Category Archives: The Glass Cage

Taking measurement’s measure


“What can’t be measured can’t be managed” goes the old saw. But what Peter Drucker is reported to have actually said was “What gets measured gets managed,” which is altogether different and altogether wiser. The wisdom becomes clearer when we get the rest of Drucker’s remark:

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.”

It’s dubious and dangerous, Drucker is saying, to take what’s measurable for what’s important. But he’s also saying something much more radical, even subversive: Some things that can be measured shouldn’t be.

A whole counterculture could, in our big-data moment, be constructed on that one thought. Can you imagine Google or Amazon or Facebook announcing, “We have decided to stop measuring stuff in order to spend some time considering what’s actually worth measuring”? No, today’s ethos is simpler, easier to execute: “If you measure it, the meaning will come.”

“Measure” itself has a few meanings, and it’s worth keeping them all in mind. Consider something Robert Frost said, in speaking to college students in 1956:

“I am always pleased when I see someone making motions like this — like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness, measure in unselfishness.”

Measure in measurement, too, would seem advisable.

Image: Marcin Wichary.


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The other dude in the car


In “How Uber Explains Our Economic Moment,” MIT’s Andrew McAfee describes a short trip he recently arranged with the big ride-sharing company:

My driver said he’d been with Uber ever since he’d graduated from his master’s program in IT project management last year. This profession was, according to him, going through hard times. In the wake of the great recession steady jobs had been replaced by short-term contracts, and there weren’t even a lot of these to be had. As a result he was now competing against much more experienced people for each new gig that came up, and he hadn’t had a lot of success since graduating.

So to cover his monthly fixed costs of student loan payments (on more than $100k in debt), rent, and health care he was driving for Uber. A lot. He estimated that he spent more than 60 hours a week behind the wheel. This allowed him to pay his bills, but not to build up any real savings.

McAfee emphasizes the bright side of this poignant tale:

To which I say good for him, and for Uber. This is a guy who could be sitting around waiting for the dream job he’d gone to school for, collecting unemployment, defaulting on his loans, and/or dropping out of the labor force for good. Instead, he was working hard at a job that was available.

That’s true, and worth noting, though I would guess the driver is paying a high opportunity cost in spending so much time driving a gypsy cab in order to make his school loan payments. It seems like a tough squeeze, and as McAfee goes on to point out, the ongoing automation of sophisticated jobs, including much of the traditional work done by IT departments, doesn’t exactly brighten the guy’s career prospects.

It’s worth remembering, too, that one of Silicon Valley’s dreams is to use self-driving cars to replace the nation’s taxi fleets. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has made it clear that that’s his company’s plan, as The Verge recently reported:

Kalanick was visibly excited at the prospect of developing a fleet of driverless vehicles . . . “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.” Asked about what he would tell the Uber drivers who will some day [get] replaced, Kalanick said that day was still a long way off. But it’s also inevitable, he said. “I’d say ‘Look, this is the way of the world, and the world isn’t always great.’ We all have to find ways to change with the world.”

I suppose when Uber deploys its autonomous cabs, McAfee’s driver will be grateful to have been freed up to find other fulfilling work in the sharing economy—walking people’s dogs, maybe. You have to change with the world.

“Sharing” is a nice word, but, as Kalanick’s remarks reveal, there’s a deep current of cynicism running just under the surface of the sharing economy. The companies that operate the clearinghouses, and skim the lion’s share of the profits from the aggregate transactions, present a very different face to the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms than they do to their investors and entrepreneurial peers. It seems revealing that Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community at room-sharing company Airbnb as well as chairman of Peers, a lobbying outfit for sharing companies launched last year, wrote a book titled The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers. He argued that cults provide excellent models for marketers looking to establish a deep bond of loyalty with customers:

Cults will flatter you. They will make you feel special and individual in a way that you are unlikely to have felt before. They will celebrate the very things that make you feel different from everyone else; the members will get to know you deep down, and they will love you for what they find. And you will love them.

This is the marketing strategy that underpins the sharing economy, as Mike Bulajewski explains in a thoroughgoing critique of the practice at his Mr. Teacup blog:

What’s crucial to realize is that proponents of “sharing” are reinventing our understanding of economic relations between individuals so that they no longer imply individualism, greed or self-interest. Instead, we’re led to believe that commerce conducted on their platforms is ultimately about generosity, helpfulness, community-building, and love. It’s what enables TaskRabbit to claim that hiring a stranger to do your laundry, perhaps for less than minimum wage, is really about “neighbors helping neighbors,” as they put it. The company’s mission is to “revolutionize the way people work — by redefining what it means to be neighborly.” … The marketing of almost every startup in this space is saturated with this mood.

But, as Bulajewski goes on to point out, the neighborly sharers are, to the companies running the clearinghouses, contract laborers. They represent a vast and ready pool of workers, like McAfee’s struggling driver, who don’t qualify for the extensive and expensive benefits and protections provided by law to regular employees:

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have created businesses that provide contract labor not covered by the federal regulations that employers find so burdensome. As Uber general manager Ilya Abyzov put it, “A driver contracting with Uber is not a bona fide employee.” … What would happen if the dreams of the investors and executives at these startups came true, and large parts of the economy became dominated by their business models? Employers that hire full- or part-time workers today—paying them minimum wage, overtime and unemployment, disability and social security taxes, and unable to discriminate against them—would switch to a cheaper, less regulated and more vulnerable workforce to do those same jobs. Having lowered their labor costs, they’re able to offer lower prices to consumers, forcing their slower competitors who rely on regular wage labor to adopt the same practices or go out of business. … The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least.

And, as Uber’s Kalanick made clear, if an even cheaper labor model comes along—robots, say—the contract workers will get the boot, without “any real savings” to fall back on. The other dude in the car is dispensable. The spirit of neighborliness goes only so far.


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Promoting human error


From a report on a prototype of a self-driving tractor-trailer developed by Daimler as part of its Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 project:

For Daimler, the truck driver of the future looks something like this: He is seated in the cab of a semi, eyes on a tablet and hands resting in his lap …

The Daimler truck retains a steering wheel as a safety measure. This allows a driver to intervene for critical maneuvers …

The experience of guiding a self-driving truck is far less stressful than the vigilance required from a human to respond to traffic conditions. This means that drivers could have enough free time to speak with their families or employers, take care of paperwork or make travel plans …

“It’s strange at first,” said Hans Luft, who sat in the truck’s cab during the demonstration on Thursday. He waved his hands to show observers that he did not need them on the wheel, tapping at his tablet while taking advantage of the 45-degree swivel of his driver’s seat. “But you quickly learn to trust it and then it’s great.”

So you create an automated system that actively undermines the vigilance and situational awareness of the operator while at the same time relying on the operator to take control of the system for “critical maneuvers” in emergencies. This is a textbook case of automation design that borders on the criminally insane. And when an accident occurs — as it will — the crash will be blamed not on “stupid design” but on “human error.”

Image: Randy von Liski.

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An android dreams of automation


Google’s Android guru, Sundar Pichai, provides a peek into the company’s conception of our automated future:

“Today, computing mainly automates things for you, but when we connect all these things, you can truly start assisting people in a more meaningful way,” Mr. Pichai said. He suggested a way for Android on people’s smartphones to interact with Android in their cars. “If I go and pick up my kids, it would be good for my car to be aware that my kids have entered the car and change the music to something that’s appropriate for them,” Mr. Pichai said.

What’s illuminating is not the triviality of Pichai’s scenario — that billions of dollars might be invested in developing a system that senses when your kids get in your car and then seamlessly cues up “Baby Beluga” — but what the urge to automate small, human interactions reveals about Pichai and his colleagues. With this offhand example, Pichai gives voice to Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption, which can be boiled down to this: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being. Pichai doesn’t seem able to comprehend that the essence, and the joy, of parenting may actually lie in all the small, trivial gestures that parents make on behalf of or in concert with their kids — like picking out a song to play in the car. Intimacy is redefined as inefficiency.

I guess it’s no surprise that what Pichai expresses is a robot’s view of technology in general and automation in particular — mindless, witless, joyless; obsessed with productivity, oblivious to life’s everyday textures and pleasures. But it is telling. What should be automated is not what can be automated but what should be automated.

Image: “Communicating with the Beluga” by Bob.


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From endless ladder to downward ramp


A couple of months ago, in the post “The Myth of the Endless Ladder,” I critiqued the widespread assumption that progress in production technology, such as advances in robotics and analytical software, inevitably “frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks,” in the words of economics reporter Annie Lowrey. While such a dynamic has often been true in the past, particularly in the middle years of the last century, there’s no guarantee that it will be true in the future. Evidence is growing, in fact, that a very different dynamic is now playing out, as computers take on more analytical and judgment-making tasks. In place of the endless ladder, we may now have what MIT economics professor and labor-market expert David Autor calls a “downward ramp.” The latest wave of automation technology appears to be “freeing us up” for less-interesting and less-challenging work.

In a New York Times column, Thomas Edsall points to new research, by economists Paul Beaudry, David Green, and Ben Sand, that suggests a widespread erosion in the skill levels of jobs since the year 2000. If in the 20 years leading up to the turn of the millennium we saw a “hollowing” of mid-skill jobs, with employment polarizing between low-skill and high-skill tasks, we now seem to be seeing a rapid loss of high-skill jobs as well. From top to bottom, the researchers report, workers are being pushed down the skill ramp:

After two decades of growth in the demand for occupations high in cognitive tasks, the US economy reversed and experienced a decline in the demand for such skills. The demand for cognitive tasks was to a large extent the motor of the US labor market prior to 2000. Once this motor reversed, the employment rate in the US economy started to contract. As we have emphasized, while this demand for cognitive tasks directly effects mainly high skilled workers, we have provided evidence that it has indirectly affected lower skill workers by pushing them out of jobs that have been taken up by higher skilled worker displaced from cognitive occupations. This has resulted in high growth in employment in low skilled manual jobs with declining wages in those occupations, and has pushed many low skill individuals out of the labor market.

Beaudry, Green, and Sand encapsulate the new deskilling trend in this remarkable chart, which documents the intellectual demands of the jobs taken by college graduates*:

downward ramp

Edsall reports that two other recent studies, one by Andrew Sum et al. and one by Lawrence Mishel et al., also find evidence of the deskilling trend among even the well-educated.

Comments MIT’s Andrew McAfee, co-author of The Second Machine Age:

This is bad news for several reasons. One of the most important is that the downward ramp appears to be leading to a “skills cascade” in which highly skilled / educated workers take jobs lower down the skill / wage ladder (since there’s not much demand at high levels), which in turn pushes less skilled workers even lower down the ladder, and so on. [Harvard economist] Larry Katz has found that “lots of new college graduates are moving into the service sector, that is, into traditionally non-college jobs, displacing young non-college workers.” Where this all ends is anyone’s guess.

At least one thing seems clear: The time has come to challenge not only the assumption that technological advances necessarily push people to higher-skilled work but also the self-serving Silicon Valley ideology that has wrapped itself around that assumption.

*Authors’ explanation of chart: “We plot the average cognitive task intensity of college graduates over the 1980- 2010 period. We measure cognitive intensity by assigning to each 4 digit occupation an average of their scores for cognitive tasks from the Dictionary of Occupation Titles (DOT). We define cognitive tasks as the non-routine analytic and interactive tasks used in Autor, Levy, and Murnane (2003) in their examination of the skill content of jobs. Movements in this cognitive task intensity index reflect movements in college educated workers across occupations. The figure indicates that average cognitive task intensity for college graduates increased from the early 1980s until about the year 2000 and then declined throughout the rest of the series.”

Image: “Guys and Bikes” by Astrid Westvang.


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Let them eat images of cake


David Graeber observes:

It used to be that Americans mostly subscribed to a rough-and-ready version of the labor theory of value. Everything we see around us that we consider beautiful, useful, or important was made that way by people who sank their physical and mental efforts into creating and maintaining it. Work is valuable insofar as it creates these things that people like and need. Since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been an enormous effort on the part of the people running this country to turn that around: to convince everyone that value really comes from the minds and visions of entrepreneurs, and that ordinary working people are just mindless robots who bring those visions to reality.

Not only does it make perfect sense, therefore, to replace all those working stiffs, all those glorified ditch-diggers who traffic in the stuff of the world, with actual mindless robots, but in doing so you’re doing the workers a great, if as yet unappreciated, favor. You’re liberating them to become . . . visionaries! “Unemployment” is just a coarse term we use to describe the pre-visionary state. And so Andreessen: “All human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs.” Intangibility is the last refuge of the materialist.

Image of starchild from 2001.


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Marx Andreessen

In a series of rhapsodic tweets, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen imagines a world in which robots take over all productive labor:

All human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. Without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be. The main fields of human endeavor will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure. Rather than nothing to do, we would have everything to do: curiosity, artistic and scientific creativity, new forms of status seeking. Imagine six, or 10, billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be.

What a world, indeed. It would, in fact, be precisely the world that Karl Marx dreamed about, where “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished.” Marx, too, believed that modern production technology would be instrumental in liberating people from the narrowness of traditional jobs, freeing human nature to express itself fully for the first time in history.

We know the process by which Marx saw his utopia of self-actualization come into being. I wonder how Andreessen would go about making his utopia operational. Would he begin by distributing his own wealth to the masses?


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