Work Futures Daily - Machines of Loving Grace

| Simone Cicero's PDT Workshop | David Autor's Impact | AI In Office And At The Office? | Mind The Pay Gap |

Beacon NY - 2019-03-20 — I spent two excellent days at The Platform Design Toolkit Masterclass this Monday and Tuesday, led by Simone Cicero and several of his colleagues. It was a great learning experience, and I plan a longer write up later in the week. I interviewed Simone recently (see Simone Cicero on Ecosystemic Organizations), where we discussed ecosystems organizations, and the difficulties that people seem to have in understanding them:

SB: Perhaps one of the difficulties is that an ecosystem is a self-regulated 'assemblage' -- a term Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing offers from ecology in The Mushroom At The End Of The World -- an assortment of different species or individuals happening to each other at some physical location. Those species can be competitors or cooperating, or indifferent to each other. As she points out,

Patterns of unintended coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as ecological studies.

I believe Zhang's vision is to create a platform that acts to exert an economic gravity, an ecological pressure that leads to Tsing's idea of 'convergent lifeways', so that systemically beneficial patterns become internalized by the participants and becomes self-sustaining without much management. Zhang uses the image of gardening as a metaphor for this.

I buy it, but I started with a degree in biology, and I've studied Taoism for forty years. I wonder what we would have to do if we wanted to really get a large number of folks to 'get it'. Is your workshop part of that?

SC: I think it’s definitely important to understand that embracing ecosystem-organizations deals more with preparing, nurturing and respecting the “soil” than actually gardening the plants. A bit like with biodynamic agriculture the idea is to let different plants to grow, and even if you go and eradicate the ones that you don’t like, letting them stay there and fertilize the soil.

“Gardening” an ecosystem organization implies some degree of creative entropy, as this process that is inherent to self-organization: you may have unintended sprouts grow and find their way in the market and you need to deal with it, some of them may not make it, end up in dying but the experiences related to building that sprout-micro-enterprises will again fertilize the soul of knowledge and experiences. As a gardener, you’ll need to make it possible, and you’ll need to allow the members of the organization to explore edges you may not consider strategic from the top. So yes it’s about gardening, but it’s not about the perfect, 17th century’s Italian gardens, made of symmetry and perfection, it’s about the abundance of biodynamic gardens.


The workshop involved two days of working with a team on the design of a platform business, as well as guided discussion and presentation on the Toolkit's various canvasses. My head was deeply engaged, and working face-to-face with other humans wore me out since I mostly work alone and remotely. I slept pretty late this morning.


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David Autor, the academic voice of the American worker | The Economist (paywall) has a deep biography of David Author, one of the economists focused most on critical factors in the future of work. I've cited his work many times (see Work of the Future, Marching Backwards Into The Future, Wanderlust, Hard Truths, Soft Lies, and a post from 2017: This Week at Work), and you can expect him to pop up here often.

One of Autor's greatest contributions has been rethinking the way that automation actually impacts economics:

Researchers often used the education level of the workers employed in a particular job as a good-enough proxy for the complexity of the role and, correspondingly, for how susceptible it might be to automation. On this reckoning workers with some post-secondary education ought to be less vulnerable to march of the robots than those who lacked even a college degree.

Mr Autor suggested that it was not the skill set of the worker which mattered, but the task to which the worker applied her skills. [...] The “task approach” to labour markets that emerged from this work has become a critical tool in analysing the ways in which all sorts of disruptive events affect workers.

The import of this insight was not well-understood at first, but became clear at the end of the '00s.

The connection he drew between the extent to which tasks were routine or not, and the ease with which they could be automated away, proved important as policymakers began to grow worried about a “hollowing out” of the workforce. The production and office work done by respectably paid, “middle-skill” employees was disappearing; data entry and repetitive production tasks could be given to computers or cheap foreign labourers in a way that neither low-skill janitorial tasks, say, nor well-compensated professional work could be.

What’s more, by the early 2010s, it became clear that the tools Mr Autor had developed could be used to assess the effects of another big source of disruption: expanded trade with China.

Autor's work has had major impact on policy direction, and should shape our thinking, as well. As I wrote last month, regarding his talk and paper, Work of the Past, Work of the Future:

The skinny is that work in the US is increasingly urban, as fewer people are migrating in the country aside from young college-educated people who move to urban areas to become educated, and then don't leave. However, mid-skill work -- which has been historically performed by non-college-educated workers -- has drastically declined, and those workers have been transitioning into low-skilled -- and lower-paid -- work in both urban and non-urban settings. This is the result of automation, computerization, and the impact of manufacturing and clerical work moving offshore.

The economic benefits of manufacturing and other mid-skill work -- like administration, sales, and so on -- in urban settings, which formerly was a force attracting non-college-educated people to cities, are just no longer there. But these workers aren't moving away, because there is nothing happening in the non-urban spaces, either. There is just an increasing split between urban low-paid workers and the urban college-educated. This split has enormous policy and political ramifications.

David Autor should be a household name.


Could AI make better policy than politicians? | Jackie Bischof reports on new research conducted by The Center for the Governance of Change at Spain’s IE University that found a strange paradox in the Europeans polled. While almost 50% were concerned that automation might claim their jobs, and 70% agree that 'unchecked technological innovation could do more harm than good to society', but at the same time

a quarter of the respondents said they would prefer AI to guide decisions about governance of their country over politicians.

I wonder if they are hoping for Richard Brautigan's Machines of Loving Grace, or are driven by an aversion to the political leaders they have been unlucky to have in recent years.

I also wonder if the same proportion of respondents (or higher?) would exchange their managers at work by robots?


‘Mind the Pay Gap’: Reduced Berlin Transit Tickets for Women to Highlight Discrimination | Christopher Schuetze reports:

In Germany, women are paid an average of 21 percent less than men, one of Europe’s widest gender pay gaps. In Berlin next week, for one day only, the public transportation system will offer them a corresponding discount.

The BVG, which runs the city’s bus, tram and subway systems and is the country’s largest public transit authority, will offer women an unlimited day pass for 5.50 euros, about $6.20, instead of the regular €7.

The Frauenticket, or women’s ticket, is limited to Monday, which campaigners in Germany have designated as Equal Pay Day, and the authority is calling the promotion “Mind the Pay Gap.”


Despite its reputation as a socially progressive country — and its long-serving female leader — Germany has the third-widest pay gap in the European Union, according to 2017 figures from the bloc’s statistical agency. Only the Czech Republic and Estonia, both much smaller countries, did worse. (It also lags the United States, where the figure was 19.5 percent in 2017.)


A Worry for Some Pilots: Their Hands-On Flying Skills Are Lacking | Jack Nicas and Zach Wichter look into pilot flying skills in a world of increasing automation:

In nearly 100 million flights by United States passenger airlines over the past decade, there has been a single fatality. Other than most landings and takeoffs, the planes have largely been flying themselves.

But the recent crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets in Indonesia and Ethiopia have raised questions about the downside of all that automation.

Pilots now spend more time learning these automated systems than practicing hands-on flying, so newer pilots are less comfortable with taking manual control when the computer steers them wrong, according to interviews with a dozen pilots and pilot instructors at major airlines and aviation universities around the world.

“The automation in the aircraft, whether it’s a Boeing or an Airbus, has lulled us into a sense of security and safety,” said Kevin Hiatt, a former Delta Air Lines pilot who later ran flight safety for JetBlue. Pilots now rely on autopilot so often, “they become a systems operator rather than a stick-and-rudder pilot.”

This reminds me of the recent story about surgical residents unable to gain valuable surgical skills because surgeons increasingly rely on the assistance of surgical robots instead of training the residents (see Everywhere In Cubicles).

I wonder what our driving skills will be after a few years of autonomous vehicles?

Poem of the Day

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace | Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms. 

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.