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The Uber of labor unions


One of the underappreciated benefits of the internet is that it is continually forcing us to relearn the lessons of the past. Take publishing, for instance. In the early days of blogging, there was a sense, shared by many, that online publishing systems were serving to “liberate” writers from editors and proofreaders and fact-checkers and all the other folks who had long stood between the scribbler and the printed page. The internet, it was said, had revealed these people to be useless interlopers — gatekeepers, even. They were the human faces of friction, relics of an inefficient, oppressive atom-based past.

Forgotten in all the enthusiasm was the reason editorial staffs had come into being in the first place. Early publishers didn’t hire a bunch of useless workers just for the joy of paying them wages. No, publishers realized that people prefer reading good prose to crappy prose. And what we’ve learned is that people still prefer reading good prose to crappy prose — even when they get the prose for free. So we still have editorial staffs, and thank goodness for that.

Which brings me to Uber and all the other online labor markets that, as Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal, “are remarkably efficient machines for producing near minimum-wage jobs.” The enormous valuations that venture capitalists and other investors are now giving to the Ubers of the world reflect an assumption that the clearinghouses, or “platforms,” will continue to wield almost absolute power over the masses of individual laborers who do the driving and other work that the companies dole out. Easily replaceable, the individual worker has little choice but to accept the platform’s terms. Which means that, as Uber’s recent pricing actions suggest, the platforms will face little resistance in ratcheting up their share of the take.

Mims suggests that Uber drivers, and other such contractors, will ultimately have to rely on the government to protect their interests:

The only way forward is something that has gotten far too little attention, called “dependent contractors.” In contrast with independent contractors, dependent contractors work for a single firm with considerable control over their work — as in, Lyft or Uber or Postmates or Instacart or any of a hundred other companies like them. This category doesn’t exist in current U.S. law, but it does exist in countries like Germany, where dependent contractors get more protections than freelancers but are still distinct from full-time employees.

That may well be a good idea, but history tells us that it’s far from the only way forward. Following the example of factory workers — as well as early taxi drivers, or “hackmen” — a century ago, the contractors could stop acting as individuals and start acting collectively. Some form of unionization is not just another way forward, it could, for the workers, be a much more empowering way forward. I realize this may sound far-fetched at the moment. Labor unions aren’t exactly at the height of their popularity these days. And it’s true that many of the platform-dependent contractors are content with the current market arrangement — indeed, grateful for the new opportunities it’s given them to make a buck. Many drivers see Uber as their ally, their friend. But, as history also tells us, such attitudes can change quickly. There’s a latent economic antagonism between the workers and the clearinghouses, and as the clearinghouses wield their power to take an ever greater slice of the pie, in order to deliver the returns expected by their investors, the antagonism seems likely to burst into the open. Workers are content until the moment they feel cheated.

Clearinghouses like Uber may actually turn out to be the model for a new, digital form of labor union. Rather than relying on collective bargaining, these new unions would displace the third-party clearinghouses by taking over their role in the market. Think about it. The drivers join together and agree to contribute a small percentage of their fares — much smaller than the fees Uber extracts — as union dues, and the pooled cash is used to build and run their own, jointly owned ride-sharing platform. As the current plethora of such clearinghouses — the Uber of wiping smudges off eyeglasses! the Airbnb of caskets! — makes clear, setting up such platforms is, as a technical matter, pretty straightforward at this point, and once set up, they operate with great efficiency. By cutting out the Uber middleman, the drivers would not only keep more of their earnings; they’d also reap benefits of scale in establishing insurance plans, retirement accounts, and the other sorts of worker benefits that unions basically invented.

I’ve even come up with a cool term to describe this system of worker-owned clearinghouses. I call it the sharing economy.

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Prove your humanity


It’s such a very low bar. But I guess that tells us something.

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Ladies of the code

That 1961 Life article about computers also gave a snarky nod to the important role that women were playing in mainframe programming:

Within the New Class [of computer experts] are more than 30,000 people, including hundreds of attractive young ladies who have studied computers at such colleges as Vassar. They are concerned not with the executive problems of how to use computers but with How to Talk to the Machine. They have their own language and like to discuss such things as automorphisms, combinatorial lemmas, (0,1)-matrices of size m by n, Monte Carlo theory, heuristic programing, Boolean trees and don’t care conditions. Fortunately space does not permit these terms to be explained here.

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“The machines are taking over”


Our computers advance, but our fears about them remain remarkably consistent, cycling through peaks and valleys in some as yet undiagnosed pattern. In the spring of 1961, Life magazine ran a long feature story titled “The Machines Are Taking Over: Computers Outdo Man at His Work — and Soon May Outthink Him.” It made for unsettling reading.

“The American economy,” reported the writer, Warren R. Young, “is approaching the point of no return in its reliance on computers.” He provided a long list of examples to show how computers were quickly taking over not only factory work but also professional jobs requiring analysis and decision-making, in such fields as engineering, finance, and business. Computers “will tend to make middle-management obsolete.” The digital machines, he went on, were even moving into the creative trades, composing “passable pop songs” and “Beatnik poems.” Soon, they’d be able to perform “robotic translation of foreign publications, particularly scientific and political material written in Russian.”

The use of language is, of course, one of the traits that has most notably distinguished human beings from all other creatures. The complete mastery of human language by computers may well be on its way. Some scientists say that digital computers can already “think.” Though they greatly doubt that computers will be able to do creative thinking, they are coming close.

Most ominous of all, wrote Young, was the arrival of machine learning:

A new machine called the Perceptron is actually able to learn things by itself, by studying its environment. Built by a Cornell psychologist, Dr. Frank Rosenblatt, it is equipped to look at pictures and in future versions will hear spoken words. It not only recognizes what it has seen before but also teaches itself generalizations about these. It can even identify new shapes similar to those it has seen before.

The Perceptron is so complex that even its inventor can no longer predict how it will react to a new problem. “If devices like the Perceptron,” says one expert, “can really learn effectively by themselves, we will be approaching the making of a true robot, fantastic as that sounds. But remember, all this was begun and devised by human brains, so humans — if they take care — will remain supreme.”

Young didn’t find such tepid reassurances all that convincing:

This is cheering news, no doubt. But there is another view of the future in a story that computer designers now tell only as a macabre joke: A weary programmer who has spent his life tending a computer that always has the right answer for everything finally gets fed up. “All right,” he asks his machine, “if you’re so smart, tell me — is there a God?” The computer whirs gently, its lights flicker, its coils buzz and hum, and at last it clicks out the answer: THERE IS NOW.

Computers hadn’t even mastered lower-case letters, and already we’d infused them with delusions of grandeur.

Image: Life.

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Insert human here


I have an op-ed about how we misperceive our computers and ourselves, “Why Robots Will Always Need Us,” in this morning’s New York Times. A snippet:

While our flaws loom large in our thoughts, we view computers as infallible. Their scripted consistency presents an ideal of perfection far removed from our own clumsiness. What we forget is that our machines are built by our own hands. When we transfer work to a machine, we don’t eliminate human agency and its potential for error. We transfer that agency into the machine’s workings, where it lies concealed until something goes awry.

Read it.

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Vocabulary is rarely so rich, so dense with branch and twig, as in the realm of flora and fauna. Plants and animals go by all sorts of strange and evocative names depending on where you are and whom you’re talking with. One local term for the kestrel, reports Robert Macfarlane in an article in Orion, is wind-fucker. Having learned the word, he writes, “it is hard now not to see in the pose of the hovering kestrel a certain lustful quiver.”

I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney’s translation of a Middle English poem, “The Names of the Hare”:

Beat-the-pad, white-face,
funk-the-ditch, shit-ass.

The wimount, the messer,
the skidaddler, the nibbler,
the ill-met, the slabber.

The quick-scut, the dew-flirt,
the grass-biter, the goibert,
the home-late, the do-the-dirt.

It goes on that way for a couple dozen more lines, each of which brings you a little closer to the nature of the beastie.

Macfarlane’s piece, drawn from his forthcoming book Landmarks, was inspired by the discovery that a great dictionary for kids, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, is being pruned of words describing the stuff of the natural world. Being inserted in their place are words describing the abstractions and symbols of the digital and bureaucratic spheres:

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.

They yanked out bluebell and put in bullet-point? What shit-asses.

The substitutions made in the dictionary — the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual — are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.

As Macfarlane goes on to say, the changes in the dictionary don’t just testify to our weakening grasp on nature. Something else is being lost: “a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.”

As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP deletions removed the “euphonious vocabulary of the natural world — words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.”

I’m sure that many will label Macfarlane and Porter “romantics.” I’ve begun to notice that romantic is replacing Luddite and nostalgist as the insult-of-choice deployed by techno-apologists to dismiss anyone with more expansive interests than their own. That, too, is telling. It’s always been a sin against progress to look backward. Now it’s also a sin against progress to look inward. And so, fading from sight and imagination alike, the world becomes ever vaguer to us — not mysterious but peripheral, its things unworthy even of being named. Who now would think of the wind as something that might be fucked?

Photo: Rick Cameron.

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Smart-tech smackdown


Forget Mayweather and Pacquiao. Tonight in New York, Intelligence Squared is hosting a debate on the proposition “Smart Technology Is Making Us Dumb.” Arguing for the proposition will be Andrew Keen and I. Arguing against it will be Genevieve Bell and David Weinberger. The event is sold out, but you can watch the video here.

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