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Mindful Cyborgs: The End of the Firm as We Know It

In the latest episode of Mindful Cyborgs Chris Dancy and I journeyed to the belly of the beast at Defrag and interviewed investor Chris DeVore from Founders Co-Op on “industrial entropy”:

KF: Yeah, one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is that in the 80s there was dystopian sci-fi people would talk about the mega corporation and you would see these big conglomerates but now what seems to actually be taking over or becoming more prevalent or mega networks . . . so, Y Combinator is one example though. Maybe the founders [00:04:06] would be as well but Paul Graham has explicitly said that part of the point of Y Combinator is to be a distributed peer to peer replacement for the traditional company to give the members of it the benefits of being part of a large company without having to be part of the structure of a large company. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you think that’s actually happening?

CDV: I definitely do and I think this is where the pattern that I think is interesting and there’s a dark [00:04:31] that we’ll get to in a minute is, when everyone is responsible for their own career pathing, like no man is an island, right? We all need different mixes of skills and abilities and kind of promotional states to build an organization that’s capable of things that more than one human can do but this idea of going from hierarchies of organizations with organization design and managers and leadership into networks where you essentially have these flat as Paul says peer-to-peer networks of people that they collaborate in more dynamically as they come together around a project and then they disassembled and reassembled different products. I think that’s fundamentally true about the nature of work today.

Even an enterprise work you might have a project manager but they’re going to hire this sort of coalition of vendors to come together to build a software or to ship certain kind of product and then when that’s over and they then ships over they’re going to disassemble and they’re going to reassemble very organically and I think it’s again very empowering for people who have the skills and ability to navigate and set their own career path and build their own digital identity and kind of how work come to them and be called in to these dynamic networks.

The thing that I worry about is from a skilling standpoint who’s being left behind, who doesn’t have the ability to surf on this very organic dynamic networked economy and how do you make that economy as open or as porous as it can be so that people who are coming out of school right now it used to be they go to a career fair and they get a job. If those jobs don’t exist, what does exist and what are the gateways and points of access for people into the network at this point?

Download and Full Transcript: Mindful Cyborgs: Episode 15 – Industrial Entropy and the Turks! The Turks! The Mechanical Turks!

Amazon’s Drone Delivery Hoax Distracts from Working Conditions at Amazon Warehouses

James Ball writes that although Amazon’s drone plan is unlikely to happen, it did manage to minimize criticism of Amazon’s corporate practices during cybermonday:

Bezos’ neat trick has knocked several real stories about Amazon out of the way. Last week’s Panorama investigation into Amazon’s working and hiring practices, suggesting that the site’s employees had an increased risk of mental illness, is the latest in a long line of pieces about the company’s working conditions – zero-hour contracts, short breaks, and employees’ every move tracked by internal systems. Amazon’s drone debacle also moved discussion of its tax bill – another long-running controversy, sparked by the Guardian’s revelation last year that the company had UK sales of £7bn but paid no UK corporation tax – to the margins. The technology giants – Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al – have have huge direct reach to audiences and customers, the money to hire swarms of PR and communications staff, and a technology press overwhelmingly happy to incredulously print almost every word, rather than to engage in the much harder task of actually holding them to account.

Full Story: The Guardian: Amazon to deliver by drone? Don’t believe the hype

A bit more about why this won’t work from Wired

Mindful Cyborgs: Power and Privilege in the New Working Order

This week Chris Dancy and I talked to Shanley, a tech product manager and feminist in the Bay Area, about sexism and micro-aggression in the work place.

KF: How can people be more aware of what’s going on there? I mean, one of the things I was wondering about when I read it is how often managers are really intentionally doing this because I imagine there’s some element of desire to be the boss and express power in those ways but I’m guessing actually that there’s a fair amount that’s completely subconscious and that if managers were more aware of they actually would perhaps not do these things.

First of all, do you agree that some of it is unintentional and secondly like how can people become more aware of this stuff?

CD: One of the things I heard Shanley you say was when I become or when we become managers the things we observe so I think to Klint’s question is some of this just kind of picked up like lint on your mind because you’ve watched people manage?

SK: Yes absolutely. I think we tend to emulate what we see around us, we tend to try to emulate and live up to the mythologies around us. I think that most this type of behavior is not conscious at all. No one is sitting there thinking how can I make my team feel bad, how can I make them feel inferior, how can I make them feel less than … but there’s something amazing about that realization because it starts with this realization that like managers have a profound impact on the lives and experiences of their teams.

We know this is true because when you ask people about bad managers that they’ve had you see the tremendous negative impact that managers can have and not just affecting you as an individual but ask someone’s partner, their friends about the bad managers they’ve had and they’ll give you an earful too. And then you talk with managers and they have this really strong desire to really help their team but there’s a disconnect going on there. When you can sort of star in this shared position of being like okay, like this is a really powerful space, the space of interaction is really powerful. It’s something that sometimes goes horribly wrong but no one wants it to you and how can we sort of start from that position of like good intention but more awareness and honesty.

As always, you can find it on Soundcloud, iTunes or Stitcher, or download it directly.

Show notes and transcript are here.

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The Alt-Labor Movement: Low-wage workers fight to make bad jobs better

Nicole Aschoff on the “Alt-Labor” movement, such as the Walmart and fast food strikes:

University of Colorado-Denver management professor Wayne Cascio has shown, through a comparison of Walmart/Sam’s Club and Costco, that low wages are not necessary for high profits and productivity. Costco employees average roughly $35, 000 per year ($17 per hour), while Sam’s Club workers average roughly $21, 000 per year ($10 per hour) and Walmart workers earn an average of less than $9 an hour. Costco also provides it workers predictable, full-time work and health benefits. However, contrary to popular assumptions, Costco actually scores higher in relative financial and operating performance than Walmart. Its stores are more profitable and more productive, and its customers and employees are happier.

Costco is not exceptional. Zeynep Ton, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has studied retail operations for a decade and argues that “the presumed trade-off between investment in employees and low prices can be broken.” “High-road” employers like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and the Container Store have all found ways to make high profits and provide decent jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin’s research shows that a modest wage increase—bumping up the average annual salary of Walmart or Target workers to $25,000—would barely make a dent in big retailers’ bottom line, costing them the equivalent of about 1% of total sales. Even if a company like Walmart passed on half the cost of the increase to customers, the average customer would pay roughly $17 more per year, or about 15 cents per shopping visit. And, considering most low-wage workers spend nearly their entire paycheck on necessities, the industry would see a boost in sales ($4 billion to $5 billion more per year) to its own workers. Fast-food companies are highly profitable. McDonald’s alone saw profits more than double between 2007 and 2011. They could easily send some of these profits downstream to franchise owners and workers.

So why do most big retailers and fast-food chains insist on a bad-jobs or “low road” model? There are a few reasons. MIT’s Ton argues that labor costs are a large, controllable expense, and retailers generally view them as a “cost-driver” rather than a “sales-driver.” Store-level managers are pressured by higher-ups to control labor costs as a percentage of weekly or monthly sales. And because store managers have no control over sales (or merchandise mix, store layout, prices, etc.) they respond to pressure from above by cutting employment or forcing workers to work off-the-clock when sales dip. Another factor is financialization—the increasing dominance of finance in the economy. Firms feel a lot of pressure from Wall Street to be a Walmart and not a Costco. As Gerald Davis has argued, the rise of finance and the dominance of “shareholder value” rhetoric have resulted in an emphasis on short-term profits that register in increased share prices and big CEO bonuses.

Full Story: Dollars and Sense: Low-wage workers fight to make bad jobs better.

(via Metafilter)

This is encouraging, but the possibility of fast food companies switching to “less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices” is not an idle threat. I’ve seen something like this setup in the food court at the JFK airport. But as I wrote earlier, cultural issues could stop this from becoming widespread — it’s not clear that customers will settle for robots and touch screens over human beings. But I sure wouldn’t rule it out.

Report: 47% of U.S. Jobs At Risk of Being Automated Out of Existence

You’ve probably already seen news stories floating around a couple weeks ago about how 47% of jobs are in danger of being automated. The stories are based on a report that looked at 702 different occupations and ranked them based on how likely they are to be automatable based on advances in machine learning, machine vision and robotics. I took a look through the report and thought I’d share some thoughts.

Caveats Methodology aside, the report only predicts that probability that a job could, eventually, be automated, not that it will be automated. More on that later, but for one thing it means they can’t predict how long it will take for a particular job to be displaced (they suggest it will take a decade or two, and the most automatable jobs will go first), or what percentage of people in a field will be replaced. Also, they don’t talk much about economics of replacement — whether it might be cheaper to pay humans than to buy and maintain robots for some positions. One thing I’m not sure about is whether the 47% is meant to apply to the total number of job types (if so, I’m not sure what the cut-off point is) or if it means 47% of all currently employed people are at risk of being replaced (which I think is what they actually mean).

Automation Winners and Losers According to the report the safest jobs, predictably, are in engineering, health care and creative work. Managers and supervisors are also pretty safe. Journalists are relatively safe, but my old profession — computer support — is in danger. The hardest hit will be the working class. Even skilled workers like plumbers, welders, machinists and truck drivers — the sorts of skilled workers there are reportedly shortages of — are in danger (electricians, however, are relatively safe).

Other Potential Losers It doesn’t address other supply and demand issues. For example, there are more law school graduates now than ever, so although most legal work can’t be automated, it doesn’t make law a “safe” profession. It also doesn’t address the effects of some portion of work becoming automated, thus reducing the number of people needed. To use law as an example again, software tools make the discovery process easier, reducing the number of lawyers and paralegals required to do that task. In journalism, some types of reporting have already been successfully automated. I’ve argued before that most types of writing and reporting will still need to be done by humans, but more sophisticated tools could reduce the total number of journalists required to run a profitable publication. Many types of professionals, including engineers and doctors — could be vulnerable to such disruption as well.

Social and Cultural Factors It also doesn’t address social or political trends that might protect some workers. It’s my understanding — though I could be wrong — that freight trains could operate with far fewer human workers than they do, but the union keeps humans in many roles. Likewise, unions or professional organizations could protect some careers, like taxi drivers and truckers, by pushing for legislation that requires a human operator ride along with self-driving vehicles “just in case.” Some workers, like food servers, bartenders and black jack dealers, may be preserved by cultural norms.

Doom But even if only half the jobs they believe are likely to be automatable are actually automated, that’s still about 23.5% of all types of jobs. That means things will get worse for everyone as A) more people will be competing for the jobs that are left and B) unemployed people will spend less money, reducing the demand for the products and services provided by the non-automated professions. And while the industrial revolution created many new types of jobs to help replace those displaced by machinery, there’s no guarantee that will happen again. Even if it does, it could take years for enough new jobs to emerge to replace the old ones.

Zero Hours: Precariat Design Fiction

Tim Maughan uses design fiction to sketch a vision of our precarious future:

Nicki is awake even before her mum calls her from the other side of the door. She’s sat up in bed, crackly FM radio ebbing from tiny supermarket grade speakers, her fingers flicking across her charity shop grade tablet’s touchscreen. She’s close to shutting down two auctions when a third pushes itself across her screen with it’s familiar white and green branded arrogance. Starbucks. Oxford Circus. 4 hour shift from 1415.

She sighs, dismisses it. She’s not even sure why she still keeps that notification running. Starbucks, the holy fucking grail. But she can’t go there, can’t even try, without that elusive Barista badge.

Which is why she’s been betting like mad on this Pret a Manger auction, dropping her hourly down to near pointless levels. It says it’s in back of house food prep, but she’s seen the forum stories, the other z-contractors who always say take any job where they serve coffee, just in case. That’s how I did it, they say, forced my way in, all bright faces and make up and flirting and ‘this coffee machine looks AMAZING how does it work?’ and then pow, Barista badge.

Full Story: Medium: Zero Hours

Bram E. Gieben’s “Search Engine” is sort of a journalist/blogger’s version of this scenario.

See also:

Homeless, Unemployed, and Surviving on Bitcoins

Willing to Work But Too Tired to Hussle

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman Talks About the Precariat

Willing to Work, But Too Tired to Hustle

willing-to-work

Community college teacher Nicole Matos writes:

There’s vanishingly little excitement, to tell you the truth. There’s just explicitly, and I don’t think entirely naively, the longing for a job where you do one thing, easily described, for a long term, and get predictably and sufficiently paid for what you do.

My students don’t want to be Astronauts. They want to be, sort of, Post Office clerks—with a 9-5 and a pension plan.

And, in that case, I don’t know how to break it to them. I don’t know how to sell the alternative—the more realistic future of work, that sort of chance, the chanciest chance I’ve ever sold.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the competitive capacity of my students; if anything, they seem more experienced in cutthroat competition than ever before. What is exhausted—just worn and jaded, from constant use, and such challenging odds of reward—is their inner reserves. Their belief that hustle can actually, well, work. And their trust that a hustle-world—a world of contingent, not permanent, labor; of setting your own path, not following the path of a established bureaucracy; and of preparing, always preparing, not for the present, but for the as-yet-unimagined-job-that’s-next—will be a good one, an equitable one, a world they’ll want to join. Or that will include a place for them, even if they do.

Full Story: Medium: Too Tired to Hustle

Sounds like precariat burnout to me.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman Talks About the Precariat

Zygmunt Bauman interviewed on the subject of the “precariat”:

The notion of precariat seems quite general and vague to many people. Who are therefore the precarians?

The “general” and “vague” character of the notion of precariat bothers people accustomed to the division of society into “classes” and, in particular, to the phenomenon of “proletariat” or its idea, which the concept of “precariat” should, in my conviction (but not only mine), replace in the analysis of social divisions. In comparison to its successor, proletariat appears indeed almost as an emblem of the “specific” and “concrete”…

How easy it was, when compared to precariat, to determine its content and limits… But the fluidity of composition is one of the features defining the phenomenon of precarity; one cannot get rid of that fluidity without making the notion of “precariat” analytically useless. [...]

What issues do, in your opinion, differentiate precariat most distinctly from proletariat? To what extent can one connect the two notions? And finally: is precariat a social class?

Well, I have serious doubts about that. I would prefer to call precariat a social category. The mere similarity of situation is not enough to transform an aggregate of individuals bearing similar characteristics into a “class” – that is, into an integrated group willing to pursue common interests as well as proceeding to integrate and coordinate actions stemming from that will. If workplaces of the times of “solid modernity” were, irrespective of the kind of products manufactured, also the factories of social solidarity, liquid-modern workplaces are, irrespective of their business objectives, the producers of mutual suspicion and competitiveness.

Full Story: r-evolutions: Far Away from Solid Modernity (PDF)

(via [m])

See Also:

The Precariat – The new dangerous class

Temp Worker Nation: If You Do Get Hired, It Might Not Be for Long

Time Wars

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Bull shit jobs

David Graeber writes:

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

Full Story: Strike! Magazine: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

See also: Time Wars

Mindful Cyborgs: Robotic Emoting Baristas from Enterprise Precariat

Mindful Cyborg

This week on Mindful Cyborgs Chris Dancy and I discuss the rise of the “precariat” and what it means for the future of work:

One thing that’s really been on my mind with regards the Marketplace story about the BART transit strike and the tech industries’ response to that. There was a quote from the CEO of UserVoice, Richard White, and he said, “One of the guys in our team said he’d be putting in his two weeks’ notice once he found out what he could make working for BART.” White said jokingly. His solution to address those disgruntled BART workers, get them back to work, pay them whatever they want and then figure out how to automate their jobs so that this doesn’t happen again.

People have been talking about the automation of work and how technology is potentially displacing workers and there’s a good book on this called Race Against the Machine by some MIT academics. But you don’t really see a lot of tech CEOs who are openly calling for blue-collar workers, or any workers, to be replaced by technology. Forrester even did a report a couple years ago suggesting that tech company’s downplay the potential of technologies to replace workers. So, it’s really unusual to see the CEO of a tech company just openly saying, “I want these meddling workers to be replaced by machines. So the inconvenience that it causes me has diminished.”

It was a pretty surprising thing to see somebody really just come right out and say and there’s this subtext to it that really bothers me as well, the bit about, “Oh, you know, one of my workers was going to quit and go work for BART,” just suggesting that they already get paid too much even though as noted in the article they’re not actually making what their family needs to get by in the area. The BART workers aren’t. There is this sort of subtext like anybody who’s not part of the tech industry doesn’t deserve to get paid a living wage. That was really disturbing to me.

You can download the episode on Soundcloud, from iTunes or download the MP3 directly.

More notes, plus the full transcript inside.

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