Creatures or Machines?
Troubles at the NY Times | Information Blockade | Loosening The Ties That Bind
Quote of the Moment
It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.
| Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle
Troubles at the NY Times
Ben Smith, one of the founders of Semafor and a former media columnist at The NY Times, provides some real inside-baseball-style reporting on the culture wars in the old Gray Lady. Normally not the beat here at Work Futures, but I was struck by some of the changes instituted since the newsroom protests of 2020. (Note that I have removed the start-of-the-sentence bolding Semafor uses as a sort of Axios-lite annoyance.)
The culture wars are playing out in the newsroom now in far subtler ways these days. And in classic Times fashion, management is pushing them in two directions at the same time. They’re trying to deliver some staffers’ hopes from the summer of 2020 of a more progressive workplace and broad-minded journalism, while also doing what they can to ensure that the insurgency of 2020 never happens again.
But nobody seems entirely to know where the place is headed, ambitious internal figures are hedging their bets, and what began as a civil war has slid into a kind of frozen conflict, a distracting identity crisis at the heart of a company that Wall Street would like to transform.
On the progressive side of the ledger, the Times has installed a new administrative layer in the newsroom aimed at implementing a modern workplace culture. The new roles are neither reporters nor editors, but university-style administrators, focused variously on culture, careers, trust, strategy and DEI.
People I spoke to in those jobs find their own mandates confusing, however, in classic Timesian fashion. Their roles amount, as one told me, to trying to enact radical cultural change at the institution — from an old, white conservative institution to a progressive, inclusive one — as slowly as possible.
On the traditionalist side, dull memos announced changes to policy for Slack and social media aimed at ending freewheeling internal debates. That seems to have worked.
For now, regular programming has resumed, with the promise of a transformation just around the corner. Choire Sicha, the former Style Section editor who was among the progressive insurgents, told me simply that “everyone’s sort of given up.”
Many Times staffers I spoke to believe the cultural conflict has been displaced by the labor struggle, and that the biggest challenges for management will be demands from journalists and tech workers for a bigger share of the profits.
Times coverage has a mixed record of understanding class division, but the newsroom itself is up in arms over the pace of contract negotiations.
Sounds like exactly the challenges confronting most large, well-established corporations these days: straddling the desire for change among the young insurgents and the desire for a return to the pre-pandemic past by the old institutionalists.
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An important trend: companies are actively blocking workers from accessing information via mobile apps that makes it easier for them to do their job, plan, and coordinate with other workers.
Two examples: first, American Airlines is blocking flight attendants using a mobile app called ‘Sequence Detector’ to scrape schedule information from AA’s website:
American Airlines is using sophisticated ‘bot detection’ software to stop the developer of an iPhone app that has become popular amongst the airline’s flight attendants from accessing vital data that is needed to keep the app working.
The ‘Sequence Decoder’ app has become a must-have tool for American Airlines flight attendants because it displays information required by crew members to manage their rosters and work lives in a single app.
The app is particularly popular among the large number of ‘reserve’ flight attendants at American Airlines because it gives them more control over their schedules, and the app has other features such as a calculator to make sure crew are working to legal limits.
American Airlines does not offer its own version of the app and has allegedly turned down requests from the app’s developer Jeff Reisberg to collaborate on the app. Instead, the Jeff’s self-developed app relies on bots to ‘scrape’ the data required to power it from AA’s computer systems.
In fact, rather than working with Jeff, American Airlines has started to protect its websites with bot detection software that makes it “nearly impossible” to collect data required to run Sequence Decoder.
AA wants its flight attendants to act as cogs in the machine, and not as people with their own goals and plans. AA doesn’t care if workers want more control over their own time, which fails two major challenges: wellbeing and individual autonomy.
The second example is from the gig economy. A former Uber operations manager, David Pickerell, has created an app called Para intended to present information to workers that would make a real difference in their earnings:
The app’s most popular feature allowed DoorDash drivers to know the tip for each job before they accepted it. Other than in New York City (where, since last year, apps have been required to show tips in advance), DoorDash hides that figure from drivers, even though most customers set the tip when they place their order.
Para also lets drivers set parameters to juggle multiple apps, automatically decline low-paying gigs and flag rude customers and undesirable locations, such as confusing apartment complexes and restaurants with long waits.
The app offers a tiny form of resistance against the dominance of the large companies that dispatch millions of drivers to deliver pizza, groceries, prescriptions or marijuana at the tap of a button. The drivers work as independent contractors, or freelancers, and get paid by the job, not the hour. DoorDash, Uber, Instacart, Grubhub, Lyft, Caviar, Eaze, Postmates, Amazon Flex, Walmart Spark and Shipt all use this model.
Doordash made it functionally impossible for the app to work and has declined to respond to attempts by Pickerell to work together. Uber has sent him a cease-and-desist letter.
These companies — who are confronted with growing pressure to become profitable — want to wield information asymmetry to their benefit by suppressing information that would help their workers make better decisions. This is particularly critical with high gas prices. Specifically, the companies don’t want these delivery workers to decline work that is unprofitable.
There ought to be a law to level the playing field by mandating information transparency for gig workers.
Loosening The Ties That Bind
I recently wrote about quiet quitting, asking Is Quiet Quitting just Looser Ties?, and I return to that with new evidence about the decline in importance of having friends at work. As I wrote,
What is becoming evident is that ‘quiet quitting’ is about a loosening of the connections between companies and those encompassed within the business, a relaxation of the strong ties between managers and the managed, a diminishing of the central, iconic performance of obeisance that workers have agreed to in the past, but now weakened to nothing more than a naked exchange of daily labor for the daily bread.