Episode 7 - Robotic emoting baristas from enterprise precariat


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 Precariat - In sociology and economics, precariat is a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare as well as being a member of a Proletariat class of industrial workers who lack their own means of production and hence sell their labour to live. Specifically, it is applied to the condition of lack of job security, in other words intermittent employment or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence.


"I'm with the invaders, no use trying to hide that. And at the same, I disagree with some of the things they are doing." - William S. Burroughs, "Quick Fix" by Ministry.




Mindful Cyborgs - Contemplative living in the age of quantification, augmentation and acceleration, with your hosts Chris Dancy and Klint Finley.

CD: Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs Episode 7. Lucky 7. I’m not into numerology but that’s a lucky number. Hello, Klint. 

KF: Hey, how’s it going?

CD: I’ve had some surgery recently. I’ve got my rotator cuff tear, so I actually got to meet Nigel Ackland and GF2045. He’s the Englishman who was given the bionic arm he can use with his brain. I’m not comparing myself in any way, shape, or form to that level of disability but I have thought several times that I can imagine if you had some sort of cybernetic limbs in the future that it would be nice because we wouldn’t be actually in pain, just upgrades. But yes, it’s been a tough recovery for me.

KF: That sucks, man. I’m sorry to hear it. I hope you’re back up to one hundred percent soon. 

CD: Yes, literally like a battery. I almost feel a little signal and battery bar above my head.

KF: Cybernetic way, I guess. 

CD: Now, I’m actually wanting that. I should not record these shows with you when I’m on pain killers. So, news this week, we’ve got some good stuff. What did you find?

KF: It’s kind of bad news to me but one thing that’s really been on my mind with regards the Marketplace story about the BART transit strike and the tech industries’ response to that. There was a quote from the CEO of UserVoice, Richard White, and he said, “One of the guys in our team said he’d be putting in his two weeks’ notice once he found out what he could make working for BART.” White said jokingly. His solution to address those disgruntled BART workers, get them back to work, pay them whatever they want and then figure out how to automate their jobs so that this doesn’t happen again.

People have been talking about the automation of work and how technology is potentially displacing workers and there’s a good book on this called Rage Against the Machine by some MIT academic. But you don’t really see a lot of tech CEOs who are openly calling for blue-collar workers, or any workers, to be replaced by technology. Forester even did a report a couple years ago suggesting that tech company’s downplay is the potential of technologies to replace workers. So, it’s really unusual to see the CEO of a tech company just openly saying, “I want these meddling workers to be replaced by machines.”

So the inconvenience that it causes me has diminished. It was a pretty surprising thing to see somebody really just come right out and say and there’s this subtext to it that really bothers me as well, the bit about, “Oh, you know, one of my workers was going to quit and go work for BART,” just suggesting that they already get paid too much even though as noted in the article they’re not actually making what their family needs to get by in the area. The BART workers aren’t. There is this sort of subtext like anybody who’s not part of the tech industry doesn’t deserve to get paid a living wage. That was really disturbing to me. Do you have any thoughts on that?

CD: Unfortunately, I am friends with Richard White. 

KF: I’ve talked to him, interviewed him before and I liked him but ...

CD: I actually saw him at South by Southwest last year. Obviously, I have some sort of bias on this, but I think for me it’s a little bit more difficult. Three years ago at a conference I’m at enterprise IT. I’ve got in a little bit of trouble for saying I don’t know why we’ve all been wanting all of this automation, I don’t know why we want all this self-service, these are our jobs. And I got my hand slapped. You can’t go out there and talk about the fact that software is going to eliminate jobs. It was difficult for me in my position because A) I’m 44 years old and I want people of my age to think about the decisions they make, but B) I don’t think in good conscious we can talk about return on investment and all of these other buzz marketing terms to sell software and solutions and not look at what they mean.

Any time you reduce something you’re doing something else. I don’t see us saying, as an industry or as a tech workforce, we’re going to automate and enhance your life and retool you. There’s always that last step that’s missing, and that’s been very important to me. I think going back to how you and I met, an obsolete tech worker that’s exactly how old I got started. I felt we weren’t having that open conversation.

On one hand I understand what Richard is saying. I understand why he’s saying it, because I know Richard’s personality. He’s bold. He was one of the few tech CEOs that had a comment to make about the political landscape on when it comes to social issues. I’ve never seen any of them make any comments online, like “I support this social issue.” They just avoid all of that so the fact that he said this wasn’t shocking because it’s for him, but I do think there’s the elephant in the room. I don’t understand why, and you’ve tweeted a lot of their articles this week, about people not talking about living wages and this concept about the new proletarian. So it’s difficult, I don’t have anything else to say about it. 

KF: There’s this quote that comes up a lot in regards to this that it’s thought actually to be apocryphal and it’s attributed to Henry Ford but he probably didn’t really actually say it. Henry Ford was walking through a Ford plant and there were robots or automated machines making Fords. He’s walking through it with a union leader and says, “So how are you going to get union dues out of these things?” and the union leader turns to him and says, “Well, how are you going to sell them fords?” If you look at the UserVoice situation, they make customer service software so if their customers are people who sell things to consumers, and they don’t have jobs to buy stuff, then UserVoice’s customers aren’t going to have any customers. So it’s a problem.

CD: But there’s this mushiness in the valley, again this is my age and my experience talking, where people live for this barista mentality that it’s all about service and customer service and it’s not real, it’s not sustainable and no one actually lives their life and service to someone else. It’s as if we all live at Zappos and we all talk to each other. We work at Zappos. I’ve never quite understood it because I thought out there, there is no support for Facebook, there’s no one to call and unless you’re a customer for one of these companies it represents a lot about ultimately what’s going on. I don’t understand but there’s this mushiness in the valley. 

KF: What do you mean by mushiness?

CD: Again, I think this is one of those touch areas that I don’t do well. Obviously I’m not old but I grew up in an era where if you wanted to install software you ran around and sold it, that’s why we called it Sneakernet, right? And then as we got software to push software automatically, we put software in machines so we could push software to people. As soon as we got software that actually self heals we put a wrapper around software so it would fix itself. And then things like windows update came out, we didn’t have to worry about updates, but then we had to worry about building software that’s schedule the updates, and then we tested it, and then we built great big frameworks around all this.

Because at 44 I’ve lived through all of it, and some of these people just literally seem like they woke up with a phone and that’s the only piece of tech they’ve ever used, and an app update is something to be excited about, not something to be tested because it’s very focused on their world. There’s this mushy customer-centricness. Like every customer that calls me is the ultimately most valuable precious thing in the whole world and their right and it’s existed in old tech forever. We have customer service conferences about giving people free shoes and sending them flowers and telling them thank you for calling support center and then we have conferences for people who do hard tech work and not the real work of talking to customers.

So I say mushiness because I see a disconnect when I talk to certain people regardless of age in the valley between what they consider the role. I think Levy is one of the most vocal people about the disconnect. He never talks about it, he just makes these sweeping comments about old enterprise software versus new enterprise software. And I think what he’s saying is this isn’t your fathers internet and it’s not your uncle’s internet and it’s certainly not yours. I just wish people would man up not to use a sexist term and just kind of own the fact that, yes, gut up a little bit and just kind of say we can be a customer-centric world.

We can have customer-centric software. We can be customer-focused. That doesn’t mean that we abandon all the things that got us to this point. It doesn’t mean that we automate absolutely everything and that it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong in having a conversation. I would like us to have a conversation about what we’re doing with displaced people. I know a lot of people between 35 and 55 who are literally underemployed and they’ll never make what they used to make. I don’t know what that future looks like. 

KF: That reminds me of one of the other stories I wanted to mention just if you wanted to have a word of the week - Precariat which is a mash up of proletariat and precarious. It’s a Salon article this week about how the internet is destroying the working class. It focused more on what people are calling cloud labor, things like oDesk which we had our Mindful Cyborgs transcript done through and TaskRabbit and FancyHands and they’re breaking down what might have been a middle class office job for somebody and an executive assistant job for somebody, and then turning it into this thing where you get paid like thirty cents per task or something and you do a bunch of tasks for a whole bunch of different people. They didn’t mention this in the Salon article but there’s been a couple of good articles recently about how this is happening in blue-collar labor as well.

ProPublica just recently did a thing a few months ago, couple years ago by now, I can’t even remember. MotherJones did an article and they were both about LaborReady and how few companies have to actually hire anyone who’s doing ... manual labor implies really low-skilled work I guess but in a lot of cases it is pretty low-skilled work that LaborReady does, but again all these people have no semblance of job security. They don’t know what they’re going to make from day to day, let alone from week to week, or from month to month so there’s no way they can plan for the future. No one really has a stable job anymore I think anywhere, but there’s a growing number of people who have this ultra-precarious employment. It’s bound to effect everybody eventually. If you’re a company trying to sell things to people, who are you going to sell them to if no one can afford to buy anything or everyone is afraid to buy something because they don’t know where their next paycheck is going to come from? 

CD: Yes, the people I know don’t seem. There definitely is that ideology that they’re afraid to do but most of the people if I’m gut checking my actual herd, they don’t. They act like it doesn’t actually matter at all. I in good conscious sometimes wonder how they can actually do that. I sometimes look at my peers in my field and go, “Are you out of your mind? You do not have a job in six years. Your skillset is unsustainable in six years.” And I just have to kind of freeze and just kind of pause for a second and go, “What am I doing to help that person?” which gets a lot of psychological babble like, “Why do you even care?”

There’s this guy named Mike Rowe, who created something called Profoundly Disconnected and I saw him speak recently. He talked about when he was in school in the seventies, pretty much the same time I was in high school, there were these posters that said “work smart, not work hard” and the work smart was the guy in a college cap and gown and the guy the work hard was this guy who was doing manual labor. I was taught and my generation was taught that working smart, meant going to college and getting a degree, that you could get a stem degree of science and math or you could get an arts degree, but either way there was enough jobs out there that we would never have to do blue-collar work.

During this micro speech days, I met with companies like Caterpillar. Caterpillar has got 300 jobs paying 60-70,000 a year and they can’t find people to hire for these jobs. Not because we don’t have people who are willing to do the blue-collar work, but even the smartest people that get in there and some college educated people go, “Okay, I’ll run a machine.” When they ask me to do simple fractions in math, they can’t do. So there is this profound disconnection between what is work and I think it’s really the bottom layer of Mindful Cyborgs is what are we doing to ourselves and the world around us to prepare us for the future?

KF: There’s a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft. I haven’t read the book, I just read one of the big excerpts in the New York Times magazine in one of those articles that’s just exploited article but condensed version of a book, but he makes the case that there’s this real intellectual value in doing things like electrical work or auto mechanics and that sort of thing that they present better mental challenges than working in an office. I think that kind of ties back to what I was saying about that disconnect with the bar transit worker who said as if what they’re doing...

CD: Isn’t valuable.

KF: The irony is incredible to me because on one hand you have tech workers complaining that they can’t get to work because these guys on strike, and then at the same time they’re saying well what they do isn’t really valuable to society. Clearly it is because you depend on it so shouldn’t you be willing to pay for it if you depend on it? One of the business buzzwords about value based pricing now, there you go, that’s what the BART guys are doing.

CD: It’s definitely polarizing a topic, I agree with you. I just finished reading Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and I think, I just want to end on this point, a lot of people that I know believe if they get into tech or they get into some sort of business that they will become rich and they think the idea of rich is really skewed at least for some people that I know, that rich isn’t 30 or 40 million dollars. That’s slightly well off. Just getting by is 100 or 200 thousand dollars a year and anything below that ... when we literally are deluding ourselves, majority of the country doesn’t even make any of those funds and that you’re somehow going to work every day with this chance that you will become a Zuckerberg. The super-rich have literally a complete system now in which they live. We should record Mindful Cyborgs from Davos next year. If you want something absolutely cybernetic not real from the future where no one actually works, go to Davos. What else have you got for me?

KF: That’s depressing, still I think very interesting. I wrote an article this week about a pen that’s designed to help you learn to write better. I don’t mean write more clearly or be a better writer but actually improve your handwriting and your spelling.

CD: How?

KF: I talked to the guy, it was pretty interesting, and he talked about some studies and I was able to find one of them. When you’re young, learning to write by hand improves your cognition so that we really shouldn’t ever try skipping over handwriting and teaching kids to type. You don’t learn letters. You don’t learn the kind of special relationships the same way if you don’t learn that particular fine motor skill at an early age.

I think it’s called Lernstift, German for “learning pen”. It wirelessly transmits what you’re writing to a computer that has algorithms in it. Looks to see if your handwriting is sloppy or not or if you wrote a sloppy letter it vibrates to let you know “Hey, that was sloppy. Do it again.” When you spell something wrong, it prompts you with a vibration as well. Basically it makes you be more mindful of your handwriting and of your spelling.

CD: I love that. It took away the job of the tutor. Sorry, I didn’t mean to tie those two stories together. 

KF: One of the ideas he had was that it could be a tool for teachers. If they could have all the kids to have pens connected to one computer and then they can go through and look and see how the students are doing.

CD: I would love to see that tied to what we talked about in Episode 6 about the Melinda Gates and their sensors they were having their students wear. Again, the pen in combination with the sensor makes sense. Were they better or worse after lunch or were they better or worse when they first come in the morning, better or worse after gym? The pen on its own, I love the idea, but you know me and this whole quest I have for existence to become a platform, the two together ... there is a whole new workforce and a whole new set of skills in combining a sensored student and that tool that you’re describing. 

KF: There’s an API for it, so you can start building applications to collect the data of information. Do kids do better at different times and all that type of thing is going to be possible with this. 

CD: Yes, because ultimately if you had to write something beautiful, the pen should tell you you’re going to be better off Tuesday at 3:00. It’s exciting, the possibilities we have in these things. Speaking of exciting, I don’t know if you’ve been following the Scanadu Scout over in the Indiegogo scout sourcing site. It’s a medical tricorder.

KF: Yes, I have read about that one. That’s one of the guides that you get to own your data and you don’t have to automatically upload it to the Klout or anything. 

CD: Yes, it’s a tricoder and it does six things. It does variable heart rate which is a very interesting metric and we’ll have to have a show. I have a doctor who I’d love to have on the show, who was trying to explain to me why I wanted to collect that over just straight heart rate. It collects a lot of things but out of these nine things that it collects, the news this week was it broke the Crowdfunding record so they collected 1.378 million. They’re still saying it probably won’t be out until next year, but it’s one of the technologies that it’s come out of, have you heard of Singularity University?

KF: Yes.

CD: Singularity University is started with Ray Kurzweil on the NASA site there. Singularity University has a tech breakout so they had students come in and students spent ten days there. I’ll be there in October hopefully, I have signed up for class October 5-12. I was allowed to go, so I’m going. You spend the money to go, you’re there for ten days but they teach you these things but then these projects you create and then they go, “Actually this is really interesting. Would you like to do this?” So I don’t want to say it’s an angel thing but it’s a strange mix of university and ideology.

The mantra is very simple but what I thought was really missing from all the stories about the Scanadu Scout breaking this record was the fact that it was something that came out of somebody who attended Singularity University and like I said, actually if you want to create something we’ll help you do it. Which really says, going back to Profoundly Disconnected, when you’re in college doing these types of things, you can go down the academic route, keep it at the college, but should colleges be in the business of helping connect you to opportunities before you even leave school or while you’re in school? I don’t know.

KF: Research universities have always kind of done that to learn about finding funding for your project.

CD: But you’re not sitting with the funders, just people who want to fund while you are sitting there learning the same thing you are.

KF: Right.

CD: I just think it’s interesting.

KF: Yes, it is a different thing, but there’s precedent for it.

CD: So the scanner will be out next year and I don’t know about you but all of these Crowdfunding sites really have become my new app store. I spend more money on these sites. I get more email on things I’m backing than I get from my family. I’m starting to think the objects I’m backing are closer to me than my relatives Yes, it’s going to be interesting moving forward. With all of these kinds of micro backed things. I just saw in the news that the Pebble Watches now are going to be on sale in Best Buy. I mean it wasn’t even a year ago and that thing wasn’t even a reality. Any tweets of the week, any other stories?

KF: No, I don’t have any tweets. I do have a quote I can read to sign off with if you don’t have anything. 

CD: I got two tweets. Actually I just got one tweet for you. The tweet was about we had that really unfortunate air crash in san Francisco in the United States last week and the tweet was by @bigchaz and it reminded me of Nathan Jurgenson when he talked about documentary style vision. The tweet was by @bigchaz and he says, “1) Escape burning aircraft, 2) Run 20ft, 3) Take a picture, 4) Think about filter choice, 5) Post to Instagram.” And he’s got a picture of the plane and a guy taking a picture of the plane.

It’s been debunked, the guy puts on his path, there’s no filter on it. But I think the point is valid that the guy literally ran out of this burning plane, turned around and started snapping photos and put them on social media. There are people still running out of the plane and I think it’s pretty profound that his vision wasn’t run and save my life, his vision was document this. Document this now.

We’ve got some events coming up and then we’ll close with your quote. Buddhist Geeks, August 16-19 in Boulder, Colorado. They actually have a pretty big community going on online now. As I said I’ll be at Singularity University October 5-12. If you don’t know anything about Singularity University, definitely check it out. Not cheap, let’s just go to say that for the record. And then the Quantified Self Conference with our friend Ernesto in San Francisco October 10-1. And we’ll get some more events up there. If you have any events, let us know. We have a few listeners send us updates and even a few people who say, “Hey, would you have me on the show as a guest?” So, yes, we’re working on that. That would be great to have lots of you on because we appreciate the feedback and the love you give us over on Facebook. 500 and some fans already so it’s kind of crazy. What do you got to close out the show? 

KF: I wanted to read a quote that kind of addresses my own, I guess, hypocrisy regarding some of the stuff we were talking about early on about the tech industry imperialism. The quote is, “I’m with the invaders, no use trying to hide that. And at the same time I disagree with some of the things they are doing.” That’s William S. Burroughs from a spoken word piece on a ministry song called Quick Fix. It’s an interesting piece comparing an alien invasion to what happened in terms of the European invasion of North America, genocide of the native people. Burroughs acknowledges he’s a white guy and wealthy upbringing, but at the same time he is appalled by what the people of his class or ethnicity are doing to these other people. 

CD: Any time you can be aware for just a moment of your own surroundings or systems is a good moment to end on. So with that I’ll see you in two weeks with Episode 8. Thanks you so much, Klint.

KF: Yes, bye.