s an abstract concept, and not necessarily related directly to me. In the context of COVID-19, when a society observes on daily basis its members disappear because of a virus, at the end of the journey, how can this society process death collectively? Is religion helpful here? Is it time? Is it public memorial? Is it storytelling? What would help us collectively come to terms with a huge number of deaths in such a short time?

As a kid I never understood Spirit Medium. My mom was into it. My relatives would go to thầy cúng, bà đồng (or people who serve the (Holy) Reflections). Sometimes they would go to these events together to talk to the dead. Sometimes the dead would manifest in one of them, and talk to the living. I have never been to one of those events, but I would often hear stories about these events worked. Now I understand somewhat. That is a way for them collectively, as a family unit to process the loss of loved ones, and feel that the dead are always a part of the living’s life. This is how integral death is as a part of life. This is a part of Vietnamese practices of Veneration of the Dead. It might be also a way for many families who lost their loved ones to find justice for them after a bloody, violent, and unjust war.

My mind might be still being visited by the idea of death for a while. At least, now I am more comfortable with articulating my ambivalent feeling around it. Maybe I should discuss it with someone. Maybe I should go to a commemoration to grieve with others. As of now, I am still trying to process the abstract idea.

A House for Mr. Biswas

“His household established, Mr. Biswas set about establishing his tyrannies.”

The insight that each household is a little kingdom where the man establishes so many rules, and systems to create, and reinforce his own relative power over his wife and children is brilliant. V. S. Naipaul describes a universal household arrangement. This is how patriarchy works.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I finished reading the novel Pachinko last month. After putting the book away, I started to miss the characters in the book. I still want to know more about Solomon’s life as a Pachinko store owner after he inherits his father’s stores. The characters in the novel appear as if I know them. Their personalities are so crystal clear that I cannot mistake them for someone else. Min Jin Lee has a gift. She is able to not only construct fictional worlds that are so real, but also to construct fictional characters that you thought you know them all a long. Furthermore, using her gift as a writer, she shows the reader what discrimination feels like, tastes like, and experienced like.

The worlds in Pachinko remind me of a passage written by sociologist McMillan Cottom:


But Sociology comes as close to the core of where my essays start as anything else I have explored. Drawing on what ethnographers have called thick description, I finally found a label as complex as my way of thinking. I take very seriously the idea of social locations. We are people with free will, circumscribed to different degrees by histories that shape who we are allowed to become.

Min Jin Lee is attentive to each character’s social position. Three generations of a Korean/Korean Japanese family starts their lives in Japan relying on the business of running Pachinko, and even after three generations with money, their social positions remain the same, that is they are still stuck with the pachinko business.

Novelists practically use thick description. I wonder when Anthropologist Clifford Geertz was inspired by how novelists created fictional worlds that are even more real than the real world. Maybe that is why he was able to describe a cock fight in Bali that is so real to any reader.

Lee’s seemingly central thesis of the Pachinko novel, if there is such an argument in a novel, is that social positions determine a lot of the outcomes in life. An individual can try to exercise their agency, their free will. The outcome might not necessarily what they want to admit that despite their trying, they end up doing what the society has already pre-determined that it would be eventually what they do.

This realization saddens me. What is then to be done about discrimination, prejudice, stereotypes, and all the microaggressions that a minority person has to experience. They put up a good fight, stay silent for nothing? What is it at the end of the tunnel for such a person? Or which society would be most tolerant for such a person?

November Reading List

In October, I read quite a few novels. Reading novels is like trying to get at emotions that social science writings can never get at. Novelists think very deeply and carefully about crafting sentences, descriptions, and evoking sentiments that words themselves don’t sufficiently capture. For the month of November, I am trying to read a few novels, and a few social science books that help my research. Following is my list:

Omniscient Narrator: Free Food for Millionaires

I can’t say how much I like Min Jin Lee’s novels. I have devoured one novel after another in the past one month. I put aside scholarly reading to immerse in the fictional worlds that Lee created. I started out with Pachinko, a book about three generations of Korean Japanese experience in Japan. Then Free Food for Millionaires naturally rose up a few notches in my reading list. I felt guilty for not reading for scholarly endeavors. Yet I felt extremely happy, and fulfilled because Lee has opened doors to so many worlds, both familiar and foreign to me at the same time.

If I could, I would write books like Min Jin Lee. There are deep insights into human society, and how people behave under constraints in Min’s stories. Stylistically, I like her omnipresent, omniscient narrating. In her own words: “There’s a godlike quality to omniscience, and it is what I am vainly approaching in storytelling.” An all-knowing-narrator sounds powerful. This entity gives voices to everything, everyone, and let the reader know so much more than what the characters themselves can express.

Though omniscient narration is an unpopular way of storytelling for modern writers, it can reveal how everyone in the room is thinking about the issues and each other and themselves, rather than what they are actually doing and saying. Even the people of the finest characters don’t speak truthfully or act honestly all the time. It’s only in fiction that all the dimensions of personality and behavior may be witnessed. I wanted to have a go at taking it all down.

Lee’s description of her technique makes me wonder whether I can write sociological books this way. Can I play God in my scientific work? Can I be that all-knowing narrator to attribute motives, and telling a background story of every character, and analyze their actions sociologically? I want to copy Lee’s prose in my creative writing projects. More than anything else, I wan to emulate Lee’s writing philosophy in my scientific work.

Anxiety while Reading Social Theory

I have to admit I’m a shallow, and lazy reader. I prefer reading texts that are simple, and clear in prose. My most recent read that I cherished, and learned so much from was Ellen Pao’s memoir, Reset. The narrative is relatively linear. Everything is told in a chronological manner. Ellen Pao is a to-the-point storyteller. The messages are straightforward enough that I did not have to read the book twice to get any deeper meaning of life. The main message is that the tech industry has a deep structural problem in lacking diversity, and it has been paying only lip service to improve the situation. The solution is that VCs and tech CEOs should be agents of change, by creating and shaping inclusive organization policies and cultures.

Now I am in the process of writing my dissertation, I have bigger theoretical, and philosophical questions that require close readings of certain philosophical texts. There’s no reason why I should not set time aside to do these readings. I ought to read them at some point, and I have decided that now is the time for me to engage with social theory.

While contemplating about the different epistemological worlds that the left and the right in the United States are living in right now, I was recommended to read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, and The Racial Contract by Charles Mills. I was elated at the challenge. Yet I have to admit that my anxiety and fear of philosophy, and social theory did give me some reservations about how much from the texts I would understand, appreciate, and be able to engage with.

Regardless, I am giving these texts a read, and will document my reactions toward them in the next few blog posts.

Production of culture

I am copy-ing this list as a reading list for cultural production.

Code and Culture

[Below is a recent list Peterson wrote outlining the production of culture perspective. You can view it as an update to his ARS with N Anand. Pete wrote it to accompany a talk he gave and circulated it to some friends. I copy-edited/tagged it and am posting it with permission. If you know links for any of the non-tagged citations email me or put them in the comments and I will update the post. –Gabriel]

| Richard A. Peterson |

Examples of works written in the spirit of the Production of Culture Perspective

Created for the working conference
Euro-Pop: The Production and Consumption of a European Culture
Villa Vigoni, Lake Como, Italy 9-10 June, 2009

Richard A. Peterson

A. The production of culture perspective focuses on the ways in which the content of symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught…

View original post 2,917 more words

Red Pill Blue Pill by David Neiwert

David Neiwert examines “new conspiracism” in the age of Web 2.0, and how it is linked to online radicalization. Following are a few paragraphs about epistemological bubbles that have emerged on the Internet in the past 30 years:

Like the hypercool hero Neo in the films, true believers in the alternative universe of conspiracy theories are absolutely convinced that the epistemological bubble into which they have submerged themselves is the real reality.

The red-pill metaphor is a very provocative, and effective metaphor for people to be attracted to, and used when they transition to an epistemological bubble of the extreme right.

The universe of conspiracy theory constantly recruits new followers on the Internet. Somehow, this movement sounds like a spread of a new religious movement:

Sorting out good information from bad has become seemingly an overwhelming task in the age of the Internet and social media. Some people have stopped trying. Others have embraced the abyss, as it were, by diving into the epistemologically malleable and manipulable world of conspiracy theories, a zone where normative rules of evidence and factuality need not apply.

October Reading List

I thought that I would have read a lot during the month of September. It simply was not true. Reading is labor for an academic (more precisely for an aspiring academic). I finished reading half of the books in my September reading list, and was also able to write a summary of one book for my dissertation project. That was an accomplishment. Being engaged with a scholarly book in reading and writing is a very labor intensive activity. To keep the momentum going, I will be reading the following books in the month of October, or more like the remaining two weeks of October.

The books are organized around four themes: platform content moderation, racism, diversity in tech, and organization studies.

Dying of Whiteness

This books aims to examine:

how particular American notions of whiteness—notions shaped by politics and policies as well as by institutions, history, media, economics, and personal identities—threaten white well-being.

White Habitus – Racism without Racists

In his seminal book Racism without Racists (2006), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva defines the concept “white habitus” as “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters.” This concept explains certain idea of white solidarity, and white identity that I am currently trying to understand in the American context.

Bonilla-Silva goes on to explain: “One of the central consequences of the white habitus is that it promotes a sense of group belonging (a white culture of solidarity) and negative views about nonwhites.” Scholars often stay away from discussing the effects of active social isolation from ethnic minorities by white Americans. Bonilla-Silva doesn’t shy away from such a difficult topic. He points out that this kind of habitus develops a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and a shared experience. Further exploration of white solidarity and identity in contemporary America under Trump is a difficult task. In the past two months of my reading on the subject, the book that deals the best with this topic is Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl.

Book Review: Ghost Work

I have planned to read Ghost Work by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri for a long time. I bought the book when I visited a talk by Mary Gray at Data and Society about a year ago. Since then the book still sits on my bookshelf. The general theme of the book is about the necessary unseen human labor behind the seamless automated systems. The core concept of the book is the idea “paradox of automation’s last mile.” It refers to the phenomenon whereby when Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced, it would create “temporary labor markets” to solve “unforeseen and unpredictable tasks.” Furthermore, the grater paradox of automation is that “the desire to eliminate human labor always generate new tasks for humans.” In other words, automation cannot and would not in a foreseeable future, rather automation reconfigures work, and reorganizes human input in the production process.

In the authors’ own words, on-demand service work is necessary because we do not know when machines need human input:

“As machines get more powerful and algorithms take over more and more problems, we know from past advances in natural language processing and image recognition that industries will continue to identify new problems to tackle. Thus, there is an ever moving frontier between what machines can and cannot solve. We call this the paradox of automation’s last mile: as machine progress, the opportunity to automate something else appears on the horizon. This process constantly repeats, resulting in the expansion of automation through the perpetual creation and destruction of labor markets for new types of human labor. In other words, as machines solve more and more problems, we continue to identify needs for augmenting rather than replacing human effort. This paradox explains why on-demand services – commercial ventures that combine humans and APIs to source, schedule, and deliver access to goods and services – are more likely to dominate the future of work than AI and bots alone (p.176).

The authors interview workers in the United States and India, and bring them to us. They go behind the API curtain, and reveal to us who the workers are, what are their aspirations, and why they work for on demand platforms. This book is comparative on many levels. First, it compares workers in different countries: The US. and India. Second it compares experiences of workers who work for multiple platforms: Amazon Mechanical Turk, Microsoft Internal On-Demand platform, Amara translation service, and LeadGenius. The diversity of platforms, and countries allow us to see a picture of an emerging global on-demand labor market, which performs million of tasks, which vary in complexity. This book therefore enables us to see what is often hidden and abstract.

The authors then provide institutional background on why the on-demand labor market has become necessary in the digital revolution. They also show us how on-demand labor market is not a new system. Before the industrial revolution, many women and households took on the job of sewing the last buttons to clothes before the textile industry figured out how to automate the process, and confined the work within the walls of garment companies. This inclusion of non-institutional labor is important in the process of automation.

As they walk us through lived experiences of their interview subjects, the reader recognizes heterogeneity of human labors in this on-demand market. What becomes apparent is that since the market does not have a clear requirement of educational background, training level, etc, it allows for a diverse labor force with different levels of training, different levels of education, and coming from diverse racial, ethic, and religious backgrounds. However, this heterogeneity of labor supply, and diverse forms of tasks also create inefficiency, and friction because workers have different levels of skills, and that requesters/ employers have to define the tasks themselves. The authors show that this system involves a lot of transaction costs for both workers and employers. The two sides have to put in the time to find the right match, and to explain to each side how to do the task as intended. Workers avoid the problem of looking for tasks by creating social networks outside of the platform. They rely on social media, online forums to find the right tasks. As the author outlines this problem of transaction costs, I wonder whether building a well thought-out communication platforms for on-demand workers and employers would be a potential solution for the various transaction cost problem in this market. This is a technical solution for the current inefficiencies in this market.

One theme that I observe in this book with other Gig economy books that I have read in the past year is that workers in this economy are subject to algorithmic arbitrariness. Workers are suspended, and kicked out of the platforms sometimes randomly, and sometimes according to rules that are not taking their real life situations into account, while workers have no recourse, no where to complain. This shows the power of platforms over workers, and that workers though important to platforms’ profitability are not treated as assets but expandable number that could be eliminated at will.

Gray and Suri explain:

“The worst expression of algorithmic cruelty is disenfranchisement. Under the guise of safety, systems designers make it easy to block or remove an account in case a bad actor tries to cheat the system. This adversarial stance means that good workers are sometimes misinterpreted as shady players. Inevitably, mistakes are made. A worker changes an address, loses her internet connection, or shares an IP address with another worker. Each one of these things is potential red flag. The algorithmic system sees the flag as a possible security threat and, with no one at the helm to distinguish friend from foe, the worker is penalized. The penalty may look like being blocked or suspended, or having an account deactivated. Again, in an ecosystem in which workers are seen as interchangeable, the system automatically eliminates what it deems bad apples. The sad irony is that even the best – intentioned and most seasoned workers can get caught in the dragnet.” 86

Workers are dehumanized through the process of de-identification. Mturkers become lists of numbers. This reminds me of how Jewish prisoners given a number during the Holocaust. Giving a working human being a code to interact with is so dehumanizing for both sides: the requesters, and the Mturkers. The authors though qualify this statement by saying that in case of workers who come from discriminated classes (gender, religion, etc), not being identified by names and gender sometimes giving them advantage.

At the end, I feel that the book presents a good narrative of what is going on in the tech economy. However, as a sociologist of work, one question remains unanswered is the question of “work process” among on-demand gig workers: Why do they work so hard for very little paid, and why don’t they quit? What is the average tenure of an on-demand gig worker working for an on-demand platform? The authors point out the 80/20 Pareto rule to create a typology of three group of workers. However, I want to know among those who make on-demand work their full time career, why do they work so hard for little pay? Another question is why they not call them gig workers? What is then the difference between gig work and on-demand work? Aren’t they the same?

To answer the question what keeps they in the game, the authors provide a partial answer: many of them are in the game for the cognitive benefit of it. They learn new things, keep up their skills (most of these answers come from Indian subjects). However, my sense is that because the book is not an ethnographic research, they can never quite get at the process that workers rationalize the decision to remain in an exploitative labor scheme.

Besides, How about their American counterparts? Why are they working so hard for little pay? The answers are either implicit or not satisfactory. Implicit in the sense that they work for various reasons. One, the workers population are so heterogeneous, they should have different reasons why they work in this sector. Thus, they should also have different reasons why they stay. Is there anything about the on-demand aspect of this that keeps them stay? Is there anything about the brandname (Amazon.com, or Microsoft) that make them stay? These questions remain open.

Finally, as a methodology enthusiast, I feel the book to be not transparent in its methodology. Who were involved in the interviewing process, who was contacted, who was doing the interview, etc. These pieces of information is absent. As mentioned earlier, because the book is not explicit in whether ethnography was involved at all, readers cannot really picture the embodiment aspect of online/on-demand work.

Because I care so much about reproducibility of research, the book does not have a methodological appendix that makes me cringe. I know that it is produced for popular audience, but as a scholar, a researcher, a scientist, I want to know how many people they have interviewed, how did they interview them, how many in person, how many remote. How did they avoid positionality biases being MSR employers, privileged, and at times employers of those ghost workers.

Overall, I agree with the authors that there’s a global ghost work sector that is increasing in size because of the increase in demand for human in the loop tasks from various tech companies. They are working outside of the formal employment structure, and they are subject to the whim of the platforms, and being exploited by requesters because of the platform design. However, I think the book has not answered many questions, and one of which is methodological, and another is theoretical.

Despite many questions that I have, the book is a starting point of a long over-due conversation: who are the human workers who power machines. How can we as society protect them, and enable their creativity for our better future. The book is both practical, and hopeful that we actually will continue to need humans in the loop. The book also provides one practical solution for job training program at the city level that I really like: supporting public education, and letting residents to take college classes that they would want to take in order to benefit their work. This similar program enabled me to audit courses at Humboldt University, Free University and Goettingen University during my stay in Germany. It plugged me into the intellectual environments of those excellent public universities, and through those courses I had also made long lasting friendships. I’m all for investing in public universities and making their courses available to those who pay their taxes to support such excellent public education.

Book review: After the Gig

This semester, I am teaching the class The Sociology of the Gig Economy at Hunter College. This is a master’s level class where graduate students in social science research, and honors undergraduate students will explore various issues of the gig economy. I am pretty excited about the content of the class. After our first meeting last week, I have become even more excited about the participants. Throughout the semester, students and I will engage in a few public pedagogy projects whereby we produce content and knowledge for public consumption. This is my first time experimenting with such an idea. I think there will be challenges, but hopefully we’ll be able to create solid content for public consumption.

In the process of preparing for the class, I have ordered like 20 different new books in the summer. Most recently I finished reading the book After the Gig by Juliet Schor. As the name suggests, it is a book about the gig economy.

I categorize this book as an empirical examination of the gig economy from the sharing economy point of view. This book is on my bookshelf physically placed next to Uberland by Alex Rosenblat, and Hustle and Gig by Alexandrea Ravenelle. I have reviewed Uberland for Sociological Forum, and really appreciated the book’s approachable language. Alex Rosenblat does not use heavy theoretical language to make her point across. That is Uber drivers come from a diverse backgrounds, who have different reasons why they become taxi drivers. Yet she’s able to show that over time, Uber has engaged in shady practices to increase surveillance and control over its workers, its customers, and critics like herself. When it comes to Hustle and Gig, I appreciate Ravenelle’s clear argument: that is, in the gig economy, companies shift risks onto workers. And her solution to this risk shifting problem is to advocate for changes in the independent contractor category. The government needs to make gig companies recognize these workers as their workers. So instead of getting a 1099 form, these workers should get a W2 form like other “organization men” in William Whyte’s words.

How is After the Gig different from the other two gig economy books that were also published by University of California Press? I think the answer has to do with its approach, scope, and the consumption aspect.

First, Juliet Schor approached the gig economy phenomenon from the sharing economy point of view. That is, she used the consumption, anti-capitalist discourse of the gig/platform economy as the spring board. For example, throughout the book the idealist discourse is being problematized. This discourse makes the argument that the sharing economy promotes collaborative consumption, environmental conservation, and financial independence. While the other books I mentioned above focus exclusively on the workers and how platforms use data and algorithms to discipline workers, this book looks at other aspects of the platform economy: collaborative consumption, environmental conservation and then economic gains for workers.

Second, this book relies on data collected by a team of researchers that look at many for profit and non-profit platforms. This is a marked research design difference from the other two research projects. Trained as an economist, Juliet Schor is able to show the reader what the economics of the platforms is. I really appreciate her non-jargon explanation of how economics works in this economy. In order to keep workers poor and dependent on platforms, Schor argues that we need to understand two important concepts: algorithmic control and policies of precarity.

What is algorithmic control?

To some extent, algorithms are self-learning entities that change without human intervention. But on labor platforms they are also paired with policy decisions made by real people.

In other words, platforms use both automation (algorithms), and policy decision making to discipline workers. While it takes almost nothing to start on any platform (Uber, Taskrabbit), platforms can fire workers anytime (through deactivation mechanism). This high cost of job loss is really high for gig workers.

Schor and her team argue that “platforms have ushered in fundamental changes in the organization of work.” They are parasites, who do not pay tax, and just use public resources (roads, etc). They subsidize consumers through venture capital money, and then compete with public services (public transportations).

Similar to what Alex Rosenblat’s argued in her book, Schor also argues that the platform economy has ushered in a new labor regime. Specifically, we observe a retreat from control, or direct-human control. Employers allow for a wide range of work hours, a wide range of workers with different educational backgrounds, etc. Similar to historian Louis Hyman, and communications scholar Mary Gray, Schor also highlights the similarity between this system and the pre-factory era home-based “putting out” system. Platforms as accepting more heterogeneity among its workers allow for a more diverse workforce. Yet, this also means that we’re facing with more inequality within this economy.

Finally, Schor examines a few case studies of non-profit sharing platforms, and shows the readers why they fail, and how they fail. She argues that sometime the setup lacks “a value proposition” and operates based on “ideological commitment.” In other words, their economic activities appear to be not durable, and would soon fail when economic situations change, and other social dynamics (such as status positioning) kick in.

In conclusion, Schor documents the rise of commercial platforms, and attributes their growth to the fact that they have offered something of significant value to users: consumers get lower prices, and providers get extra income with flexibility. However, looking at consumers and providers alone is not enough. The platforms have plenty to gain from these activities such as power, and consumers’ data. Thus Schor calls for more regulations in this market in order to protect consumers, providers, and society as a whole.

Topic Modeling makes Bayesian Cool

I have been obsessed with topic modeling for more than a year now. It is an NLP technique that actually has important applications in social science research. This is a big feast for computational methods, and for a social scientist like me.

When I first learned about topic modeling, I spent a lot of time trying to learn how to make it work. Besides, I also wanted to know how I can use this cool technique in my research concerning race/ethnicity, immigration, etc. I was not concerned at all about the mathematical underpinning of the method.

This all went well until I learned Bayesian statistics this summer. Now I see Bayesian everywhere. I finally understand that under the hood, Bayesian inference makes topic modeling such as LDA, or STM possible. This eureka moment really elated me.

It turns out that I have been using language of tuning hyper parameters without really understanding what goes underneath the entire process. Now with some basic Bayesian statistics, things start to make more sense to me, and I feel more confident in explaining how topic modeling works.

Baking is a science

People say baking is a science, and cooking is an art. I enjoy baking much more than cooking because oftentimes there are precise description, and precise measurement of how much ingredients and materials one should prepare before making a cake. Until I tried to make moon cakes, a type of cakes that many East Asian countries eat during the Moon Festival. It’s my childhood favorite, and I miss eating the kind that one can only find in Vietnam (bánh thập cẩm, or mixed flavor).

I followed a few recipes found on the Internet and Youtube. Results have turned out to be dried, and not so pretty.

Then I tried my hands in making mochi ice cream. It’s even more difficult.

Mochi Ice Cream - Kirbie's Cravings
Picture: Kirbie’s cravings

What I figured out during the two failed experiments is that making Asian cakes is so much more complicated that I had thought. I expected that unlike making a croissant or tarte tatin, I at least have an idea how they should taste like at the end. As a born and raised Vietnamese, at least I have the moral authority to say that the cake I make taste like what Vietnamese people in general would consider good. What I recognized at the end though making these cakes has less to do with measurements, ingredients. It has a lot more to do with techniques, equipments, and whether one has a clear expectation how the final products should taste like. So in many ways, baking is also an art. Making these cakes is more like cooking a bowl of Pho than making a tres leches cake.

These Asian goodies are supposed to be moist, soft, and delicate. They are not supposed to be chewy or fluffy. They cannot be made using a ready made cake mix. They take a lot of time to make, and the process is pretty involved. One cannot cut corner and expect the output to be pretty or tasty.

This baking process reminds me of the scientific endeavor that I am engaging in at this moment. When one embarks in a research project, one thinks that they have a clear idea what to do, until they figure out that there are many steps in between. Then they become confused, and frustrated. The science of baking, and making pastry is not opaque especially in the Internet era where many recipes are available for consultation. The opaque part lies in the details how one should mix what kind of flour, and which one goes into the oven first, and how much egg coating should one put on top of the delicate almost ready mooncake.

These baking experiments made me realize that in doing any project, patience is key, and that figuring out the perfect procedure takes many trials and errors. Translating it to doing science, maybe writing papers over and over again helps one write better papers. Maybe having one solid idea and then translating it to written words would eventually become easy once I figure out how to not cut corner?

Applications of Bayesian Thinking

I struggled with understanding how to use Bayesian statistics in my professional work. More specifically, I am struggling understanding the building blocks of Bayesian statistics. What I do see is that Bayesian statistics involves probabilistic thinking, and very clever sampling of data distribution. On the higher level conceptualization, the ideas of prior belief, and updating your belief to get a posterior estimation are intuitively appealing. However, when it comes to mechanics of applying Bayesian logics, I am struggling a lot.

This struggle does not deter me from enjoying reading about Bayesian logics being applied in real life situations. Recently I listened to a Data Skeptic podcast episode about data representations, data visualization, and how we citizens or audience are unconsciously being educated about statistics through reading and interacting with very well-thought out work of data journalists and data scientists at news organizations. The specific example that professor Jessica Hullman mentioned is an example from the New York Times’ interactive graphic representations of inequality in America. The interactive exercise asks the reader to provide their prior belief about inequality in America, and then presenting them with data, thus nudging them toward updating their belief. This is such a brilliant statistics exercise from a very well-respected news organization in the US. I wish that more news organizations in the world exercise what the New York Times does: using data journalism to educate the public about social issues in a scientific way.

For those who would want to listen to the podcast episode, it could be found here. Let me know what you think about Bayesian statistics, and how one can implement Bayesian statistics in social sciences.

What Journal to Publish in?

My mentor often says that before submitting a paper for publication to a journal, one has to do thorough “market research,” or to have a general understanding of what the journal is about. My understanding is that each journal is a cultural institution, and the job of a researcher is to make explicit those cultural norms. Relying on this explicit knowledge, they could make a more informed decision about the venue.

A friend came to me today with a set of related questions:

Where does one look to find out simply what the background of a journal is — which discipline(s) it covers, how long it’s been around, what its mission is?

I thought about these questions for a while, and came up with a 6-step procedure to figure out how one should categorize a journal:

  1. Read the journal’s self-description
  2. Read the Wikipedia’s page of the journal
  3. Examine the chief editor’s profile. The chief editor’s background is indicative of who the potential authors and the audience should be.
  4. Examine a few articles, and see who are the authors
  5. Use the advanced search function on Google scholar, and find articles published in the journal, read the articles titles published by the journal.
  6. When the journal is interdisciplinary, look at a few issues to see which disciplines the authors come from.

This might be different from how other academics do their “market research.” I’d be interested in learning more about how other people decide where they submit their work, and why they make such decision.