An artists’ rendering of a possible future Amazon HQ2 in Chicago. Image from the Chicago Tribune.

The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani asked a really good question earlier today: Why Don’t the 20 Cities on Amazon’s HQ2 Shortlist Collectively Bargain Instead of Collectively Beg? Amazon is looking for a place to put its second headquarters and cities have fallen over each other to provide some startlingly desperate concessions to lure the tech giant. Some of the concessions, like Chicago’s offer to essentially engage in wage theft by taking all the income tax collected from employees and hand it back to Amazon, make it unclear what these cities actually gain by hosting the company. The reason that city mayors will never collectively bargain on behalf of their citizens is two fold: 1) America lacks an inter-city governance mechanism that prevents cities from being blackballed by corporate capital and 2) most big city mayors are corrupt as hell and don’t care about you.

In 1987 urban sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch put forward the “Growth Machine” theory to explain why cities do not collectively bargain and instead compete with one-another in a race-to-the-bottom to see which city can concede the most taxes for the least gain. The theory is rather straightforward: cities may have one or two inherent competitive advantages that no other city has, but beyond that you can only offer tax breaks. Maybe you’ve got a deep water port that big container ships can use, or you’re situated at the only pass in a mountain range. Other than that, location is completely fungible. All that’s left is tax policy and land grants. more...

"Most Downloaded Woman" (ft. Danni Ashe) by Faith Holland
“Most Downloaded Woman” (ft. Danni Ashe)
Art used with permission of Faith Holland*

Over the course of the past few weeks, two major US corporations—Chase Bank and Amazon—have each undertaken campaigns apparently aimed at expelling sex workers from the financial system, despite the fact that this work is completely legal and the compensation is above board.

Social media has be buzzing with reports from porn performers of vaguely worded letters from Chase stating “we recently reviewed your account and determined that we will be closing it.” At the Cybogology-sponsored Theorizing the Web conference, porn performer Stoya described her experience: “I’ve personally had issues with Chase, which is why I was giggling, because they shut down my business account but then didn’t understand why I wanted to close my personal account.” While Chase and other financial institutions (e.g., Paypal, Square, WePay, City National Bank, and J.P. Morgan) have long engaged in ad hoc discrimination against sex workers, Chase’s recent actions are unprecedented in that they appear to indicate a systematic effort to uncover and blacklist anyone involved in sex work. more...

Photo by 'lance robotson'
Photo by ‘lance robotson

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran yet another hilariously digital dualist piece on a new surveillance system that lets retailers follow customers’ every move. The systems, mainly through cameras tied into motion capture software, can detect how long you stared at a pair of jeans, or even the grossed-out face you made at this year’s crop of creepy, hyper-sexualized Halloween costumes. The New York Times describes this as an attempt by brick and mortar stores to compete with data-wealthy “e-commerce sites.” (Who says “e-commerce” anymore? Seriously, change your style guide.) Putting aside the fact that most major retailers are also major online retailers, making the implicit distinction in the article almost meaningless, the article completely misses the most important (and disturbing) part of the story: our built environment will be tuned to never-before-seen degrees of precision. We have absolutely no idea what such meticulously built spaces will do to our psyches. more...

Not long after the release of Google’s widely discussed and hotly contested privacy policy, which shares user data across its websites, the company is now offering to compensate customers for the data that they provide. Closely resembling the television tracking techniques used by  Nielsen, Google offers users who participate in the screenwise program up to $25 in Amazon gift cards for allowing Google to monitor their online activities. Users can even opt to be more extensively surveilled and earn up to $100.  While some (in particular, those in the comments section of the article linked above) view this as a cheap payoff for strong privacy violations, others are happy to receive monetary compensation for engaging in everyday leisure activities. This latter group is evidenced by a temporary hold on signups for the new program due to overwhelming interest.

Debates will likely ensue over the cost of privacy, the blurry line between labor and leisure, and the degree to which surveillance can—or should—be resisted.

[Editor’s comment: while this is only a small test, might we envision a model where users are paid for their data? Would it work? What are the implications? ~nathan]

[Edit 09/07/11 @ 5:03PM EST]  It has been mentioned in the comments, and elsewhere, that while the Postal Service is facing a solvency problem, that problem is the direct result of Republican-led legislation that burdens them with excessive overhead. I completely agree with this sentiment. The 109th Congress, passed the “The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” in 2006, which you can read in full here. The law requires that the USPS  pre-fund 75 years-worth of pensions, and prohibits them from selling  goods that are not directly used for sending letters and packages. I suggest you read more about this legislation here and here. I encourage all of you do to your own research and post what you find in the comments.]

galveston federal building

Photo Credit: Wikipedia – The Galveston Federal Building, built in 1937, is a multi-purpose building with many different government agencies. Don’t bleed the Post Office dry, make it a 21st Century Civic Center

Reading the news lately, makes it seem as though the Post Office is giving its final economic death rattle. Post Master General Patrick Donahoe spoke at a Senate hearing yesterday, and according to the Christian Science Monitor:

Donahoe reiterated a list of cost-cutting measures he has been proposing in recent months to erase the agency’s deficit, which could reach up to $10 billion this fiscal year. They include eliminating Saturday mail delivery, closing as many as 3,700 postal locations, and laying off 120,000 workers – nearly one-fifth of the agency’s work force. (This doesn’t include another 100,000 jobs lost to attrition that the agency does not plan to replace, for a total of 220,000 lost positions.)

These  are  disgraceful solutions to what could be considered an exciting opportunity to innovate. The Internet is being blamed for many of the Post Office’s problems, and it is safe to say that email has put a significant dent in their revenues. But revenues are only half the story. Expenditures are equally important. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck in their book Suburban Nation relay a conversation with a former (unnamed) Postmaster General who explained that most of our postage goes to the gas for the trucks and vans that carry mail to the suburban fringes of municipalities. Indeed, the USPS has the largest civilian truck fleet in the world. In an era of austerity, we need to look for ways to reduce spending while maintaining affordable services. I just think we need to spend less money on machines, and more on people. The internet can help us do this.


Since 2007, the US federal minimum wage has been set at $7.15 an hour, yet workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—many of whom live in the US—make an average of $2 (according to the estimates of Mechanical Turk researcher Alex Quinn).  As illustrated in the above image, Amazon, itself, encourages businesses (at least implicitly) to pay workers (or “turkers” as they are called) less-than-minimum wages.  Moreover, to even qualify for these low-paying tasks called HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), turkers are often expected to complete unpaid training sessions that can last for up to an hour.  Also, because turkers receive micro-payments for each task and because the time to completion for each task is rationalized to the second, turkers receive no pay during normal periods of rest during the workday.

Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing platform that allow anyone to recruit laborers for short online tasks, which cannot be effectively completed by computers.  For examples, turkers might compile contact information for various businesses, sort through images and tag offensive ones, or participate in university research experiments.  Because of the piecemeal and spatially-disembedded nature of the work, it is virtually unregulated.

Can we simply dismiss this subversion of labor laws—as some commentators have—on the grounds that “$2 an hour is a decent wage in India?”  Even if we are angered by this exploitation of turkers, is it even possible to regulate an international platform of this sort?