Tag: future

Problems with the present and future of work are of our own making

This is a long essay in which the RSA announces that, along with its partners (one of which, inevitably, is Google) it’s launching the Future Work Centre. I’ve only selected quotations from the first section here.

From autonomous vehicles to cancer-detecting algorithms, and from picking and packing machines to robo-advisory tools used in financial services, every corner of the economy has begun to feel the heat of a new machine age. The RSA uses the term ‘radical technologies’ to describe these innovations, which stretch from the shiny and much talked about, including artificial intelligence and robotics, to the prosaic but equally consequential, such as smartphones and digital platforms.

I highly recommend reading Adam Greenfield’s book Radical Technologies: the design of everyday life, if you haven’t already. Greenfield isn’t beholden to corporate partners, and lets rip.

What is certain is that the world of work will evolve as a direct consequence of the invention and adoption of radical technologies — and in more ways than we might imagine. Alongside eliminating and creating jobs, these innovations will alter how workers are recruited, monitored, organised and paid. Companies like HireVue (video interviewing), Percolata (schedule setting) and Veriato (performance monitoring) are eager to reinvent all aspects of the workplace.

Indeed, and a lot of what’s going on is compliance and surveillance of workers smuggled in through the back door while people focus on ‘innovation’.

The main problems outlined with the current economy which is being ‘disrupted’ by technology are:

  1. Declining wages (in real terms)
  2. Economic insecurity (gig economy, etc.)
  3. Working conditions
  4. Bullshit jobs
  5. Work-life balance

Taken together, these findings paint a picture of a dysfunctional labour market — a world of work that offers little in the way of material security, let alone satisfaction. But that may be going too far. Overall, most workers enjoy what they do and relish the careers they have established. The British Social Attitudes survey found that twice as many people in 2015 as in 1989 strongly agreed they would enjoy having a job even if their financial circumstances did not require it.

The problem is not with work per se but rather with how it is orchestrated in the modern economy, and how rewards are meted out. As a society we have a vision of what work could and should look like — well paid, protective, meaningful, engaging — but the reality too often falls short.

I doubt the RSA would ever say it without huge caveats, but the problem is neoliberalism. It’s all very well looking to the past for examples of technological disruption, but that was qualitatively different from what’s going on now. Organisations can run on a skeleton staff and make obscene profits for a very few people.

I feel like warnings such as ‘the robots are coming’ and ‘be careful not to choose an easily-automated occupation!’ are a smokescreen for decisions that people are making about the kind of society they want to live in. It seems like that’s one where most of us (the ‘have nots’) are expendable, while the 0.01% (the ‘haves’) live in historically-unparalleled luxury.

In summary, the lives of workers will be shaped by more technologies than AI and robotics, and in more ways than through the loss of jobs.

Fears surrounding automaton should be taken seriously. Yet anxiety over job losses should not distract us from the subtler impacts of radical technologies, including on recruitment practices, employee monitoring and people’s work-life balance. Nor should we become so fixated on AI and robotics that we lose sight of the conventional technologies bringing about change in the present moment.

Exactly. Let’s fix 2018 before we start thinking about 2040, eh?

Source: The RSA

Bridging technologies

When you go deep enough into philosophy or religion one of the key insights is that everything is temporary. Success is temporary. Suffering is temporary. Your time on earth is temporary.

One way of thinking about this one a day-to-day basis is that everything is a bridge to something else. So that technology that I’ve been excited about since 2011? Yep, it’s a bridge (or perhaps a raft) to get to something else.

Benedict Evans, who works for the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, sends out a great, short newsletter every week to around 95,000 people. I’m one of them. In this week’s missive, he linked to a blog post he wrote about bridging technologies.

A bridge product says ‘of course x is the right way to do this, but the technology or market environment to deliver x is not available yet, or is too expensive, and so here is something that gives some of the same benefits but works now.’

As with anything, there are good and bad bridging technologies. At the time, it can be hard to spot the difference:

In hindsight, though, not just WAP but the entire feature-phone mobile internet prior to 2007, including i-mode, with cut-down pages and cut-down browsers and nav keys to scroll from link to link, was a bridge. The ‘right’ way was a real computer with a real operating system and the real internet. But we couldn’t build phones that could do that in 1999, even in Japan, and i-mode worked really well in Japan for a decade.

It’s all obvious in retrospect, as with the example of Firefox OS, which was developed at the same time I was at Mozilla:

[T]he problem with the Firefox phone project was that even if you liked the experience proposition – ‘almost as good as Android but works on much cheaper phones’ – the window of time before low-end Android phones closed the price gap was too short.

Usually, cheap things add more features until people just ‘make do’ with 80-90% of the full feature set. However, that’s not always the case:

Sometimes the ‘right’ way to do it just doesn’t exist yet, but often it does exist but is very expensive. So, the question is whether the ‘cheap, bad’ solution gets better faster than the ‘expensive, good’ solution gets cheap. In the broader tech industry (as described in the ‘disruption’ concept), generally the cheap product gets good. The way that the PC grew and killed specialized professional hardware vendors like Sun and SGi is a good example. However, in mobile it has tended to be the other way around – the expensive good product gets cheaper faster than the cheap bad product can get good.

Evans goes on to talk about autonomous vehicles, something that he’s heavily invested in (financially and intellectually) with his VC firm.

In the world of open source, however, it’s a slightly different process. Instead of thinking about the ‘runway’ of capital that you’ve got before you have to give up and go home, it’s about deciding when it no longer makes sense to maintain the project you’re working on. In some cases, the answer to that is ‘never’ which means that the project keeps going and going and going.

It can be good to have a forcing function to focus people’s minds. I’m thinking, for example, of Steve Jobs declaring war on Flash. The reasons he gives are disingenuous (accusing Adobe of not being ‘open’!) but the upshot of Apple declaring Flash as dead to them caused the entire industry to turn upside down. In effect, Flash was a ‘bridge’ to the full web on mobile devices.

Using the idea of technology ‘bridges’ in my own work can lead to some interesting conclusions. For example, the Project MoodleNet work that I’m beginning will ultimately be a bridge to something else for Moodle. Thinking about my own career, each step has been a bridge to something else; the most interesting bridges have been those where I haven’t been quite sure what was one the other side. Or, indeed, if there even was an other side…

Source: Benedict Evans

10 breakthrough technologies for 2018

I do like MIT’s Technology Review. It gives a glimpse of cool future uses of technology, while retaining a critical lens.

Every year since 2001 we’ve picked what we call the 10 Breakthrough Technologies. People often ask, what exactly do you mean by “breakthrough”? It’s a reasonable question—some of our picks haven’t yet reached widespread use, while others may be on the cusp of becoming commercially available. What we’re really looking for is a technology, or perhaps even a collection of technologies, that will have a profound effect on our lives.

Here’s the list of their ‘breakthrough technologies’ for 2018:

  1. 3D metal printing
  2. Artificial embryos
  3. Sensing city
  4. AI for everybody
  5. Dueling neural networks
  6. Babel-fish earbuds
  7. Zero-carbon natural gas
  8. Perfect online privacy
  9. Genetic fortune-telling
  10. Materials’ quantum leap

It’s a fascinating list, partly because of the names they’ve given (‘genetic fortune telling’!) to things which haven’t really been given a mainstream label yet. Worth exploring in more details, as they flesh out each on of these in what is a reasonably lengthy article.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Are conferences a vestige of a bygone era?

I’m certainly attending fewer conferences than I used to, but I thought that was just the changing nature of my work and ways of making a living.

Marco Arment makes some important points in this post about how conferences are just kind of outdated as a concept:

  • Cost: With flights, lodging, and the ticket adding up to thousands of dollars per conference, most people are priced out. The vast majority of attendees’ money isn’t even going to the conference organizers or speakers — it’s going to venues, hotels, and airlines.
  • Size: There’s no good size for a conference. Small conferences exclude too many people; big conferences impede socialization and logistics.
  • Logistics: Planning and executing a conference takes such a toll on the organizers that few of them have ever lasted more than a few years.
  • Format: Preparing formal talks with slide decks is a massively inefficient use of the speakers’ time compared to other modern methods of communicating ideas, and sitting there listening to blocks of talks for long stretches while you’re trying to stay awake after lunch is a pretty inefficient way to hear ideas.

This has always been the case, of course. It’s just that technology-mediated ways of connecting, both synchronously and asynchronously, have improved:

Podcasts are a vastly more time-efficient way for people to communicate ideas than writing conference talks, and people who prefer crafting their message as a produced piece or with multimedia can do the same thing (and more) on YouTube. Both are much easier and more versatile for people to consume than conference talks, and they can reach and benefit far more people.

Conferences are by their very nature exclusive and take up a lot of people’s time. There’s still space for them, but I think time is up for the low-quality, just-for-the-sake-of-it conference.

Source: Marco.org

A world without work

I’m not sure that just because you look at a screen all day means you’ve got a ‘bullshit job’, but this article nevertheless makes some good points:

Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.

The best non-fiction book I read last year was Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. This is cited in the article, along with the left’s preoccupation with the politics of organised work.

A large part of the left has always organised itself around work. Union activists have fought to preserve it, by opposing redundancies, and sometimes to extend it, by securing overtime agreements. “With the Labour party, the clue is in the name,” says Chuka Umunna, the centre-left Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, who has become a prominent critic of post-work thinking as it has spread beyond academia. The New Labour governments were also responding, Umunna says, to the failure of their Conservative predecessors to actually live up to their pro-work rhetoric: “There had been such high levels of unemployment under the Tories, our focus was always going to be pro-job.”

Instead, say those who advocate a ‘post-work’ future, we should be thinking beyond the way our physical and psychological environment is structured.

Town and city centres today are arranged for work and consumption – work’s co-conspirator – and very little else; this is one of the reasons a post-work world is so hard to imagine. Adapting office blocks and other workplaces for other purposes would be a huge task, which the post-workists have only just begun to think about. One common proposal is for a new type of public building, usually envisaged as a well-equipped combination of library, leisure centre and artists’ studios. “It could have social and care spaces, equipment for programming, for making videos and music, record decks,” says Stronge. “It would be way beyond a community centre, which can be quite … depressing.”

We get the future we deserve. So if we keep on doing the same old, same old when it comes to the way we organise work, we’ll end up with the same kind of structures around it.

Source: The Guardian

Potentially huge wind farm proposed in the North Sea

Dogger Bank, which thousands of years ago as Doggerland would have been visible from the North East of England where I live, is the proposed site for a huge new wind farm complex with a central island power hub.

To accommodate all the equipment, the island would take up around 5-6 sq km, about a fifth the size of Hayling Island in the English Channel.

While the actual engineering challenge of building the island seems enormous, Van der Hage is not daunted. “Is it difficult? In the Netherlands, when we see a piece of water we want to build islands or land. We’ve been doing that for centuries. That is not the biggest challenge,” he said.

The short YouTube video is pretty cool.

Source: The Guardian

Blockchains are boring

The author of this article works in finance and describes himself as “whatever the opposite of a futurist is”. He does, however, make some decent points, even though he may be a little short-sighted:

In the end, the advantages of the existing human and software systems surrounding transactions — from verifying identity with a driver’s license to calling and clarifying the statements made in a credit disputed transaction to automatically billing your credit card for a newspaper subscription — outweigh the purported benefits, as well as hidden costs, of irrevocable, automated execution. Blockchain enthusiasts often act as if the hard part is getting money from A to B or keeping a record of what happened. In each case, moving money and recording the transaction is actually the cheap, easy, highly-automated part of a much more complex system.

Source: hackernoon

Human Extinction

Via Audrey Watters, this is incredible. Read the whole thing; capitalism can’t, and won’t, save us:

Encourage the buying of Coca-Cola soda with polar bears on the cans to raise awareness..

Corporations partner with environmental non-profits. Coca-Cola launches “Arctic White for Polar Bears.”

Source: Motherboard