When Big Ag Gobbles Up Small (Ethical) Ag

From Pacific Standard:

Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States, is a giant among giants in the agribusiness world. Recently, it purchased Natural Food Holdings, which owns Niman Ranch, a niche meat producer known for its comparatively impressive welfare and sustainability standards.

News of Niman’s acquisition was generally greeted with the big media equivalent of a shrug, but I think it warrants a stronger, more appropriate reaction: Panic.

Here Comes University Inc.

Fredrik De Boer:

Here at Purdue University, where I recently completed my Ph.D. in English, we have a little garden on the far west side of our enormous campus, where students and their families and professors and nearby residents tend to tomatoes and sunflowers. It’s one of my favorite places here. Overgrown and seemingly unmanaged, this western fringe of campus is perhaps the only place left at the university that is not meticulously landscaped and stage-managed for tour groups and the website. There’s nothing specific to Purdue in this aesthetic conformity. Over the past two decades, financial crises notwithstanding, the American university writ large has undergone a radical physical expansion and renovation, bringing more and more campuses into line with grand architectural visions. That’s precisely why I love the garden: It’s one of the last little wild places left at Purdue. Naturally, it’s slated for demolition.

The administration needs more room for our research park, an immensely impressive and utterly lifeless collection of buildings where few undergrads ever have reason to go. The first expansion will increase the research park by only about 160 acres, but the second phase will add several hundred, consuming far more than just the garden. (The university says it will rebuild the garden elsewhere.) The new construction will be devoted to aviation technology, at a school that could scarcely enjoy a better reputation in that field. Surely the work that goes on at the research park is valuable, but its ongoing expansion literalizes the way the entire campus is being made to look and feel exactly the same — no room left for the ungroomed, the weird or the wild.

This orderliness is just a secondary symptom of a more pernicious trend: the creeping corporatism of the American university. I don’t mean the literal corporations that are taking over more and more of the physical space of universities — the Starbucks outpost, the Barnes & Noble as campus bookstore, the Visa card that you use to buy meals at the dining hall. Enrolling at a university today means setting yourself up in a vast array of for-profit systems that each take a little slice along the way: student loans distributed on fee-laden A.T.M. cards, college theater tickets sold to you by Ticketmaster, ludicrously expensive athletic apparel brought to you by Nike. Students are presented with a dazzling array of advertisements and offers: glasses at the campus for-profit vision center, car insurance through some giant financial company, spring break through a package deal offered by some multinational. This explicit corporate invasion is not exactly what I mean.

The Real War on Families

Via In These Times:

Leigh Benrahou began laying plans to have a second child almost as soon as she had her first, a daughter named Johara, in 2011. Benrahou, 32, wanted to time the next birth so that when she returned to work, her mother, who works at an elementary school and has summers off, could babysit. Most importantly, Benrahou wanted to spend as much time as she could with her new baby while also keeping her relatively new job as the registrar at a small college.

While her husband, Rachid, 38, earns enough at a carpet cleaning company to cover their mortgage and food, without her paycheck they’d be forced to live close to the bone. And if she quit her job, Benrahou, who has a masters in nonprofit management, would take a big step backward in what she hoped would be a long career in higher education.

So Benrahou, who has wavy dark blond hair, blue eyes and a tendency to smile even through difficult moments, set about what may be the least romantic aspect of family planning in the United States: figuring out how to maximize time with a newborn while staying solvent, employed and, ideally, sane.

Loving the Grind

From Jacobin:

The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.

In this world, legendary figures are the ones who remain in the office for one hundred hours straight, working through their children’s musical recitals and 104-degree fevers. The idea is that workers become superhuman through the refusal of self-care.

This phenomenon isn’t merely depressing; it’s outright dangerous. In 2013, a twenty-one-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s London office died suddenly. He had been working until 6 AM for three consecutive days. In the summer of 2014, a long-haul truck driver overturned his vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike,severely injuring comedian Tracey Morgan and killing a companion of Morgan’s. The truck driver had not slept in more than twenty-four hours.

Amazon and the Digital Panopticon

From Jacobin:

The company has long been aggressive in its pursuit of alternative delivery strategies for its products, including perhaps most infamously its proposed use of delivery drones. In June, Amazon announced that it may incentivize people to deliver packages to their neighbors, whose schedules make face-to-face delivery with mail carriers difficult. There’s nothing wrong with some neighborly assistance, but, like Uber in its early days, Amazon is proposing to pay people for an activity that is typically thought of as an ordinary part of community life.

Most people are happy to take care of packages for their neighbors once in a while, and don’t feel the need to be paid for these things or even necessarily want to be paid for them. But it’s not a stretch to imagine capitalizing on this willingness by transforming people into entrepreneurial mini-distribution hubs, and depriving us of one of the few remaining opportunities for serendipitous, selfless interaction.

Another of the company’s recent innovations, Echo the “personal assistant” (also known as “Alexa,” the name given to the Siri-like voice that responds to user queries), raises similar concerns. Echo is an always-on listening device consumers willingly place in central areas of their homes. By saying the name “Alexa” (or “Amazon”), users activate the device, which is then capable of executing any number of tasks related to Amazon’s business, information generally available on the internet, or a limited range of media devices connected to the user’s home network.

Alexa will answer the kinds of questions whose answers might be found on Wikipedia (“Alexa, what is the capital of North Dakota?”), can play music, can manage devices to which it has access, and most importantly, of course, can initiate product purchases on Amazon itself.

In order to do any of these things, Echo must be listening all the time, to everything that goes on in its environment, waiting for the keyword to tell it to take an action. That means it isn’t just listening to and processing things users say after the keyword — it is always listening, always processing. Amazon has been evasive, at best, about whether or not it is collecting and analyzing that data and what it is doing with it.

The New Servant Class

From Vice:

It was seven o’clock on a cold January evening when Orhan, a taxi driver for Uber, first realized he had a problem. Well into his second shift of the day, he tried logging on to the mobile app that connects him with his customers but found himself shut out and staring blankly at the words “network error.”

Just an hour earlier he’d been on Twitter arguing with disgruntled Black Cab driverswho he says were racially abusing him. One of the “trolls”—upset at Orhan’s choice of language—had reported the exchange to Uber, and Orhan had been blocked from accessing the system.

Parked up in his gray Toyota Prius in the suburbs of North East London, a text came through from the company asking him to come in the following morning to “discuss the account.” He arrived on time, if a little nervous, expecting to have his case heard and quickly get back onto the system. Two minutes later he left the office without a job. In the cold, dystopian language of cyberspace capitalism, he’d been “deactivated.” And there was nothing he could do to contest it.

The Sharing Economy and the New Servant Class

From Vice:

It was seven o’clock on a cold January evening when Orhan, a taxi driver for Uber, first realized he had a problem. Well into his second shift of the day, he tried logging on to the mobile app that connects him with his customers but found himself shut out and staring blankly at the words “network error.”

Just an hour earlier he’d been on Twitter arguing with disgruntled Black Cab driverswho he says were racially abusing him. One of the “trolls”—upset at Orhan’s choice of language—had reported the exchange to Uber, and Orhan had been blocked from accessing the system.

Parked up in his gray Toyota Prius in the suburbs of North East London, a text came through from the company asking him to come in the following morning to “discuss the account.” He arrived on time, if a little nervous, expecting to have his case heard and quickly get back onto the system. Two minutes later he left the office without a job. In the cold, dystopian language of cyberspace capitalism, he’d been “deactivated.” And there was nothing he could do to contest it.

Amazon Paying Authors’ Per Page Read

From the Verge:

Amazon is introducing a new system that completely upends the way authors and publishers make money from their books. Starting next month, the company will pay authors based on the number of pages people read from their books — not the number of copies sold.

Of course, the change is limited in scope — at least for now. The new system adjusts how authors receive royalties for books listed on the Amazon Lending Library (included for free for every Prime customer) or Kindle Unlimited, both of which use a subscription model. Specifically, the rules apply to authors enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select program, which provides an easy outlet for authors to self-publish their books. It’s not clear how or if the new system will apply to books from major publishers that are included in the Lending Library catalog.

The End of the Employee

Via TechCrunch:

Contract work is becoming the new normal. Consider Uber: The ride-sharing startup has 160,000 contractors, but just 2,000 employees. That’s an astonishing ratio of 80 to 1. And when it comes to a focus on contract labor, Uber isn’t alone. Handy, Eaze and Luxeare just a few of the latest entrants into the “1099 Economy.”

Though they get the most attention, it’s not just on-demand companies that employ significant contract workforces. Microsoft has nearly two-thirds as many contractors as full-time employees. Even the simplest business structures, sole proprietorships, have increased their use of contract workers nearly two-fold since 2003.

Four trends are converging to make contracting more attractive for both employers and workers, and reshaping how businesses and employees look at the traditional full-time model.

No one works 80 hours per week.

From Pacific Standard:

“Genius,” goes the oft-quoted Thomas Edison maxim, “is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” But in some modern American workplaces, the doctrine of hard work has been supplanted by a different mantra: Fake it until you make it.

That’s the conclusion of new research published in Organization Science, which suggests that, despite the fact that we’ve enshrined workaholism as a proxy for success in American culture, many of those co-workers who pride themselves on 80-hour work weeks are probably full of it.