Pluralistic: 09 Aug 2021

Today's links

A Disney Dollar. In its central oval, Mickey Mouse has been replaced by a trustbuster-era editorial caricature of Teddy Roosevelt swinging a club.

Podcasting "Managing aggregate demand" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "Managing Aggregate Demand," the fourth part in my ongoing Medium series about "amusement parks, crowd control and load-balancing."

It's a reflection on the economics of situations where demand outstrips supply – an issue that's very much in the news today, thanks to covid supply shocks (and it'll get only get worse, thanks to the climate emergency).

I draw on Ramsi Woodcock's Iowa Law Review article "The Efficient Queue and the Case Against Dynamic Pricing," an essay that presents a case for prohibiting ALL surge pricing as illegal under antitrust law.

And I reiterate Len Testa's point that Disney parks have a huge advantage in prefering queues to auctions to control demand – because Disney tickets are tied to the buyer's identity, Disney can extinguish the secondary markets that touts create in other domains.

You may not be able to do anything about Friedman-addled sociopaths who pay homeless people to camp out to buy every Tickle Me Elmo doll before parents can buy them, in order to list them on Ebay at 1,000% markups – but you can stop people from reselling Disney tickets.

I podcasted the first three installments in this series last week:

Here's this week's podcast episode:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS feed for the podcast:

I've just published part five in the series: "Expectations Management," about the covert, overt, moral and shady ways that Disney shapes the movement of crowds through its spaces:

I'm skipping next week's podcast recording session (I'll be in Salt Lake City, serving as keynoter and guest of honor for the Quills writing conference):

But I'll be back to record part five and maybe part six in two weeks, for the 400th (!!) episode of my podcast.

The cover for Max Barry's 'The 22 Murders of Madison May.'

The 22 Murders of Madison May (permalink)

"The 22 Murders of Madison May" is a new science fiction crime thriller from Max Barry, a writer with a penchant for existentialism, hard-driving plots, and uncomfortable philosophical speculation.

The premise of 22 Murders: a deranged stalker who has stolen a dimension-hopping device moves from one dimension to the next, seeking out Madison May, a minor film star whom he is obsessed with.

But in every universe, his victim has chosen a different path – realtor, student, barista – and he murders her in a rage before skipping to the next universe.

Dimension-hopping is a one-way journey, and it's hard to direct your path through the multiverse, but the murderer is obsessed and will not stop.

Felicity Staples is a reporter on the New York Daily News who is investigating one of these murders and ends up so embroiled that she, too is whisked into an adjacent dimension, one where everything is familiar…but wrong.

The tale proceeds: Felicity chases the killer, trying to protect Madison. The killer kills Madison and skips to the next universe. Gradually, Felicity learns more about the multiverse and the stolen science that propels the killer, and the others who are trying to stop him.

All of this is a finely tuned thriller, a legit, pacey page-turner with lots of excellent action and skullduggery, but all of that is in service to the true point of a multiverse tale – the moral speculation about what choice means, and what meaning our lives have.

After all, if everything that can happen does happen – if every choice you make one way, another version of you makes another way – then is there really any choice at all? Does anything matter?

That's some well-trod philosophical speculation, a mind-game that usually arrives at a place of pure nihilism, where nothing matters and nothing is real (think of Larry Niven's classic short story "All the Myriad Ways").

But Barry goes beyond cheap solipsism. After all, this is a book full of people who a) know that every bad thing that happens in one universe does not happen in another; and b) still try to prevent bad things from happening.

Barry's dimension-hoppers – even Madison and the murderer – are obsessed with finding or making a better universe, though they know that it will not prevent the worse ones. They are brave and hopeful, in the truest sense, because they know the cause is lost and yet they fight on.

That rejection of cynicism adds a rich depth to an otherwise merely excellent crime drama, like the difference between stew made with water and good stock.

A laptop on a desk; the laptop's screen is filled with the glowing red eye of HAL 9000 from 2001.

When your boss wants an AI camera in your bedroom (permalink)

When it comes to tech in the workplace, we pay too much attention to what the tech does, at the expense of a critical analysis of who the tech does it to, and who the tech does it for.

Take warehouse automation: stuff needs to get from A to B, and moving stuff is hard, dangerous work. In theory, warehouse automation is a critical part of making our world more humane and better for workers.

So how is it that Amazon leads the world in both worker injuries and warehouse automation? Worse, how is it that the more automated an Amazon warehouse is, the more workers get maimed and killed there?

The answer is not what the technology does, but who it does it to. Machines (including "smart" machines) can act as technological helpmeets, or as technological straw-bosses.

A warehouse worker in hi-viz; his head has been replaced with a horse's head whose eyes are HAL 9000's red eyes from 2001.

When the machine helps the human do more than either is capable of on their own, we call the resulting pair a "centaur." But when the human helps the machine, we call that ghastly, lethal, literally dehumanizing arrangement a "reverse-centaur."

For Amazon's reverse-centaurs, automation means the tempo of work is ratcheted up until injury is inevitable. There's nothing intrinsically dangerous about robots that bring shelves to human pickers. The danger comes from management decisions about how fast to run the robots.

Amazon management can choose to run its warehouses in unsafe ways because its workforce isn't unionized, and thus lacks the bargaining leverage to force worker-friendly policies on its employers.

That's why Amazon was prepared to break the law to prevent warehouse workers in Bessamer, Alabama from unionizing under the RWDSU.

It's not just warehouses – take app-based casual work. In theory, the idea of an app that helps workers and customers efficiently connect with one another in order to dispatch jobs means that workers can gain more control over their working days.

In practice, companies like Doordash use apps to coerce workers into taking jobs that are so poorly compensated that they lose money in the bargain – and then deploy dirty tech tricks to prevent workers from configuring their apps to prevent this.

This isn't an intrinsic feature of apps – it's a choice that Doordash makes. They get to make it because they misclassify their workers and spend tens of millions to get laws passed that ban their workers from unionizing.

One unexpected upside of the lockdown was the number of well-compensated, white-collar workers who discovered that working from home is quite nice – a way to be more productive and a better parent and spouse.

Work-from-home can be great. But only if the workers have the power to keep it from being terrible. The more precarious a worker is, the more the systems that make work-from-home possible are repurposed as technological whip.

Take Arise, a company that provides work-from-home, outsource telephone customer service to the largest companies in the world – Disney, Airbnb, Carnival Cruises, Intuit and more.

Arise depends on worker misclassification so its workers pay for company-specific training, then it spies on their calls to ensure the women (mostly Black women) who pay for the privilege don't hang up on callers who make rape and death threats.

These women supply their own computers, then install Arise spyware on them, and are required to silence their children and other family members while they are on-shift – a crying child could cost them their investment in training and equipment.

These are all management choices, not inevitabilities, and the factor that makes these choices possible is the lack of worker power (Arise workers have so little power that they have to PAY to quit their jobs, thanks to an "early cancellation fee" in their contracts).

For workers with little power – who lack either a union or a high-demand skill/experience mix – "work from home" is a thin euphemism for "live at work." Not only do you provide your boss with rent-free space in your home, he gets to colonize your whole house and family.

Take the hundreds of thousands of work-from-home call-center workers at Colombia's Teleperformance, who have been presented with a new, non-negotiable contract requiring them to have "AI"-powered cameras in their homes.

The contract acknowledges that low-waged workers live in cramped quarters where it is impossible for a camera to avoid capturing family members, including minor children – so the contract requires workers to waive their family's privacy rights as a condition of employment.

This ghastly disciplinary technology is branded "TP Campus" and is billed as a means of preventing fraud and enforcing petty authoritarian rules like a "clean desk policy."

In countries where there are strong privacy laws TP Campus has been banned. Albanians working on the Apple UK account got the Information Commissioner to order Teleperformance to drop TP Campus for them.

Apple is just one of the tech giants that relies on Teleperformance – Uber and Amazon are two more. These companies are noteworthy not just because of how much they outsource, but also because of how much of their supply chains they own.

Historic antitrust principles (now being revived after a long slumber, as with the new Biden executive order) are suspicious of corporate vertical integration, and have gone so far as to impose "structural separation" – a ban on companies owning parts of their supply chains.

For example, structural separation might ban mobile platforms from making apps that compete with the offerings in their app stores; or ban Amazon from publishing books that compete with the books it sells.

But the tech giants claim this anticompetitive, sprawling vertical integration is "efficient" – the best way to run a company – nevermind this means that having your Amazon account suspended costs you your books, family photos, and business website.

However, as much as tech giants champion vertical integration, it's a highly selective, self-serving proposition. When it comes to parts of the business that are most profitable when workers are brutalized, traumatized, maimed or killed, the companies change their tune.

Somehow, Facebook can "efficiently" be a mobile platform, a cloud company, a social media company, a currency issuer, a VR company and more – but can't possibly find a way to efficiently perform its core function of content moderation in-house.

Surely it's a coincidence that the functions FB outsources are high-stakes, impossible-to-perform jobs performed by low-waged workers, and the fact that this lets the company scapegoat its subcontractors and their workers for moderation failures has nothing to do with it.

Teleperformance – and Arise, and other live-at-work companies with abused, atomized workforces – only exist because highly integrated giants have espoused the contradictory doctrine of owning their whole industry – and outsourcing the dirty work.

It's the heads-I-win/tails-you-lose core of monopoly capitalism. It's why Luddism is an important political critique today – the principle of paying as much attention to who machines do things for and to as much as what the machines do.

The reason for these exploitative arrangements isn't to be found in the source-code for these devices, but rather in their political economy: the distribution of power among the people who deploy them and the people who are forced to use them.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago AI researchers unveil a software robot that they claim can write news stories

#15yrsago Robot garage loses software license, strands parkers,71554-0.html

#15yrsago HOWTO photoshop a house into a haunted mansion

#15yrsago Canadian librarians decry “Captain Copyright”

#10yrsago Canadian scholars & public interest groups oppose Canada’s Internet spying law

#10yrsago Lev Grossman’s The Magician King

#5yrsago Proof-of-concept ransomware for smart thermostats demoed at Defcon

#5yrsago How racist traffic stops criminalize black people, and what to do about it

#5yrsago Chicago cops switched off bodycams and high-fived after shooting unarmed black teen

#5yrsago Return of Dieselgate: 3 more hidden programs found in VW Audi/Porsche firmware

#5yrsago Your medical data: misappropriated by health-tech companies, off-limits to you

#5yrsago Illegal “Warranty Void If Removed” still ubiquitous: they’re on the Xbox One S

#5yrsago Mysterious medical research consortium: we should own volunteers’ clinical trial data for 5 years

#1yrago Commercial real-estate's looming collapse

#1yrago Test-proctoring software worsens systemic bias

#1yrago Jailed for pen-testing

#1yrago Free the law

#1yrago Google bans anticompetitive vocabularies

#1yrago Peter Thiel was right

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Super Punch (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 261 words (13704 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Managing Aggregate Demand
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla