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DOI: 10.1145/2832117 COP YRIGHT HELD BY AUTHORS. PUBLICATION RIGHTS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00
shapes, from the taxing and repetitive
microtasks of Mechanical Turk, to
user training and behavior regulation
in video games, to the generation of
content at sites such as Amazon.com
and content issuing from the actions of
users of social media, search engines,
and other Web outlets [ 4].
Celebratory accounts of
participatory culture, peer production,
and the like valorize labor relations
in which enterprises extract free or
low-cost labor for their own benefit.
Such accounts are perhaps too
narrowly pointed at the short-term
affective rewards of the labor on which
peer production depends. Taking a
wider, longer view, these economic
arrangements reveal a trend toward
diminishing returns on a person’s own
labor. Peer production also reduces
returns to labor by displacing labor
that was formerly paid, such as that of
members of the creative class who have
watched their worth decline through
content delivered for free. While we
may believe that peer production is a
positive force in society, a political-economy perspective asks us to also
consider wider impacts on social class
and economic security, because these
will inevitably be important to all of us
in the future as the cumulative effects
of new labor relations are felt [ 5].
Social control: Commitment and
coercion. All societies ensure that
people behave according to plans and
expectations. Foucault revealed the
post-medieval disciplinary society
as a series of spatial enclosures
(prisons, schools, hospitals, factories)
with episodic examinations and
certifications. Contemporary society
adds a new layer of continuous control.
The dispersal of small, ubiquitous
moments of control is implemented
through digital technologies, subtly
affecting individuals through
techniques of isolation. Although
technologies such as the Internet are
used for emancipatory purposes, they
have also turned into instruments of
surveillance, control, and coercion.
Many technologies provide effective
control and surveillance mechanisms
for the organizations that employ or
provide services to us. In the past, the
loyal employee of a big bureaucracy
was fully owned and controlled eight
hours a day through hierarchical
mechanisms but was unsupervised
after the workday. The employee of
today’s organizations is typically
subject to less bureaucratic control
(although bureaucratic control is
far from dead) but is unofficially
controlled and monitored on an
ongoing 24/7 basis. Thanks to digital
technologies, what is lost to reduced
bureaucratic control is more than
rebalanced in capital’s favor by
continuous access and surveillance.
While coercions like these are the
cause of considerable consternation,
the commitment of citizens of
industrial societies to digital
technology is unmistakable. Such
commitment has a rational basis in that
technology provides unprecedented
capacity for information and
communication. Yet technology also
visibly isolates us. Public spaces, for
example, are markedly altered. The
everyday spectacle of people ensconced
in their own worlds, earbuds in place,
making eye contact only with their
smartphones is scarcely remarked on.
Yet it is a pattern unique to our place
and era, and a relatively new pattern at
that. One need only go to other cultures
with less commitment to incessant
use of technology (or spend time with
the elderly) to be reminded that our
commitments seem natural but are in
fact outcomes of complex processes
at work in the political economies
of industrial societies. These are
commitments we do not yet grasp and
that require study.
APPLICATION TO HCI
How can we incorporate concepts of
political economy into HCI thinking
and practice? We suggest the following
as potential first steps:
Economically informed design. A
promising development in HCI has
focused on value-sensitive design,
highlighting values such as privacy,
trust, and informed consent [ 6]. These
values are important from an ethical
perspective, but there are economic
values that need to be incorporated
into our thinking about systems too.
Along with their cultural, informative,
and entertainment value, computer
technologies are business tools that
generate great economic value. HCI
thinking cannot remain indifferent to
this question: What economic value is
generated by our ideas and systems?
Class-conscious design. The
economic value generated is not
equitably distributed. It often favors
a select group of actors, often at the
expense of others. The growing income
gap of the past few decades, deriving
in part from computer innovations,
is a vivid illustration of this fact. In
designing systems, we should ask: Who
benefits most, and who is economically left
behind by our designs?
Technologies reconfigure the division
of labor between machines and humans
but also, through that, among humans.
Keeping in mind the principle that
the ultimate goal of technology is to
improve human welfare, we should
ask: What division of labor is created by
our designs? Does this division of labor
make life (work, family, health, education,
entertainment) better for people?
These questions indicate the need
for metrics and analyses not yet part of
current HCI research and practice. The
aim of this article has been to suggest
that we might begin to work toward
their development, shedding light on
the elephant in the HCI room.
1. Harvey, D. The Enigma of Capital. Oxford
Univ. Press, 2007.
2. Piketty, T. Capital in the Twenty-First
Century. Belknap Press, 2014.
3. Marx, K. Capital. Penguin Classics,
4. Ekbia, H. and Nardi, B. Heteromation and
its (dis)contents: The invisible division of
labor between humans and machines. First
Monday. June 2014.
5. Ekbia, H. and Nardi, B. Heteromation and
Other Stories of Computing and Capitalism.
6. Friedman, B. Value-sensitive design.
Interactions 3, 6 (1996), 16–20.
Hamid Ekbia is an associate professor
of informatics, cognitive science, and
international studies at Indiana University,
Bloomington, where he directs the Center for
Research on Mediated Interaction ( www.cromi.
org). His key interests are in political economy
of computing and theory of mediation. He
works on games for health in his spare time.
Bonnie Nardi is a professor in the
Department of Informatics at the University of
California, Irvine. She is interested in social
theory, political economy, collapse informatics,
and a few fun things like video games.