TV and radio appearances by Nation writers and editors, big Nation announcements.
Three cheers and a glass of fair trade, organic bubbly for Moshe Z. Marvit for winning the March Sidney Award for his Nation article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.” The Sidney is a monthly prize awarded by The Sidney Hillman Foundation to an “outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.” In recognizing Marvit’s work Sidney Award judge and investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein said, “Marvit casts a light on a previously obscure, but profoundly exploited class of workers.”
Crowdworkers are the vast, invisible labor force who toil in the hidden cracks of the Internet—the spaces where digital ingenuity fails and human skill steps in. Working through online brokerages like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower, these workers perform a range of monotonous “microtasks” (think brief surveys, tagging photos, identifying porn and other tasks a computer cannot do) for both large corporations, like Twitter, and random individuals who commission their labor. For this they are paid as little as $2 to $3 an hour, often less.
Among enthusiasts, crowdwork is often hailed as a kind of new labor ideal—a worker Xanadu where freedom, self-determination and flexibility reign. Yet most crowdwork, Marvit reveals, is little more than latter-day piecework draped in high-tech gloss. Working from home, crowd workers, who come from all over the world and are believed to number in the millions, enjoy little in the way of today’s labor protections: because they are classified as independent contractors, they do not qualify for basic employee protections; and because the technology is so new, and the system largely unmonitored, employers can engage in practices that are clearly not legal. The result, Marvit writes in his article: a vast and virtual free market that critics have called “the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed.”
Marvit, who is an attorney focusing on labor and economic law, first came across crowdworking in graduate school. As he tells Beyerstein in an interview published on the Hillman Foundation site, he learned of it from colleagues who were using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get survey answers. Curious, he began exploring. His research took him from the offices of Amazon, which brought Mechanical Turk online in 2005, to the eighteenth-century court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned the original Mechanical Turk, an automaton that audiences believed could play chess. It also took him into the worlds of actual workers, like Stephanie Costello, a full-time turker who has been known to stay up all night to try to find “good-paying” crowdwork. Her definition of good? One hundred and fifty dollars for sixty hours of work a week.
Yet, if the piece offers a devastating portrait of one of today’s more exploitative labor spheres, Marvit also sees it as a warning for potential dangers to come. As he tells Beyerstein, “Many conservatives have been pushing for greater deregulation of labor—such as lowering or eliminating the minimum wage, getting rid of child labor laws, dismantling protections for union organizing—and in Mechanical Turk we can see the world we’d be living in if such deregulation occurred.”
Or, to bring it home: in conservatives’ imagined deregulated dystopia, we are all Mechanical Turks.
(For Lindsay Beyerstein’s full Backstory interview with Moshe Marvit, check out the Hillman Foundation site, here. And for the full version of Marvit’s original article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine,” go here.)
This Sunday residents of Crimea will vote on whether or not to reunite with Russia. The de facto authorities in Kiev have called the impending referendum illegal, and the Obama administration says it will not recognize it. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel joined a panel on MSNBC to discuss the political situation in Ukraine, the disputed legitimacy of the upcoming referendum and the so-called “masculinity crisis” facing President Obama. A precondition to the emergence of a democratic and economically stable Ukraine, she says, is that we drop the Cold War framing and bluster. Rather, the US should promote a negotiated settlement that includes “fair and free elections, a promise not to expand NATO into Ukraine, and an agreement that Ukraine can be part of both the EU and the Russian customs union.”
The US and Russia have been locked in a rhetorical tennis match since President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region late last week. Calling for “some sober perspective” from politicians in all three countries, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on CNN’s Amanpour to discuss the recent upheaval in Ukraine. According to vanden Heuvel, reasoned diplomacy will be critical for securing the territorial integrity of Ukraine, stabilizing the country’s faltering economy, and organizing free and fair elections. For more of vanden Heuvel’s thoughts on what must be done in Ukraine, listen to her interview with Uprising Radio’s Sonali Kolhatkar.
As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, the Western media and political elites continue to debate the role that America should play. So what are America’s options? According to Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen, they are absolutely “zero, unless we want to go to war.” Appearing on PBS NewsHour with Hari Sreenivasan, Cohen insisted that Putin’s mission is to restore Russian security and greatness at home. Because of the economic, political and military realities on the ground in Ukraine, “Putin holds all the cards, for better or worse.” All eyes are now on Putin as the specter of civil war looms over an ethnically, linguistically and politically divided Ukraine.
Speaking on PBS NewsHour following President Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen urged the US to promote “a stable and united Ukraine, at peace with itself and not trapped in an either or proposition between Russia and Europe.” There’s a serious threat, Cohen warned, that Ukraine will split between two governments, one led by the EU-leaning protesters in Kiev and another headed by a Russia-leaning Yanukovych government in the country’s east. What’s more, the upheaval could stoke Putin’s fears that Western-allied forces might try to destabilize Russia, prompting the Russian president to crack down harder on dissenters within his own country.
When Obama first came to office, he signed an executive order that was intended to curtail the power of lobbyists in his administration. But the order didn’t actually make lobbying go away, it only sent it underground. Now, a deregistered, shadow lobby industry is booming, and money spent on lobbying in DC enjoys a 22,000% return on investment. The Nation’s Lee Fang joined The New York Times’s Nicholas Confessore on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner to discuss these trends and the revelations from Fang’s Nation feature Where Have All the Lobbyists Gone?
The fight for LGBT equality has experienced some stark highs and lows recently. Attorney General Eric Holder called LGBT rights one of the central civil rights fights of our time, even as Arizon's legislature passed a bill that allows businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBT community, using religious convictions as justification. Nation contributing writer Ari Berman appeared on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show to discuss how LGBT rights fit in to the larger civil rights struggle. According to Berman, the success of movements like North Carolina's Moral Mondays depends upon strong coalition-building. Berman attributed the strong turnout of a recent Moral Mondays rally to the fact that "so many different causes were represented." The groups behind those causes, which include LGBT, immigrant and traditional civil rights organizations, are "all fighting in a shared struggle."
The crisis in Ukraine came to a head this weekend with President Viktor Yanukovych’s hasty flight from Kiev. The western response to his departure now threatens to fracture the Ukrainian government into two regimes: one led by a democratically-elected president and one chosen by the “street.” Appearing on Electric Politics, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen situated the present conflict in Ukraine within the context of America’s foreign policy toward post–World War II Eastern Europe. He argues that western policymakers seem unaware of the possible consequences of their support for the Ukrainian dissidents. Pointing to a “new Cold War divide in Europe” as one possible outcome, Cohen warns that “our children and grandchildren will pay the price of this winner-take-all policy.”
Is lobbying going underground? Despite its official decline on paper, Nation Institute reporting fellow Lee Fang argues that the influence industry “is growing very quickly.” In an interview with Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan González, Fang spoke about his latest Nation feature “The Shadow Lobbying Complex,” drawing attention to an Obama executive order banning registered lobbyists. In effect, the order has catalyzed an underground, unregistered lobby industry. Fang also talked about Palantir, a Silicone Valley–based company backed by the CIA and venture capitalists, and the recent uptick in lobby money spent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Bangladesh.
The last three days have been the bloodiest in Ukraine’s twenty-two-year post-Soviet history. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen railed against the tepid response of Western leaders to this eruption of violence. Warning that the chaos in Ukraine could spark a civil war—or even “a new Cold War divide”—he chastised the United States and Germany for placing responsibility for solving this political crisis squarely in the hands of the Ukranian government. According to Cohen, President Obama and Chancellor Merkel’s implicit support for the anti-government protesters helps to “rationalize what the killers in the streets are doing. It gives them Western license.”
Editor’s note: The interview with Cohen starts at 11:40.