point where the entire exercise becomes
exhausting of course, but I think ignoring
those questions of what anthropology
and feminist theory call “positionality” are
the places where engineers can go wrong.
It’s when we assume that we don’t have
a position and assume that we can reach
some sort of a collection of how all things
are that we erase or devalue other people’s
experiences of the world.
NS: You mentioned designers and
engineers have “folk theories” that often
go unquestioned. When you went out into
the field and you started talking to crowd
workers what were some of the things
you found that really surprised you?
MLG: Those moments are both
humbling and also incredibly important
moments in ethnographic work. In this
research, I was really surprised to see
people collaborating. It had not occurred
to me. I had assumed that because the
problems were distributed in such an
atomized way, people worked that way.
That was the first thing that struck me.
How people could make this work social
and why they made it social. It was really a
surprise that people would bother making
something like image tagging social. And it
opened up that question of what is it that
people derive from that experience. So I
feel like that was certainly one of the sharp,
“oh! of course!” moments for me.
Another was the amount of creativity
that goes into any amount of labor. In field
work I was able to see why there is such
creativity to an individual’s approach to
any question that is put before them. I
now have a visceral reaction when people
talk about “clickworkers” because I find it
a very demeaning thing that doesn’t have
much to offer in terms of the capacity
of humanness that goes into work. Even
the mundane of doing something and
making it something mindless, it still takes
work to get to that place. If you slow it
down enough you can see the effort and
creativity in any human endeavor.
Finally, I was confronted with my own
assumptions about what constitutes
skill and what is skillful. And being in
environments and watching the kind of
work that right now constitutes no-skill
work gave me an opportunity to really
question: What makes that no-skill? Even
as the people who were doing that work
were demeaning it, they could still point
out what was skillful about it.
in objectivity or that a person doesn’t have
a position, the research is going to miss
out on being able to notice things such as:
I just took for granted that everyone reads
the same way, or reads the same thing, or
works at the same hours or days.
I would also point to the common
belief that something, usually some social
issue, can actually be fixed by technology.
This point of view assumes that complex
problems can be solved if, for instance, we
just have the right interface or if we just
have the right communication tool that
will allow packets to move quickly. Starting
from that point means that you are no
longer looking for a solution that is also
going to involve a range of social dynamics.
There’s a range of things that are
missed precisely because there’s a
position of neutrality and objectivity built
in from the beginning, and there are t wo
problems with that. First is the assumption
itself that I could be entirely objective.
The other is not being trained to reflect on
what my position is in the world. How do I
occupy the world? What body do I have?
Where is it allowed to go? In what ways?
Those really fundamentally shape how we
see the world, and so without the capacity
to reflect on that, we’ll end up reproducing
our own projections of how we think the
world works. Up until a very recent past
this meant a very white male perspective,
precisely because there was no sense of
how my thinking is anything other than
universal. Now we are understanding that
that’s not a universal position, but the
only way to expand that in a meaningful
way is not so much to try and account for
everybody else who’s out there—that’s
important and has to happen—but it’s also
about literally thinking: Who am I? And
what do I bring to this question? Not to the
an overlay that
of all that
that’s been there
from the early days