Digital footprints: helping or harming?

Much of the conversation about our online presences (at least as regards our careers) has often focused on the dangers of embarrassing Facebook updates getting back to our employers, or putting off potential future employers. This is a worthwhile conversation to have; it’s important to make sure that our privacy settings are properly calibrated, and that we are not shooting ourselves in the foot by mixing public and private.

However, there are two points I’d like to make about this. The first is that I believe that pretty soon, it won’t matter all that much. Partly because people are becoming more familiar with the technology so as not to say stupid things publicly (danah boyd points out that a lot of online activity among young people is in “code” so as not to alert the wrong people to what they are talking about). But also partly because it will matter less the more public life becomes on the internet. I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop that. Our data is being sold very cheaply indeed by Google and Facebook – a slightly different conversation, but all part and parcel of larger numbers of people knowing what we do without us really being aware of it.

The corollary to that is that I think employers will care much less about what a young person did in their past, and more about the reviews that are posted about their work on various sites. The flip side of this new visibility is that community-built trust systems are developing to make sure that people are doing what they say they do – review systems. Not all are foolproof – Tripadvisor can be “gamed” – but Airbnb is pretty solid.

The second point is that despite the risks, the internet also provides plenty of opportunities to harness its communicative power, and the power to showcase. And that’s a really important point that is left out of the conversation. I think the real way to manage our digital footprint is not so much to police ourselves so very rigidly, but in fact to ensure that there is overall much more positive stuff out there about us than negative.

What are we missing? How can we make ourselves not only more visible in the right ways, but showcase more authentically what we are about – what we care about, what we’re good at, what we would like to contribute to in the future? Once we direct the conversation there, I think we will stop worrying so much about who did what on Saturday night.

You can’t ban cryptography.

Even before the recent attacks, Theresa May has been keen to “regulate cyberspace”.  One of the ways in which she wants to do this is by ensuring that there is a backdoor in any internet security system.  Just to give an idea of scope, every site you visit, every service you register for, mailing list you sign up to is encrypted to prevent hackers, thieves of various stripes, and other malicious agents from accessing your computer.  Through May’s back door, government security agents would be able to get into any system to investigate what information is being exchanged.  Your search history is already logged with your service provider as of the Snoopers Charter from November 2016, available to the police.

Aside from sounding like an Orwellian nightmare, let’s just think this through for a second.  If there is an inbuilt way for the government to access your various accounts and look at what information you are sharing, it means that there is one point of failure for malicious agents to exploit, which they know is there and eventually – inevitably – will find ways to break into.

If only for this reason (and there are all sorts of others, like that pesky free speech and privacy stuff), I’m convinced of three things.

  1. We shouldn’t.
  2. We probably can’t in any meaningful way.
  3. It would probably make things worse.

Here is an excellent blog post by Cory Doctorow about why it’s not feasible.  In summary, he’s saying that the sort of implementation necessary to make it work is impossible given the scale of the task, and that a reduced version is basically not even worth doing because it would leave plenty of other ways for perpetrators to act.  More ambitious means of restricting might involve something like the systems that China uses, by controlling what operating systems can run on your computer, which have built-in ways of restricting what you can access via the internet.  This would be extremely intensive (and expensive) to set up and it would be impossible to let you run any operating system that allows you to install programs freely (i.e. any system that currently isn’t on a hand-held device – goodbye Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux).

If this all seems a little divorced from the future of careers, we need only remember that the internet is inextricably embedded into the way we live, communicate, and work.

We submit personal information all the time on the web, including payment information, names, addresses, telephone numbers  – effectively all someone would need to steal your identity.  Let’s say you are a young entrepreneur and you set up your internet business with an option to pay through Paypal, or you set up your own payment system.  A back door would not only mean that there is a potential vulnerability for a malicious agent to exploit, but (and here’s the big problem) also every person who has access to the backdoor has to be trustworthy.  (And there’s not much hope of that; we’ve already seen examples of abuses of the Investigatory Powers Act to use surveillance to catch perpetrators of minor infractions.)  We have no way of knowing who those people are, how many have access, or how they have been selected.  We also have no way of knowing how people are deemed to be a risk.

Aside from the ethical and safety issues associated with these courses of actions, the main problem is that this won’t do what Theresa May wants it to. If the internet torrenting site Piratebay has taught us anything, it’s that trying to stop anyone from doing anything on the internet is more or less impossible without fully embracing totalitarianism.

There are already plenty of ways in which the internet is not free; our data is constantly for sale.  It would be better if we didn’t sell it wholesale down the tube.


Raspberry Pi


In 2012, the first Raspberry Pi was released.  For those who haven’t encountered one, the Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer, which you can plug into a monitor or a screen, attach a mouse and keyboard.  Originally invented in the UK, it is designed as a learning tool for young people to learn how to program (not exclusively, though; you can use it for lots of other things.  Someone’s turned one into a retro-gaming console, and someone else has turned one into an FM transmitter).  It’s cheap (the top end ones are about £35) and very portable, though you do need several peripherals to get it working.

This is where it’s important not to go all dystopian or utopian.  It’s great that this bit of tech is cheap and handy to use, but I’m not going to say that this device will end social inequality, because plenty of young people are worried about getting basic Maths and English under their belts before they even think about tinkering with a bit of kit like this.  And the causes of technological inequalities aren’t restricted to cost, and not really anything to do with access to a computer anymore; most households at least have one, even if it’s shared.  The difficulty is a much more complex one.  For a start, how does a young person get inspired to program?  Back in the 80s, computers were pretty basic; someone at home could learn how to program one.  Now they are so complex and the training to use it (apparently) so advanced that working with technology has become a bit of a rareified activity.  So rareified that I wouldn’t be surprised if the very idea of taking the technology apart might be suppressed as a result; the interior workings of mobile phones and computers can remain something of a mystery to many.  So this inspiration is a big part of the questions that surround technological inequality.  Who has access to role models to inspire them to program?  Who lives in areas that might be covered by outreach programmes that promote inexpensive pieces of technology that can be used independently?  I’d guess that cities are much more likely to have vibrant creative programmes because that’s where the main markets are for organisations to promote and sell their products.  But once you get to rural areas and small towns, challenges multiply – self-stereotyping according to gender, for example, and lower participation of women in STEM subjects.  The image of programmers mostly as white middle-class men is hard to get away from.

I will, however, come down on one side of the fence and say that it’s probably a good thing that young people can have access to something like this, so that their interaction with technology isn’t purely unidirectional – so that they don’t simply consume, and instead have the option to participate in creating (Raspberry Pi runs competitions and challenges for young people to stretch their programming wings).  I think it’s good, too, that young people can envision themselves as programmers, so that the idea of programming isn’t a halcyon state of post-graduate career choice, but down-to-earth – something achievable.  Even if not all young people are exposed to it yet, at least the age barrier is starting to be broken down.

I’m going to get one.  I’ll tell you what I think when I’ve played with it, but I’ll tell you this for free: it runs an operating system called “Raspbian”, which apart from being a wonderfully geeky name, is a Linux-based OS.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a Linux nut – not because I have mad programming skillz (I don’t), but because it’s open source, incredibly stable for the most part, and I find Apple’s user interfaces to be difficult and restrictive.   I also grew up slightly after the Commodore 64 and similar machines were available to tinker with and self-teach programming, so I feel I’m of a generation that missed out on the opportunity.

Platforms and the ongoing fight over self-employment

The other day on PMQ, Philip Hammond announced a reversal of the Conservative plan to raise the National Insurance contributions for the self-employed. The papers last week interviewed a number of people whom it might have affected; some took it less as a blow to their income – rather contributing to their feeling that there is a general lack of government support for self-employed and small businesses (The I Paper, 09-03-2017). In spite of the prevailing rhetoric that the self-employed, the entrepreneurs, and the small businesses are the “engine of the economy”, these people feel that the government isn’t in their corner, so to speak.  I have some sympathy with that, especially since I am partly self-employed myself. On the other hand, I’d say that this is by no means restricted to our present government. Back in 2008, for instance, New Labour cut the 10% band of income tax – something that hit the lowest group of earners in the country, doubling their tax from one year to the next with insufficient safety nets in place to help those it hurt.

The people who work on online platforms are, in theory at least, meant to be classified as self-employed.   Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s responses to Hammond invoked the unethical (mis)categorising of workers as self-employed by businesses, referring partly to the zero-hour contract phenomenon, but doubtless also to the ongoing dogfight between workers and online labour platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, and Taskrabbit. The conversation about self-employed vs. employee is becoming increasingly litigious, with a number of cases already underway (and in some cases, won) surrounding worker rights and the question of whether the people who work on platforms could be counted as self employed contractors, or even small, independent businesses.

Whichever way you look at it, though, and no matter how straightforward it might have seemed at the beginning, the classification of Uber drivers as small businesses is pretty ludicrous. It’s too much to believe that they are all individual entrepreneurs driving around the city. For a start, their behaviour is strictly managed by the program – to the extent of effectively enforcing exclusivity by only allowing drivers to qualify for the best rates by being logged on for 50 minutes out of every hour, meaning that they can’t in practice drive for anyone else in that time. The app punishes drivers for rejecting calls (too many and you get suspended for half an hour), and sets the rates automatically.

So if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…  Odds are it’s an unforgiving, Fordist-model duck.*  Furthermore, Uber’s leaders can argue that the system is not meant to support people who are driving full time, and indeed the company is quick to point out that the numbers of people who are driving part time vastly outnumber those who are driving full time. Sure – but the ones who are driving full time are the ones who make a large portion of the money for Uber, and should be protected in the same way as people who work for other companies full time.

This tight behavioural management isn’t restricted to Uber; Taskrabbit’s automated systems now takes more control than it has before of how Taskers and customers connect with each other. Labour platforms have started to use the data that they gather about transactions now not just for predicting customer behaviour, but to optimise the way that they control and direct their workers. A recent study by the CIPD revealed that only 38% of people who work for the gig economy feel like their own boss, and no wonder; they do have a boss. It’s just not one that breathes.

It’s a question as to whether online platform organisations foresaw where this was all going.  Depending on how you look at it, platforms exploited this legal loophole, or just provided the (incredibly useful and efficient) facilitating technology without really thinking through what it would mean for full-time workers.  My money is on the latter; app design tends to be iterative, which means that each update changes the software slightly, and the organisation changes its behaviour based on short-term, measureable results.  So it’s quite possible that no one thought far enough ahead at the beginning to say “Hey, so, what happens if people start thinking of this as a full time job?”  More likely, the focus was on the technology, “Hey, we made it easier for people to make money.  And, you know.  Us.”  And now it’s too late to turn back; too much money has been spent, too many people have signed up, and the business model is completely reliant on low operating costs.

The platform organisation’s dilemma

Nick Srnicek in his book Platform Capitalism describes the “lean platform”, where almost all the operating costs of the platform are outsourced. The business model depends on spending as little as possible on resources – which means that management costs are automated by the platform; the resources used by the workers are provided by the workers themselves. (And you would think that with revenues exceeding $5bn, Uber would be profitable by now, but this year alone the loss has already been astronomical.) Will this improve, do we think, when (and it looks like it’s a when, not an if) their workers are reclassified as employees?

There are several crucial questions.

1. At which point does a platform cease to be simply a provider of the technology for people to use, and start functioning as an employer? What features of the platform are the key switches that move it from one state to the other?

2. Who gets to decide whether a platform organisation is an employer or just a facilitator / provider of the technology?

3. If it is decided that a platform is an employer, how can a company that has started out by operating as a lean platform absorb the costs of suddenly having to guarantee hours and rates of pay for their newly recategorised employees? And what happens to the gig economy if platforms collapse? Srnicek suggests that the model of the online labour platform will disappear, forced to shift into product platfoms; others suggest a move to cooperativism.

I’d be pleased to hear any ideas about the future of the online gig economy and labour platforms if their self-employed workers are reclassified.

* Unforgiving Fordist Duck should have been the title of the post, but I, er, chickened out.

Booting up

This is a blog about technology, career, and the future of work.

We are more connected than we ever have been before; in the UK many of us can now access the internet 24/7 (and we in turn are accessible 24/7). The internet is no longer a separate thing that we log into every day to check our e mails; it is inextricably linked to life.  It mediates how we learn, work, travel, talk to each other, organise (and self-organise), share ideas, and explore.

I will be writing about topics such as the economics of the internet, online power structures, hidden inequalities, future automation, and what all of those things mean for people who are trying to make careers for themselves. I hope to spark discussion; please comment as much as possible, especially if you disagree with me.