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Lilly Irani: Claiming Democracy Over Digital Infrastructures


This Webinar is free and open to the public.

Zoom link:
Meeting ID: 916 4862 3329
Passcode: misc2021



Claiming Democracy Over Digital Infrastructures


Lilly Irani, University of California, San Diego


We work and live through layers of infrastructure designed and installed by companies and public agencies, often out of sight and seemingly beyond our grasp. Design justice asks us to pay attention to how these infrastructure express the assumptions of the powerful and guides us to design with directly affected communities. In this talk, I will argue that we need to go a step further to address the problem of political agency over digital infrastructures. By political agency, I mean the capacity of agents to create effects through direct and institutional action. I will motivate and elaborate this argument with two case studies: a struggle to shape public-private smart cities infrastructure in San Diego, as well as struggles to transform platform work conditions for Amazon Mechanical Turk workers.


Lilly Irani is an Associate Professor of Communication & Science Studies at University of California, San Diego. She also serves as faculty in the Design Lab, Institute for Practical Ethics, the program in Critical Gender Studies, and sits on the Academic Advisory Board of AI Now (NYU). She is author of Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton University Press, 2019). Chasing Innovation has been awarded the 2020 International Communication Association Outstanding Book Award and the 2019 Diana Forsythe Prize for feminist anthropological research on work, science, or technology, including biomedicine. Her research examines the cultural politics of high-tech work and the counter-practices they generate, as both an ethnographer, a designer, and a former technology worker. She is a co-founder and maintainer of digital labor activism tool Turkopticon. Her work has appeared at ACM SIGCHI, New Media & Society, Science, Technology & Human Values, South Atlantic Quarterly, and other venues. She sits on the Editorial Committee of Public Culture and on the Editorial Advisory Boards of New Technology, Work, and Employment and Design and Culture. She has a Ph.D. in Informatics from University of California, Irvine.


This event is co-sponsored by Michigan Interactive & Social Computing (MISC).


Gig Workers Won’t Take the Beer

by Christian Sandvig

I keep beer at home for guests. No one at my house likes beer. As the mandatory stay-home order stretched out, it seemed pointless to save it. Doesn’t beer go bad?

We were getting all of our groceries delivered. I tend to overthink things, so I worried about the decision. Was I taking delivery slots away from the immuno-compromised? The elderly? Was I putting low-wage grocery-delivering gig workers in more danger so that I could be safe? 

After reading a philosopher’s answer in a newspaper column I decided grocery delivery was the right thing to do for everyone’s safety. I decided I wouldn’t cross any picket lines and I would try to favor the gig platforms that were good to their workers.

But there weren’t any gig platforms that were good to their workers, according to everything I found online. I eventually found local farmers and co-ops that would deliver some groceries and meats but I still needed other things from regular grocery stores. 

I figured, “I’ll go ahead and use the big platforms, but I’d be sure to tip extremely generously.” And: “Why don’t I also give them the beer?” 

I left the beer out with a note but the driver didn’t touch it. Next time, I tried a different, more obvious location. Nothing. Did they think it was a trap? Was there a policy against it? I wasn’t encouraging them to drink and drive — they could take the beer home. I didn’t put a bottle-opener next to it or anything. I don’t have cameras on my porch.

I wrote a longer note explaining that we didn’t drink beer. It didn’t work. Then I started texting the drivers just before they arrived. They would answer all of my texts about item substitutions and delivery directions but the texts about the beer didn’t get a response. No one will take the beer. I’m not sure what this means.

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