Pluralistic: 02 Oct 2020

Today's links

Call center workers pay for the privilege (permalink)

If you only learn one technical term from labor economics, make it "chickenization" – Christopher Leonard's term for the way that the Big Three poultry processors have structured the chicken-farming industry (I learned it from Zephyr Teachout).

Here's chickenization: you're a chicken farmer. There is only one company that can buy your birds, thanks to market concentration. They tell you how to design and maintain your coop. They sell you the chicks. They tell you which feed to use, how much and when.

They tell you when the lights go on and when they go off. They tell you how which vet to use, and which medicines they can use. They bind you to secrecy through nondisclosure and strip you of the right to sue through arbitration.

They experiment on you. Your barn is filled with sensors that they monitor, and they tell you to vary feed, lighting, medicine and other variables to see if your birds get bigger. They are the only buyer in your region, so they know how each farmer's birds are thriving.

But if the "independent" farmers ever tried to compare notes, they'd be violating their nondisclosure agreements and could be sued. Farmers who complain to regulators are barred from the market.

Once your birds are grown, you bring them to the processor, who exploits their information asymmetry to figure out how to pay you JUST ENOUGH to go back to things, but not enough to get ahead. Since chickenization, poultry farmers have faced a wave of suicides.

Once you know about chickenization, you see it everywhere: crop farmers are chickenized by seed companies, and Uber drivers are chickenized by their apps.

The contours of chickenization are impossible to miss: it's a shifting of all the risk from the employer's side of the balance sheet to the workers', using the fiction of independent contractorship, the data-gathering capabilities of digital work, and monopolies.

Today, I learned about the worst chickenization scheme I've ever encountered: a giant, global company that has chickenized a vast workforce, but maintains total secrecy, even as it services massive blue-chip companies from Airbnb to Disney.

That company is Arise, and Propublica and Planet Money just blew the roof off its ghastly charnel house of a chicken farm by, as Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott and Ariana Tobin reported out leaks, arbitration reports, and whistleblower accounts.

Here's chickenization, Arise style: the company is a outsource phone support system. Workers have to pay to work for Arise (they're "independent contractors"): buy a dedicated PC, internet connection and other equipment.

They have to do weeks of unpaid "training" just to get started, and then they have to pay more to get specific training for every one of Arise's giant corporate clients, from AT&T to Carnival Cruises to Comcast to Disney to Airbnb to Intuit to Barnes and Noble to Ebay.

After passing random, invasive, in-home inspections, after shelling out thousands of dollars and doing weeks – if not months – of unpaid training, they are finally eligible to sign up for shifts.

These shifts come in 30 minute slices, widely spaced, and turning them down gets you blacklisted. It's impossible to hold down another job while you're an Arise chicken-farmer.

But you don't get paid for 30-minute shifts. You just get paid for the time that you're talking to customers.

The whole time you talk to a customer, an algorithm is ready to penalize you: i.e., if it takes too long to deal with queries, or if there're too many pauses.

Meanwhile, the client's outsource managers randomly (or not-randomly) listen in on your calls, and they can penalize you too.

The main penalty is being "deskilled" – barred from working for that client, after paying (in cash and time) to get trained to be their phone rep.

Workers are barred from hanging up on abusive customers. Women report high levels of sexual harassment, which they have to patiently endure, because they risk getting fired if they hang up on their abusers.

And all workers are expected to tolerate unlimited abuse from callers. 64% of Arise's workers are people of color. 89% of them are women. Arise's recruiting ads target Black women in particular.

There is a way to get ahead in Arise: recruit other workers. Because, in addition to everything else, it's a pyramid scheme, and the business is riddled with people who've been previously convicted of wire fraud.

Nearly every person in the Arise structure is chickenized:. The following jobs are all performed by "independent contractors":

  • Client Support Professionals
  • Quality Assurance Performance Facilitators
  • Chat Performance Facilitators
  • Escalation Performance Facilitators

Not only do you have to pay to work for Arise – you have to pay (a "contract termination fee") to stop working for them.

Arise binds workers to arbitration, meaning they can't sue. The right of workers to join class actions in spite of arbitration waivers went to the Supreme Court in '18, where the illegitimate justice Neal Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, ruling against workers.

Arise honors Juneteenth with a day off for all employees. But all those Black women it has chickenized are independent businesses and are still expected to show up for work.

Arise's founder is Richard Cherry, a Canadian "serial entrepreneur" who started off writing scammy get-rich-quick and lose-weight-quick books before moving to Florida and getting heavily involved with the Home Shopping Network.

Today, the company is a division of a giant private equity fund, Warburg Pincus.

Dan Hillier's Six Women/Six Men (permalink)

One of my all-time favorite artists is London's Dan Hillier, who has made a career out of finding public domain engravings, scanning and cleaning them up, and then making spooky, haunting, grotesque and infinitely lovely collages out of them.

Hillier has just launched two new projects: "Six Women" and "Six Men," a pair of "box sets" of previously released and sold out work in fresh editions as giclee prints augmented by handpainted, very fine 24K gold leaf, sold as framed sets.

The sets are limited editions, framed in antique-black finish beech by Dylan Shipton Frames, and the prints float in behind anti-UV glass. You can see them in person at Hillier's (distanced/ventimated) Walthamstow gallery or buy them online:

Apple kills RSS readers in China (permalink)

Chekhov exhorted writers not to put a gun onstage unless a character is going to fire it. But this advice has a corollary for audiences: "If there's a pistol on the mantelpiece in Act I, it'll go off by Act III."

If only Apple had paid attention.

Apple wasn't the first company to use DRM to prevent users from installing software on devices without its approval (game consoles did this for years), but it WAS the first company to popularize the model for general purpose devices.

Ten years ago, I predicted that once Apple gave itself the power to decide which software you were allowed to use, governments would start ordering it to prevent you from using software they didn't like.

Three years ago, Apple kicked aa working VPNs out of the Chinese App Store, to so that the Chinese state – which was in the midst of rounding up one million Uyghurs and putting them in concentration camps – could spy on its population more effectively

Now, Apple's purged its Chinese App Store of RSS readers, which allow Apple customers in China to evade state censorship and surveillance, which have been used in lethal ways, including targeting dissidents for organ-harvesting.

This is a really stark example of the failure of the "feudal security" model we have evolved as states have both failed to create protections for users (e.g. a US federal privacy law with a private right of action) and to prevent monopolization of tech.

Deprived of the legal tools to defend ourselves with, we are forced to seek protection from feudal seigneurs (e.g. tech companies) and hope that their business interests align with our human rights interests.

So you can use Chrome, which is about to start blocking third-party cookies, meaning that other people can't track you – but Google can. Google doesn't want to protect your privacy – it wants to get a piece of the action.

Google will use this power to incidentally protect your privacy by blocking some of the worst online surveillance, but if you're worried about Google itself (or one of its trusted parties) abusing your data, Chrome won't help you.

Likewise, Apple makes a big (and deserved) deal out of its privacy orientation, but that privacy is in service to a marketing message: "Apple is the pro-privacy alternative." Apple cares about selling devices, and privacy is a means to that end.

Apple's decision to both manufacture and sell devices in China, combined with its power to choose which apps you can use, all but guaranteed that it would be deputized to aid in mass roundups for concentration camps and organ harvesting.

Meanwhile, the policies that Apple relies on to prevent companies creating third-party app stores – policies like DMCA 1201, the copyright law that bans breaking Apple DRM – are defended by an infinite warchest funded by all the tech giants, who all rely on it.

The feudal lords of the internet secure us against the lawless bandits that roam outside of their castle walls. But they don't love us. They don't want us to be safe. They want to make money. If they can get richer by sacrificing our safety, they'll do it in a heartbeat.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Why an obscure left-wing MP won the UK Labour leadership by the biggest margin in history

#5yrsago Voter suppression act two: closing driver’s license offices in Alabama’s Black Belt

#5yrsago Arbitration: how America’s corporations got their own private legal system

#5yrsago Dieselgate for TVs: Samsung accused of programming TVs to cheat energy efficiency ratings

#5yrsago Internet of Things That Lie: the future of regulation is demonology

#5yrsago Landmark patent case will determine whether you can ever truly own a device again

#1yrago IRS admits it audits poor people because auditing rich people is too expensive

#1yrago Apple bans an app because Hong Kong protesters might use it to avoid the murderous, out of control police

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: JWZ (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 511 words (68077 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

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