By Tim Matthews, October 1, 2013

Human Action in the Digital World: Interview with Nick Taylor – CrowdConf 2013 Featured Speaker


Taylor_Nick_Keynote In the month leading up to CrowdConf, we will be speaking with our presenters to get a glimpse of their background and motivations behind their talks. Nick Taylor is an award-winning author, most recently of American-Made. His talk at the conference is “If the WPA Were New: Human Action in the Digital World” – TM


CrowdFlower (CF): You will be speaking about the WPA at CrowdConf. How did you get interested in the WPA, and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Nick Taylor (NT): I wanted to do a big book, and the WPA had never been treated separately from histories of the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration. The more I learned about it, the more fascinated I became. It reshaped the country Americans, including me, grew up in after World War II. It literally touched every county in the country, but in the trauma of the war it had been forgotten. I wanted to tell its story, and fortunately there were still some WPA workers alive who could tell me their experiences and what they thought of the WPA.


The WPA peaked in the late 1930s. How is it still relevant today?

It’s relevant today because its example can still guide us. The use of public money to provide jobs is the subject of a lot of argument among economists and politicians, but it did bring down unemployment. More important, it did infrastructure work that was badly needed at the time, and we need that kind of work, in many of the same areas as well as new ones, today.


Can you think of an analog? Something the WPA underwrote that you could see people doing online?

The WPA was full of analogs. The poster project is a good example. Graphic artists were called on to create posters to advertise various government programs and services, encourage people to visit the national parks and other attractions, issue public health warnings, and later, to support the war through conservation, buying war bonds, and simple patriotism. Actually, the WPA Art Project itself was a good example of crowdsourcing — assume a broad call sent out asking for art to decorate the nation’s public buildings, and artists responding with murals, paintings, prints, sculpture, mosaics and more.

And I don’t think it stretches the point too much to suggest that even the infrastructure projects of the WPA itself could also be interpreted as crowdsourcing, at least if you consider citizens represented by state and local governments as the crowd. The WPA building projects didn’t come from the top down, but from the bottom up. The WPA announced that it had a pool of money to put people to work and that it would consider project applications. These came from governments at all levels according to their local needs — sidewalks, schools, hospitals, water and sewer plants, roads, parks, zoos, and so forth — and the WPA funded the ones with adequate plans. That was how the nation was rebuilt in the 1930s.


Not many people remember the WPA’s Mathematical Tables Project, but it was actually an early experiment in what researchers now call “human computing.”

The Mathematical Tables Project is another good example, in which clerks working under mathematicians and physicists worked through various complicated equations to compile tables of mathematical functions. They also did large computations that helped create the frameworks for LORAN navigation and radar and improved bombing accuracy. I don’t know much about math and I didn’t cover the Mathematical Tables Project in my WPA book, American-Made, but it had crowdsourcing parallels I did cover. One was the use of workers in the WPA Music Project to copy music scores, which expanded orchestra, university and library collections by tens of thousands of scores. Another was the Index of American Design, an Art Project initiative in which photographers and artists compiled pictures of decorative arts that were both a history of design and a resource for decorators.


You’ve written about a really wide range of topics, from fishing to lasers to the Mafia. How do you find your subjects?

I’ve been lucky to find stories I didn’t know anything about that showed people at their fascinating best and also in conflict. Bass fishing was in the process of growing into a big business, the Mafia story was really about two scholarship-bound high school football players who had to overcome their father’s past to realize their dreams, the laser story was about two scientists who fought for thirty years over who’s invention it was. I keep an open mind, ask a lot of questions, and try to find the human element.


What do you do when you are not writing?

When I’m not writing I do a lot of reading to look for new ideas. I sail and play tennis for fun, and my wife and I travel as much as we can.