Cure, or Collapse?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb | Coffee Automation | The American Theocracy of Work
Quote of the Moment
You never cure structural defects; the system corrects itself by collapsing.
| Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Automation is the Answer
I read a piece by Julia Moskin about Blank Street Coffee, a new chain of coffee shops:
By this summer, New Yorkers across boroughs had noticed a new coffee chain multiplying faster than shark sightings at Rockaway Beach. No longer just a cart, the business has appeared in compact storefronts in residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn and near tourist attractions in Manhattan, on Midtown’s busy corners and in SoHo’s shopping drags. In just two years, Blank Street has opened 40 shops in the city, more than any locally owned competitor.
What do they have going for them? It’s good coffee, people say, and a Blank Street Iced Latte is $4.75 to Starbucks $5.50.
And they aren’t trying to entice you to sit for hours with friends in a fern-lined, cavernous hall. Instead,
a Blank Street store is a cozy pod built around a high-volume automated Eversys espresso system, designed to get customers in and out quickly and to allow baristas to focus more on customer service than on coffee. With incentives to preorder through an app, stores typically run with only two employees per shift. Most Blank Streets are less than 350 square feet, the size of a smoke shop, a cellphone store or a bare-bones deli.
Aha. They are trying to disrupt the Starbucks model (and the model of a dozen other last gen coffee chains), by cutting costs — labor and real estate — and delivering only the central product: a good-enough cup of coffee, fast.
They’ve landed mucho dinero from VCs (Moskin has the details).
Meanwhile, Starbucks is embroiled in a growing border war (maybe a civil war?) with unionizing workers, and Howard Schultz and Co. are now planning to automate more, especially since drink orders at Starbucks have gotten increasingly complicated, with mazillions of different ‘milks’, syrups, and sprinkles:
But the complexity of the drinks, along with order surges at certain times of the day, have made barista jobs more demanding and can sometimes result in delays. To help address that, the company unveiled a new cold beverage system that reduces the number of steps needed to make the drinks, as well as the need for employees to repeatedly bend down and dig into buckets for ice. In a demonstration of the system, two Starbucks employees showed that it took 35 seconds to make a mocha frappuccino with whipped cream as opposed to 87 seconds now.
“We will never replace our baristas,” said Deb Hall Lefevre, who joined Starbucks in May as its chief technology officer. “Rather, our job is to automate the work and simplify it so that their job is easier.”
Oh yeah, they will never replace their baristas. Oh, sure.
I bet Starbucks will knock of Blank Street (or buy them) and roll out Starbucks-in-a-box with a limited menu and only two employees per store.
The American Theocracy of Work
Ever since Max Weber released The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to wide acclaim, the religious underpinnings of industrial age protestant faiths have been yoked to the harness of capitalism, in popular understanding. There is a virtue in work, the argument runs, and the societal apparatus that supports work and its products are imbued with a religious sparkle, if you go along with the entire edifice of thought involved.
The modern quiet quitting phenomenon can be viewed as a rejection of this casting of toil as somehow ennobled by this connection. Indeed, quiet quitting reminds me of the argument Weber made about pre-industrial workers. He pointed out that when offered higher pay — intended to motivate them to work more hours — former agriculturalists would opt to work, paradoxically, fewer hours and have more time for leisure. On the contrary, fully industrialized workers, he argued, will do the opposite.
Perhaps quiet quitters are returning to preindustrial ethics, rather than the Protestant Ethics Weber was extolling.
Carolyn Chen is the author of Work Pray Code — which I have not read yet — but this Atlantic essay, What the Anti-work Discourse Gets Wrong, lays out the broad strokes of her findings from an investigation into the antithesis of quiet quitting: a, well not exactly a community, cult, or a movement, but instead a subsection of tech workers who have embraced work as a replacement for religion:
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