Article 43


Sunday, December 29, 2019

Homeless In California 2 - Criminalizing Homelessness

image: homessness

“They’ve turned their backs on us”
California’s homeless crisis grows in numbers and violence

By Sam T Levin
The Guardian
December 27, 2019

In a state with the worlds fifth largest economy, physical assaults and criminalization efforts have made 2019 a particularly grim year for the homeless

As homelessness surged to crisis levels in California in 2019, so did the violent attacks on people living in tents and on sidewalks and the political and law enforcement efforts to keep homeless encampments off the streets.

Physical assaults and criminalization efforts combined have made 2019 a particularly grim and terrifying year for many Californians struggling to survive without a roof over their head.

“They are trying to shove us underneath the carpet, and it’s just not fair,” said Shanna Couper Orona, 46, who is currently living out of an RV in San Francisco. San Francisco is supposed to be progressive, a place where you love everyone, take care of everyone. But they;ve turned their backs on us just because we’re unhoused. They are leaving us with nothing.

Amid expanding crisis, a surge in homeless victims

In a state with the world’s fifth largest economy, an IPO tech boom and some of the richest people on earth, Californias severe affordable housing shortage has become what advocates describe as a moral failing and public health emergency.

By the numbers

Los Angeles experienced a 16% increase in homelessness this year, with a total of 36,000 people now homeless across the city, including 27,000 without shelter. San Francisco’s homeless count surged 17% to more than 8,000 people. There was a 42% increase in San Jose, a 47% increase in Oakland, a 52% increase in Sacramento county and increases in the Central Valley agricultural region and wealthy suburbs of Orange county.

There were patterns across cities: huge numbers of people experiencing homelessness for the first time, evictions and unaffordable rents leading people to the streets, families and seniors increasingly homeless, and higher rates of the homeless not getting shelter.

“Homeless people are everywhere now, and they are becoming more and more desperate,” said Stephen Cue Jn-Marie, an LA pastor who was formerly homeless and now works with people living on Skid Row, known for its massive encampments. “All of these people are human beings. We need to respond to this as if it’s an earthquake.”

The growing visibility has led to an increase in complaints, news coverage focused on housed people who reside near encampments, and intense media attention on the rare cases of violence perpetuated by people living on the streets.

Communities have largely declined to treat the crisis like a natural disaster that demands humanitarian aid. In many places, what followed instead was a backlash, and in some cases overt attacks.

There were at least eight incidents in LA where people threw flammable liquids or makeshift explosives at homeless people or their tents this year, according to authorities and the Los Angeles Times.

A 62-year-old beloved musician’s tent was set on fire in Skid Row in August, killing him in what police say was an intentional killing. That month, two men also allegedly threw a “firework” at an encampment, causing a blaze that grew into a major brush fire just outside of the city. One of the men arrested was the son of a local chamber of commerce president. Police said this fire was intentional. In a separate attack, a molotov cocktail destroyed tents and donations.

In San Francisco, a man was caught on video appearing to dump a bucket of water on a homeless woman and her belongings on the sidewalk in June. Witnesses said it seemed to be a “deliberate attack.”

Three months later, San Franciscans who said they were upset with homeless people in their neighborhood paid to install two-dozen knee-high boulders along a sidewalk in an effort to stop them from living on the streets.

In neighboring Oakland, a resident recently put up an unauthorized concrete barrier in the middle of the street to deter homeless people from parking RVs. A real estate developer taunted homeless people by shouting free moneyӔ at them and offering to pay them to leave their encampment in Oakland.

Residents repeatedly organized against proposed homeless shelters in their neighborhoods, most notably in a wealthy San Francisco area where locals crowdfunded $70,000 to hire an attorney to fight a shelter project.

“A lot of it is brought out by this fear of the other as if their homeless neighbors are not neighbors at all, or not even people for that matter,” said TJ Johnston, who is currently staying in shelters in San Francisco and is an editor with Street Sheet, a local homelessness publication. “Hearing wealthy residents complain this year was like watching angry online comment sections come to life,” he said: “It’s very dehumanizing to be looked upon as a nuisance.”

A terrifying trend: jailing people for being too poor

As the crisis has worsened, local governments have spent billions to create new housing and provide services, but the scale of the response has been inadequate. Cities have increasingly looked to law enforcement and legal maneuvers to tackle the problem.

Those political efforts to further criminalize the homeless in turn have sparked intense anger and fear among the homeless population and their advocates.

LA leaders fought to ban people from sleeping on streets and sidewalks throughout the city. In Lancaster, a desert city north of LA, the mayor has pushed a proposal to ban groups that provide food to homeless people and suggested people should buy firearms to protect themselves from violent people on the streets.

This month, in a case closely watched by many west coast cities, the US supreme court dealt a victory to homeless advocates by allowing an existing ruling to stand that states governments cannot ban people from living on the street if they don’t offer enough shelter beds.

Officials in Oakland have proposed a new policy to cite homeless people in parks while some have suggested setting up a shelter in a defunct jail. Law enforcement leaders in Bakersfield in the Central Valley pushed a plan to throw homeless people in jail for misdemeanor offenses. A state taskforce has also suggested a similar system of forcibly placing homeless people into shelters.

“These efforts ignore the overwhelming evidence that criminalization and locking people up are costly and harmful responses that fail to fix the crisis,” said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“There’s a dangerous and disturbing movement in California to address homelessness not by expanding access to safe, affordable and permanent housing but by jailing people,” she said. It’s a terrifying prospect of a world in which we segregate, incarcerate and restrict the civil liberties of people just because they have disabilities and they are too poor to afford a home in our skyrocketing private rental market.

“Fears and unfounded stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness seem to be driving these policy pushes to jail those in need,” she said.

The Trump administration has created further anxiety by repeatedly suggesting he might pursue some kind of police crackdown in California to clear the streets of encampments.

The president has used the crisis to attack Democratic leaders in the state, and has COMPLAINED ABOUT HOMELESS PEOPLE in LA and San Francisco taking up space on the “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings” where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige

It’s a huge concern - are they just going to take people to jail?” said Kat Doherty, an LA woman who became homeless this year and is living at a shelter at Skid Row.Trump’s talk has terrified her and others, she said. “It’s horrendous. It sounds like a death camp situation.”

“With the president promoting criminalization, it could inspire some anti-Trump Democrats in California to push back,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. There’s some hopefulness that it will force the local municipalities to shift in opposition to Trump and talk about how criminalization doesn’t work.

But some are not optimistic about 2020, especially since the crisis is on track to continue escalating, with people falling into homelessness at rates that far outpace government’s ability to find housing for those on the street.

“Conditions are going to get worse and the responses are going to get worse,” said Jn-Marie.

If the political attacks continue next year, some said they hoped to see more communities fighting to stand up for the homeless.

“I want people to give a fuck and help. Don’t just ignore it,” Orona said. “Just because we’re unhoused doesn’t mean were not San Francisco residents. We still have a heartbeat. We still buy food. We still exist.”


Posted by Elvis on 12/29/19 •
Section Dying America
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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Trump And The Working Class

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How Trump Has Betrayed the Working Class

The consequences of Trump’s and the Republicans; excessive corporate giveaways and their failure to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans are becoming clearer by the day.

By Robert Reich
December 24, 2019

For a century the GOP has been bankrolled by big business and Wall Street. Trump wants to keep the money rolling in. His signature tax cut, two years old last Sunday, has helped U.S. corporations score record profits and the stock market reach all-time highs. To spur even more corporate generosity for the 2020 election, Trump is suggesting more giveaways. Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney recently told an assemblage of CEOs that Trump wants to go beyondӔ his 2017 tax cut.

Trump also wants to expand his working-class base. In rallies and countless tweets he claims to be restoring the American working class by holding back immigration and trade. Incumbent Republicans and GOP candidates are mimicking Trumps economic nationalism. As Trump consigliore Stephen Bannon boasted recently, “we’ve turned the Republican party into a working-class party.”

Keeping the GOP the Party of Big Money while making it over into the Party of the Working Class is a tricky maneuver, especially at a time when capital and labor are engaged in the most intense economic contest in more than a century because so much wealth and power are going to the top.

Armed with deductions and loopholes, Americas largest companies paid an average federal tax rate of only 11.3 percent on their profits last year, roughly half the official rate under the new tax law - the lowest effective corporate tax rate in more than eighty years.

Yet almost nothing has trickled down to ordinary workers. Corporations have used most of their tax savings to buy back their shares, giving the stock market a sugar high. The typical American household remains POORER TODAY than it was before the financial crisis began in 2007.

Trumps giant tax cut has also caused the federal budget deficit to balloon. Even as pretax corporate profits have reached record highs, corporate tax revenues have dropped about a third under projected levels. This requires more federal dollars for interest on the debt, leaving fewer for public services workers need.

The Trump administration has already announced a $4.5 billion cut in food stamp benefits that would affect an estimated 10,000 families, many at the lower end of the working class. The administration is also proposing to reduce Social Security disability benefits, a potential blow to hundreds of thousands of workers.

The tax cut has also shifted more of the total tax burden to workers. Payroll taxes made up 7.8 percent of national income last year while corporate taxes made up just 0.9 percent, the biggest gap in nearly two decades. All told, taxes on workers were 35 percent of federal tax revenue in 2018; taxes on corporations, only 9 percent.

Trump probably figures he can cover up this massive redistribution from the working class to the corporate elite by pushing the same economic nationalism, tinged with xenophobia and racism, he used in 2016. As Steve Bannon has noted, the formula seems to have worked for Britain;s Conservative Party. 

But it will be difficult this time around because Trump’s economic nationalism has hurt American workers, particularly in states that were critical to Trump’s 2016 win.

Manufacturing has suffered as tariffs raised prices for imported parts and materials. Hiring has slowed sharply in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other states Trump won, and in states like Minnesota that he narrowly lost.

The trade wars have also harmed rural America, which also went for Trump, by reducing demand for American farm produce. Last year China bought around $8.6 billion of farm goods, down from $20 billion in 2016. (A new tentative trade deal calls for substantially more Chinese purchases.)

Meanwhile, health care costs continue to soar, college is even less affordable, and average life expectancy is dropping due to a rise in deaths from suicide and opioid drugs like fentanyl. Polls show most Americans remain dissatisfied with the countrys direction.

The consequences of TrumpҒs and the Republicans excessive corporate giveaways and their failure to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans are becoming clearer by the day.

The only tricks left to Trump and the Republicans are stoking social and racial resentments and claiming to be foes of the establishment. But bigotry alone won’t win elections, and the detritus of the tax cut makes it difficult for Trump and the GOP to portray themselves as anti-establishment.

This has created a giant political void, and an opportunity. Democrats have an historic chance to do what they should have done years ago: Create a multi-racial coalition of the working class, middle class, and poor, dedicated to reclaiming the economy for the vast majority and making democracy work for all.


Posted by Elvis on 12/26/19 •
Section Dying America
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Monday, December 16, 2019

Happy Slaves

image: zombies

Simply defined, gamification is the use of game elements point-scoring, levels, competition with others, measurable evidence of accomplishment, ratings and rules of play - in non-game contexts. Games deliver an instantaneous, visceral experience of success and reward, and they are increasingly used in the workplace to promote emotional engagement with the work process, to increase workers psychological investment in completing otherwise uninspiring tasks, and to influence, or “nudge, workers’” behaviour.
- High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification


Aldous Huxley and Brave New World: The Dark Side of Pleasure

Academy of Ideas
June 21, 2018

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. (Goethe)

These words were written by Goethe nearly 200 years ago, but are perhaps more relevant in our time than they were in his.  For many people assume we live in a free society simply because the West has not morphed into a dystopian hell like the one depicted in George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four. Tyranny, most people believe, would be overt in nature, it would be obvious, and all would recognize it. But is this really the case? Or could we be living in a society analogous to the one depicted by Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave New World. Could it be that technology, drugs, pornography, and other pleasurable diversions have created a citizenry too distracted to notice the chains which bind them?

When Brave New World was first published in 1931 Huxley did not consider the dystopian world he depicted to be an imminent threat. Thirty years later however, following the Second World War, the spread of totalitarianism, and the great strides made in science and technology, Huxley changed his opinion and in a speech given in 1961, he put forth the following warning:

TThere will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.” (Aldous Huxley, Tavistock Group, California Medical School, 1961)

In the future, according to Huxley, ruling classes would learn that control of a populace could be achieved not only with the explicit use of force, but also with the more covert method of drowning the masses in an endless supply of pleasurable diversions.

“In 1984Ҕ, Huxley explains, “the lust for power is satisfied by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, by inflicting a hardly less humiliating pleasure. (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)

How, one may ask, can pleasure be used to deprive people of their freedom? To answer this question, we must discuss operant conditioning, which is a method of modifying an organism’s behavior.

In the 20th century, the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner performed a famous set of experiments in which he tested different methods of introducing new behaviours in rats. These experiments brought to light how the “powers that be” can condition humans to love their servitude. In one set of experiments, Skinner attempted to cultivate new behaviours via positive reinforcement; he provided the rat with food anytime it performed the desirable behavior. In another set of experiments, he attempted to weaken or eliminate certain behaviours via punishment; he triggered a painful stimulus when the rat performed the behavior Skinner wished to eliminate.

Skinner discovered that punishment temporarily put an end to undesirable behaviours, but it did not remove the animals motivation to engage in such behaviors in the future. “Punished behavior,” writes Skinner, “is likely to reappear after the punitive consequences are withdrawn.” (B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism) Behaviors that were conditioned via positive reinforcement, on the other hand, were more enduring and led to long-term changes in the animal’s behavioural patterns.

Huxley was familiar with Skinner’s experiments and understood their socio-political ramifications. In Brave New World and his subsequent works, Huxley predicted the emergence of a “controlling oligarchy” (Huxley) who would conduct similar experiments on human beings to condition docility and minimize the potential for civil unrest. Skinner, like Huxley, also understood the social implications of his experiments, but he believed, contrary to Huxley, that operant conditioning could be used by social engineers for the greater good, leading to the development of a scientifically managed utopia. The following passage from SkinnerԒs book Walden Two, however, reveals that such mass-conditioning would in reality make possible a pernicious form of tyranny one in which the masses would be enslaved, yet feel themselves to be free.

“Now that we know how positive reinforcement works, and why negative doesn’t, we can be more deliberate and hence more successful, in our cultural design. We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlledօnevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. Thats the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcementҗtheres no restraint and no revolt. By a careful design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behaveҗthe motives, the desires, the wishes. The curious thing is that in that case the question of freedom never arises.” (B.F. Skinner, Walden Two)

In Brave New World, the main rewardӔ used to condition subservience via positive reinforcement was a super-drug called Soma. The World ControllersӔ, writes Huxley, encouraged the systematic drugging of their own citizens for the benefit of the state.Ӕ (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) Soma was ingested daily by the citizens of Brave New World as it offered what Huxley called a holiday from realityӔ (Aldous Huxley). Depending on the dosage, it stimulated feelings of euphoria, pleasant hallucinations, or acted as a powerful sleep-aid. It also served to heighten suggestibility, thus increasing the effectiveness of the propaganda which the citizens were continuously subjected to.

“In Brave New World the soma habit was not a private vice; it was a political institutionŔ writes Huxley. The daily Soma ration was an insurance against personal maladjustment, social unrest and the spread of subversive ideas. Religion, Karl Marx declared, is the opium of the people. In the Brave New World this situation was reversed. Opium, or rather Soma, was the peopleӒs religion.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)

But the World Controllers of Brave New World did not rely on Soma alone. Sexual promiscuity was promoted by the State as another tactic to ensure everyone enjoyed their servitude. The slogan Everyone belongs to everyone elseӔ was drilled into the minds of the citizens from a young age, and with the institutions of monogamy and the family abolished, everyone was able to indulge their sexual impulses without hindrance. The constant access to sexual gratification served to help ensure the citizens were too distracted to pay attention to the reality of their situation.

State-sanctioned entertainment also played an important role in creating the “painless concentration camp” of Brave New World. What Huxley called non-stop distractions of “the most fascinating nature” were used by the state as instruments of policy to drown the minds of its citizens in a “sea of irrelevance.”

The parallels which exist between Brave New World and societies of the modern day are undeniable. In Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, Huxley asked himself how future social engineers could convince their subjects to take drugs that will make them think, feel, and behave in the ways [they] find desirable. (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) He concluded: “In all probability it will be enough merely to make the pills available."(Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) Today, an estimated one in six Americans are on some form of psychotropic drug. An opioid crisis has spread across the West. The ability to gratify sexual impulses online has led many into the clutches of pornography addiction; and smart phones and other technologies provide mindless and pleasurable distractions which consume the attention of most people, most of the day.  To what extent these diversions are intentionally pushed upon us and to what extent they are spontaneous responses to consumer demand, is unclear. But whatever the answer, the reality is that a distracted and dumbed down population simply lacks the mental resources to resist their enslavement.

Until the modern cry of Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited) is replaced by the cry “Give me liberty, or give me death” (Patrick Henry), freedom will not prevail. Rather, so long as people trade their liberty for pleasures and comfort, the type of social conditioning Huxley warned of will only become more refined and effective as technologies advance and more insight is gained regarding how to predict and control human behaviour. Whether the majority of us will be able to resist this type of manipulation, or whether we will even want to, remains to be seen.

If the current trends continue, humanity may soon be divided into two groups. There will be those who welcome their pleasurable servitude, and those who choose to resist it for the sake of retaining not just their liberty, but their humanity. For as the former slave Frederick Douglass noted in the mid-19th century, long before Huxley wrote Brave New World, when a slave becomes a happy slave, he has effectively relinquished all that which makes him human.

“I have found that, to make a contented slave,” writes Douglass “it is necessary to make a thoughtless one… He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” (FREDERICK DOUGLASS, NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS)



High score, Low pay: Why the Gig Economy Loves Gamification
Using ratings, competitions and bonuses to incentivise workers isnt new - but as I found when I became a Lyft driver, the gig economy is taking it to another level.

By Sarah Mason
The Guardian
November 20, 2018

In May 2016, after months of failing to find a traditional job, I began driving for the ride-hailing company Lyft. I was enticed by an online advertisement that promised new drivers in the Los Angeles area a $500 “sign-up bonus” after completing their first 75 rides. The calculation was simple: I had a car and I needed the money. So, I clicked the link, filled out the application, and, when prompted, drove to the nearest Pep Boys for a vehicle inspection. I received my flamingo-pink Lyft emblems almost immediately and, within a few days, I was on the road.

Initially, I told myself that this sort of gig work was preferable to the nine-to-five grind. It would be temporary, I thought. Plus, I needed to enrol in a statistics class and finish my graduate school applications tasks that felt impossible while working in a full-time desk job with an hour-long commute. But within months of taking on this readily available, yet strangely precarious form of work, I was weirdly drawn in.

Lyft, which launched in 2012 as Zimride before changing its name a year later, is a car service similar to Uber, which operates in about 300 US cities and expanded to Canada (though so far just in one province, Ontario) last year. Every week, it sends its drivers a personalised “Weekly Feedback Summary.” This includes passenger comments from the previous week’s rides and a freshly calculated driver rating. It also contains a bar graph showing how a drivers current rating “stacks up against previous weeks,” and tells them whether they have been “flagged” for cleanliness, friendliness, navigation or safety.

At first, I looked forward to my summaries; for the most part, they were a welcome boost to my self-esteem. My rating consistently fluctuated between 4.89 stars and 4.96 stars, and the comments said things like: “Good driver, positive attitude” and “Thanks for getting me to the airport on time!!” There was the occasional critique, such as ԓShe weird, or just ԓAttitude, but overall, the comments served as a kind of positive reinforcement mechanism. I felt good knowing that I was helping people and that people liked me.

But one week, after completing what felt like a million rides, I opened my feedback summary to discover that my rating had plummeted from a 4.91 (Awesome) to a 4.79 (OK), without comment. Stunned, I combed through my ride history trying to recall any unusual interactions or disgruntled passengers. Nothing. What happened? What did I do? I felt sick to my stomach.

Because driver ratings are calculated using your last 100 passenger reviews, one logical solution is to crowd out the old, bad ratings with new, presumably better ratings as fast as humanly possible. And that is exactly what I did.

For the next several weeks, I deliberately avoided opening my feedback summaries. I stocked my vehicle with water bottles, breakfast bars and miscellaneous mini candies to inspire riders to smash that fifth star. I developed a borderline-obsessive vacuuming habit and upped my car-wash game from twice a week to every other day. I experimented with different air-fresheners and radio stations. I drove and I drove and I drove.

The language of choice, freedom, and autonomy saturate discussions of ride hailing. “On-demand companies are pointing the way to a more promising future, where people have more freedom to choose when and where they work,” TRAVIS LANANICK, the founder and former CEO of Uber, wrote in October 2015. “Put simply,” he continued, “the future of work is about independence and flexibility.”

In a certain sense, Kalanick is right. Unlike employees in a spatially fixed worksite (the factory, the office, the distribution centre), rideshare drivers are technically free to choose when they work, where they work and for how long. They are liberated from the constraining rhythms of conventional employment or shift work. But that apparent freedom poses a unique challenge to the platforms’ need to provide reliable, “on demand” service to their riders - and so a driver’s freedom has to be aggressively, if subtly, managed. One of the main ways these companies have sought to do this is through the use of gamification.

Simply defined, gamification is the use of game elements point-scoring, levels, competition with others, measurable evidence of accomplishment, ratings and rules of play - in non-game contexts. GAMES deliver an instantaneous, visceral experience of success and reward, and they are increasingly used in the workplace to promote emotional engagement with the work process, to increase workers psychological investment in completing otherwise uninspiring tasks, and to influence, or “nudge”, workers’ behaviour. This is what my weekly feedback summary, my starred ratings and other gamified features of the Lyft app did.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that gamifying business operations has real, quantifiable effects. Target, the US-based retail giant, reports that gamifying its in-store checkout process has resulted in lower customer wait times and shorter lines. During checkout, a cashier’s screen flashes green if items are scanned at an optimum rateӔ. If the cashier goes too slowly, the screen flashes red. Scores are logged and cashiers are expected to maintain an 88% green rating. In online communities for Target employees, cashiers compare scores, share techniques, and bemoan the games most challenging obstacles.

But colour-coding checkout screens is a pretty rudimental kind of gamification. In the world of ride-hailing work, where almost the entirety of one’s activity is prompted and guided by screen - and where everything can be measured, logged and analysed - there are few limitations on what can be gamified.

In 1974, Michael Burawoy, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Chicago and a self-described Marxist, began working as a miscellaneous machine operator in the engine division of Allied Corporation, a large manufacturer of agricultural equipment. He was attempting to answer the following question: why do workers work as hard as they do?

In Marxs time, the answer to this question was simple: coercion. Workers had no protections and could be fired at will for failing to fulfil their quotas. OneҒs ability to obtain a subsistence wage was directly tied to the amount of effort one applied to the work process. However, in the early 20th century, with the emergence of labour protections, the elimination of the piece-rate pay system, the rise of strong industrial unions and a more robust social safety net, the coercive power of employers waned.

Yet workers continued to work hard, Burawoy observed. They co-operated with speed-ups and exceeded production targets. They took on extra tasks and sought out productive ways to use their downtime. They worked overtime and off the clock. They kissed ass. After 10 months at Allied, Burawoy concluded that workers were willingly and even enthusiastically consenting to their own exploitation. What could explain this? One answer, Burawoy suggested, was “the game”.

For Burawoy, the game described the way in which workers manipulated the production process in order to reap various material and immaterial rewards. When workers were successful at this manipulation, they were said to be “making out”. Like the levels of a video game, operators needed to overcome a series of consecutive challenges in order to make out and beat the game.

At the beginning of every shift, operators encountered their first challenge: securing the most lucrative assignment from the “scheduling man”, the person responsible for doling out workers daily tasks. Their next challenge was a trip to “the crib to find the blueprint” and tooling needed to perform the operation. If the crib attendant was slow to dispense the necessary blueprints, tools and fixtures, operators could lose a considerable amount of time that would otherwise go towards making or beating their quota. (Burawoy won the cooperation of the crib attendant by gifting him a Christmas ham.) After facing off against the truckers, who were responsible for bringing stock to the machine, and the inspectors, who were responsible for enforcing the specifications of the blueprint, the operator was finally left alone with his machine to battle it out against the clock.

According to Burawoy, production at Allied was deliberately organised by management to encourage workers to play the game. When work took the form of a game, Burawoy observed, something interesting happened: workersԒ primary source of conflict was no longer with the boss. Instead, tensions were dispersed between workers (the scheduling man, the truckers, the inspectors), between operators and their machines, and between operators and their own physical limitations (their stamina, precision of movement, focus).

The battle to beat the quota also transformed a monotonous, soul-crushing job into an exciting outlet for workers to exercise their creativity, speed and skill. Workers attached notions of status and prestige to their output, and the game presented them with a series of choices throughout the day, affording them a sense of relative autonomy and control. It tapped into a workers desire for self-determination and self-expression. Then, it directed that desire towards the production of profit for their employer.

Every Sunday morning, I receive an algorithmically generated “challenge” from Lyft that goes something like this: “Complete 34 rides between the hours of 5am on Monday and 5am on Sunday to receive a $63 bonus.” I scroll down, concerned about the declining value of my bonuses, which once hovered around $100-$220 per week, but have now dropped to less than half that.

ғClick here to accept this challenge. I tap the screen to accept. Now, whenever I log into driver mode, a stat meter will appear showing my progress: only 21 more rides before I hit my first bonus. Lyft does not disclose how its weekly ride challenges are generated, but the value seems to vary according to anticipated demand and driver behaviour. The higher the anticipated demand, the higher the value of my bonus. The more I hit my bonus targets or ride quotas, the higher subsequent targets will be. Sometimes, if it has been a while since I have logged on, I will be offered an uncharacteristically lucrative bonus, north of $100, though it has been happening less and less of late.

Behavioural scientists and video game designers are well aware that tasks are likely to be completed faster and with greater enthusiasm if one can visualise them as part of a progression towards a larger, pre-established goal. The Lyft stat meter is always present, always showing you what your acceptance rating is, how many rides you have completed, how far you have to go to reach your goal.

In addition to enticing drivers to show up when and where demand hits, one of the main goals of this gamification is worker retention. According to Uber, 50% of drivers stop using the application within their first two months, and a recent report from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California in Davis suggests that just 4% of ride-hail drivers make it past their first year.

Retention is a problem in large part because the economics of driving are so bad. Researchers have struggled to establish exactly how much money drivers make, but with the release of two recent reports, one from the Economic Policy Institute and one from MIT, a consensus on driver pay seems to be emerging: drivers make, on average, between $9.21 (ԣ7.17) and $10.87 (8.46) per hour. What these findings confirm is what many of us in the game already know: in most major US cities, drivers are pulling in wages that fall below local minimum-wage requirements. According to an internal slide deck obtained by the New York Times, Uber actually identifies McDonaldÒs as its biggest competition in attracting new drivers. When I began driving for Lyft, I made the same calculation most drivers make: it is better to make $9 per hour than to make nothing.

Before Lyft rolled out weekly ride challenges, there was the Power Driver BonusӔ, a weekly challenge that required drivers to complete a set number of regular rides. I sometimes worked more than 50 hours per week trying to secure my PDB, which often meant driving in unsafe conditions, at irregular hours and accepting nearly every ride request, including those that felt potentially dangerous (I am thinking specifically of an extremely drunk and visibly agitated late-night passenger).

Of course, this was largely motivated by a real need for a boost in my weekly earnings. But, in addition to a hope that I would somehow transcend Lyfts crappy economics, the intensity with which I pursued my PDBs was also the result of what Burawoy observed four decades ago: a bizarre desire to beat the game.

Drivers’ per-mile earnings are supplemented by a number of rewards, both material and immaterial. Uber drivers can earn ғAchievement Badges for completing a certain number of five-star rides and ԓExcellent Service Badges for leaving customers satisfied. LyftԒs Accelerate RewardsӔ programme encourages drivers to level up by completing a certain number of rides per month in order to unlock special rewards like fuel discounts from Shell (gold level) and free roadside assistance (platinum level).

In addition to offering meaningless badges and meagre savings at the pump, ride-hailing companies have also adopted some of the same design elements used by gambling firms to promote addictive behaviour among slot-machine users. One of things the anthropologist and NYU media studies professor Natasha Dow Schll found during a decade-long study of machine gamblers in Las Vegas is that casinos use networked slot machines that allow them to surveil, track and analyse the behaviour of individual gamblers in real time just as ride-hailing apps do. This means that casinos can 얓triangulate any given gamblers player data with her demographic data, piecing together a profile that can be used to customise game offerings and marketing appeals specifically for herҔ. Like these customised game offerings, Lyft tells me that my weekly ride challenge has been “personalised just for you!”

Former Google design ethicistӔ Tristan Harris has also described how the pull-to-refreshӔ mechanism used in most social media feeds mimics the clever architecture of a slot machine: users never know when they are going to experience gratification a dozen new likes or retweets - but they know that gratification will eventually come. This unpredictability is addictive: behavioural psychologists have long understood that gambling uses variable reinforcement schedules unpredictable intervals of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback ֖ to condition players into playing just one more round.

We are only beginning to uncover the extent to which these reinforcement schedules are built into ride-hailing apps. But one example is primetime or surge pricing. The phrase chasing the pinkӔ is used in online forums by Lyft drivers to refer to the tendency to drive towards primetimeӔ areas, denoted by pink-tinted heat maps in the app, which signify increased fares at precise locations. This is irrational because the likelihood of catching a good primetime fare is slim, and primetime is extremely unpredictable. The pink appears and disappears, moving from one location to the next, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Lyft and Uber have to dole out just enough of these higher-paid periods to keep people driving to the areas where they predict drivers will be needed. And occasionally cherry, cherry, cherry ֖ it works: after the Rose Bowl parade last year, I made in 40 minutes more than half of what I usually make in a whole day of non-stop shuttling.

It is not uncommon to hear ride-hailing drivers compare even the mundane act of operating their vehicles to the immersive and addictive experience of playing a video game or a slot machine. In an article published by the Financial Times, long-time driver Herb Croakley put it perfectly: “It gets to a point where the app sort of takes over your motor functions in a way. It becomes almost like a hypnotic experience. You can talk to drivers and youll hear them say things like, I just drove a bunch of Uber pools for two hours, I probably picked up 30Җ40 people and I have no idea where I went. In that state, they are literally just listening to the sounds [of the drivers apps]. Stopping when they said stop, pick up when they say pick up, turn when they say turn. You get into a rhythm of that, and you begin to feel almost like an android.”

So, who sets the rules for all these games? It is 12.30am on a Friday night and the “Lyft drivers lounge”, a closed Facebook group for active drivers, is divided. The debate began, as many do, with an assertion about the algorithm. ғThe algorithm refers to the opaque and often unpredictable system of automated, ԓdata-driven management employed by ride-hailing companies to dispatch drivers, match riders into Pools (Uber) or Lines (Lyft), and generate “surge” or “primetime” fares, also known as “dynamic pricing”.

The algorithm is at the heart of the ride-hailing game, and of the coercion that the game conceals. In their foundational text Algorithmic Labor and Information Asymmetries: A Case Study of Uber’s Drivers, Alex Rosenblat and Luke Stark write: Uber’s self-proclaimed role as a connective intermediary belies the important employment structures and hierarchies that emerge through its software and interface design. “Algorithmic management” is the term Rosenblat and Stark use to describe the mechanisms through which Uber and Lyft drivers are directed. To be clear, there is no singular algorithm. Rather, there are a number of algorithms operating and interacting with one another at any given moment. Taken together, they produce a seamless system of automatic decision-making that requires very little human intervention.

For many on-demand platforms, algorithmic management has completely replaced the decision-making roles previously occupied by shift supervisors, foremen and middle- to upper- level management. Uber actually refers to its algorithms as “decision engines.” These “decision engines” track, log and crunch millions of metrics every day, from ride frequency to the harshness with which individual drivers brake. It then uses these analytics to deliver gamified prompts perfectly matched to drivers’ data profiles.

Because the logic of the algorithm is largely unknown and constantly changing, drivers are left to speculate about what it is doing and why. Such speculation is a regular topic of conversation in online forums, where drivers post screengrabs of nonsensical ride requests and compare increasingly lacklustre, algorithmically generated bonus opportunities. It is not uncommon for drivers to accuse ride-hailing companies of programming their algorithms to favour the interests of the corporation. To resolve this alleged favouritism, drivers routinely hypothesise and experiment with ways to manipulate or “game” the system back.

When the bars let out after last orders at 2am, demand spikes. Drivers have a greater likelihood of scoring “surge” or “primetime” fares. There are no guarantees, but it is why we are all out there. To increase the prospect of surge pricing, drivers in online forums regularly propose deliberate, coordinated, mass log-offs with the expectation that a sudden drop in available drivers will “trick” the algorithm into generating higher surges. I have never seen one work, but the authors of a recently published paper say that mass log-offs are occasionally successful.

Viewed from another angle, though, mass log-offs can be understood as good, old-fashioned work stoppages. The temporary and purposeful cessation of work as a form of protest is the core of strike action, and remains the sharpest weapon workers have to fight exploitation. But the ability to log-off en masse has not assumed a particularly emancipatory function. Burawoy’s insights might tell us why.

Gaming the game, Burawoy observed, allowed workers to assert some limited control over the labour process, and to “make out” as a result. In turn, that win had the effect of reproducing the players commitment to playing, and their consent to the rules of the game. When players were unsuccessful, their dissatisfaction was directed at the game’s obstacles, not at the capitalist class, which sets the rules. The inbuilt antagonism between the player and the game replaces, in the mind of the worker, the deeper antagonism between boss and worker. Learning how to operate cleverly within the games parameters becomes the only imaginable option. And now there is another layer interposed between labour and capital: the algorithm.

After weeks of driving like a maniac in order to restore my higher-than-average driver rating, I managed to raise it back up to a 4.93. Although it felt great, it is almost shameful and astonishing to admit that ones rating, so long as it stays above 4.6, has no actual bearing on anything other than your sense of self-worth. You do not receive a weekly bonus for being a highly rated driver. Your rate of pay does not increase for being a highly rated driver. In fact, I was losing money trying to flatter customers with candy and keep my car scrupulously clean. And yet, I wanted to be a highly rated driver.

And this is the thing that is so brilliant and awful about the gamification of Lyft and Uber: it preys on our desire to be of service, to be liked, to be good. On weeks that I am rated highly, I am more motivated to drive. On weeks that I am rated poorly, I am more motivated to drive. It works on me, even though I know better. To date, I have completed more than 2,200 rides.

A longer version of this article first appeared in LOGIC, a new magazine devoted to deepening the discourse around technology


Posted by Elvis on 12/16/19 •
Section Dying America • Section Spiritual Diversions
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