Uh-Oh

Here is an article that distills a lot of what we’ve been talking about here at EOW into two simple categories:

Physical work, which is the first work to get extensively automated and

Mental work, which is now, relatively recently, getting the same systematic treatment that older physical work has.

Here’s a paragraph that hooked me:

 

To be frank, I’m not that sorry for them. Over the years, I have come to realize just how many skilled white-collar professionals are just phoning it in when they go to work every day. They fill out paperwork and connect the easy dots in pre-established formulas, rather than doing original, creative, conceptual thinking. Chances are you’ve seen one of those “mystery diagnosis” shows on cable TV, the ones that tell you the story of some guy who suffers a mysterious, debilitating ailment for years before he finally finds a specialist who tells him he has some rare disease. It seems like every one of those shows begins with a doctor who listens to the patient’s symptoms, plugs them into a common, familiar, and completely wrong diagnosis, and then lets it go at that. It begins with a doctor who’s going through the motions rather than doing original thinking to solve the problem.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the falling value (and rising price) of a university diploma, and this is part of the reason for it. Much of a contemporary university education is designed to train dot-connectors, to fill students’ heads with established formulas and the received wisdom, but not to teach the kind of creative problem-solving that can only be learned, in my experience, by going beyond the canned knowledge peddled in the classroom and dealing with actual, real-world challenges.

[my emphasis]

 

It also strikes me how many “knowledge professionals” want to race to stuff some problem they’ve encountered into a known (to them) model or paradigm because it relates so strongly to how they make profit in their work.  The irony to me is how they racing to become…machine like.  Is it any wonder than we want the REAL machines to do more and more of these tasks?

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Hidden Virtues

I often wonder how much time in traditional jobs are people there less to do the work, but more to fill in a “slot”.  Now, I’m not saying people in jobs don’t work…but rather, how much of their working time is defined by the needs of others, of organizations rather than the task of work itself.  I say this reflecting on my own past work.  I was hired by a place because my background matched perfectly what they wanted me to do which they thought would take 2 years. So I left my older employer, got a fairly big raise, and looked at the task they wanted me to do….and it was nowhere near 2 years work.  Not even close.  It took me awhile to realize that no one there had really thought through what a software project would take.  They weren’t programmers…far, far, far more hardware oriented folks.  When I took the time to sit through and code what they needed (in a tiny, tiny closet filled with hardware racks, air conditioning vents to keep the hardware from frying, 1 Monitor, no phone, barely room for one chair, set in the midst of a titanic industrial environment)

4 months later….I was done.   What a mistake!  At first my bosses didn’t believe that I could finish a ‘2 year task’ in 4 months…..this involved me ever-so-politely pointing out to them they had no idea how software projects are designed, which, after a time sunk in.  When I asked ‘what now?” they said, “We’ll figure it out.”  Weeks later they had not.   More weeks went by.  My coworkers resented me not working on their hardware projects and only dimly grasped that I knew absolutely nothing about their hardware and they had zero patience/willingness for teaching me.  So I sat.  And sat.  And sat some more.  People thought I was being clever to get a check and do nothing. I hated it.  Every attempt I made to try and break out of my rabbit cage was discouraged with flamethrowers.  ‘No. Sit. We’ll get back to you’  When I made a huge list of the software projects that could have been done…just by me…my boss looked at me like I wanted to re-enact the Manhattan Project on his budget.  No. Sit.

Eventually, I quit.  Today, I probably would have cashed the checks and laughed at the Fools Employing Me, but back then I just hadn’t reached Schadenmaturity.  I could sure use the cash now.

Think this an isolated case?  That capitalism would weed out such companies?  I have dozens, literally dozens of such stories from folks, from failed companies and still prospering ones.  Get a few drinks in me and I have stories about a yacht club(!) that was conned into a computer that the NSA could use to crack codes…and the Potemkin staff they hired for a set of bizarre set of reasons, none of which were around the machine they bought.

I apologize for the long screed.  How does this connect to EOW?  That’s easy.  More, and more and more of work can’t afford this kind of nonsense, within companies and without.  No one wants to really say what they feel:   Companies frequently make people unproductive.  As the responsibility gets push on us, we’ll develop more of a sense that the reward will move downward as well.  It may not, but that’s what we feel should be the case, and the more we feel that way the more we will be trying to make it happen.  Companies have, for a long time, berated “inefficient” employees; this will turn on the companies themselves when people really embrace their awareness of how effective they are compared to the organizations they are with.  You know better what makes you work at your best more than your boss does.

 

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The Longue Duree

For purposes of this blog, history really begins at the point where we go from being an agricultural economy/culture to….whatever comes next, usually industrialization.  And when we go from that second phase of economy to what we are now….that change happens faster and harder than the first.  And what we’re going through now?  I see the flames coming outta the engine of the Batmobile my friends!   This set of cycles, these ‘interlocking rings’ of tech, economy and culture are going on everywhere not just the US or Europe.  To be sure, how other places do this doesn’t have to replicate our experience, but may be informed by it.  Iceland went from an almost Medieval culture at the start of the 20th century to building modern cities, poof, from whole cloth thanks to the economic miracle known as the codfish! (See, Cod by Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite books of the last few years!)

But it is quite sobering how much evil and suffering have occurred throughout the world in the same relatively short time.  When I read accounts of the First Battle of the Marne in WWI, I wind up feeling like we just handed monkeys machine guns and artillery and let them kill 100,000 people and wound another 400,000….in a week.  Even more sobering….that’s merely the tip of the iceberg of horrors in the last 150 years.  You know the names of the more famous horrors; do I have to spell them out?

Plus, there’s nothing to say that things won’t even get worse.  That’s the danger in times like this; the ‘solutions’ we think make sense may indeed damage things, well, I won’t say ‘beyond repair’, but such that fixing them will be exceptionally difficult.  Once we get behind bad ideas they entrench just as deeply as good ones.

But if there’s one thing I have confidence in, especially in America, is that we will work out things and the flaws of the old regime will be things we make fun of in the future.  I think it’s because we really don’t value the past all that much.  I know a lot of people that view this as a flaw, but I generally don’t!  There comes a point when we’ve peaked out with the old ways even though it’s hard to see.  I’ve long believed that everything becomes its own parody.

And, sort of amazingly, even older things get better than they were.  We’re far better at growing food than we were 150 years ago, and we’re better, more effective manufacturers than we were 70 years ago.  So, while we ride the wave of change, remember that we will find a way to build on what we’ve done.  The “information economy” we’ve been building for the last 30-40 years I view as kind of developing a ‘central nervous system’  for us as a culture.   But what brain will form from this?

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Looking forward…

Not everything here on End of Work….we’re looking to get out of this mess we are in as both individuals and as a nation.

So we’re starting to see that the frustration with the current way things are is now leading to the rejection of the Old Ways and we begin to search for the new.  This article in the Atlantic is one of several that are starting to point the way.  Now, I’m as sure about how much these changes will come from any one geographic region, as this writer is stressing the South, but let me give you a nice quote from it I really liked.

 

Most places, he says, might as well be sprayed with “startupicide.” Startupicide is what damps down and repels startups and those who would build them. “I could see the average town was like a roach motel for startup ambitions,” he writes. “Smart, ambitious people went in, but no startups came out.”

Startups are fragile things by their very nature — few succeed even under the best of circumstances. What makes Silicon Valley and a very few other places different, he noted, was that their culture contained an antidote to Startupicide — such places embrace an ethos that encourages rather than crushes startups and the broader mentality from which they grow. “The problem is not that most towns kill startups. It’s that death is the default for startups, and most towns don’t save them,” Graham notes. “Instead of thinking of most places as being sprayed with startupicide, it’s more accurate to think of startups as all being poisoned, and a few places being sprayed with the antidote.”

Jane Jacobs identified almost exactly the same dynamic when I asked her some years ago why only a handful of places pioneer innovations and unleash the creativity of their residents, while most are content to sputter along, stagnate, and even die. “Each and every community,” she told me, “is filled with lots and lots of creative and innovative people.” The trouble is with a small core of people she dubbed “Squelchers,” who are instinctively opposed to doing anything new or different. Unfortunately, these people are often a town’s business and political leaders. You’ve probably seen them in action; maybe you’ve even bumped up against them yourself.

Only a handful of places are endowed not only with a great research university, but a culture that tolerates and actively encourages risk-taking. Most places prefer to play it safe. But doing more of the same is hardly an option when your prospects are as bleak as they are for so many cities these days. The economic crisis has brought us to a great tipping point, what I have elsewhere termed a Great Reset — an epoch when creative destruction spreads from technologies and industries to society, culture, and geography at large; when new business models, new institutional systems, and new geographic clusters of innovation and risk-taking come to the fore. A Great Reset is one of those rare occasions when “Squelchers” and their old squelching ways are transcended, when more and more people and places can get access to the antidote to startupicide.

….
Despite what the die-hard Squelchers might want you to believe, the Start-Up Nation is growing. Part of this growth pattern is borne of necessity. With the economy in tatters and government all but broke, there’s little choice but to go out and build something for yourself with your colleagues, fellow-travellers, and friends. Startups are much less capital-intensive than they once were. Partly because of the better tools we have at our disposal (the Internet, advanced software, etc.), partly because we live in a more modular economy that allows critical functions, from manufacturing and distribution to design and marketing, to be subcontracted out. Some of it is because others have done it, and we’ve seen what they can do. And a lot of it is from a cultural revolution: the fading of an old dream that saw a good job, a big house, and a big car as the goals by which success was measured, and the emergence of a new one that sees the challenge of building something novel and unique as the key to true fulfillment.

 

I’m working on a piece related to this that I’ll have up shortly.

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Crowdsource My Life II: This Time It’s Personal

Ok….Tomorrow we’re having an “idea party” for me to see what I can do to raise more revenue/ find more work/ do more crazy stuff.

Amba suggested I write up stuff about my life/skills/interests and here it is!

 

What I do/know

Programming
Many years of writing in C,  also C++
Fortran, Pascal are among my languages
Nearly all this programming is “process control” programming;  controlling sensors in Auto emissions test equipment, steel mills, water treatment plants

I also have done a lot of “simulations” programming where you simulate a process like an assembly line or a queue like  a hospital with a very specific language
I have taught many other professionals in this language, both formally and informally.  I have also given many simulation presentations to groups.
I have also written technical materials for the ACT.
Obviously, I’m pretty Internet aware, and was in a startup for an internet bookstore.
I’ve taught adults in many programs, and progamming languages, both formally and informally!

Interests
I do have academic interests,  so let’s deal with those first.
Many of my interests center around History, specifically Roman History, Military History, and 20th century History.  I have done a lot of reading in those areas, and have some experience doing academic research in libraries.
I also have a large Philosophy/Literary interest ( one of my two college majors being Philosophy) with a pretty strong specialized knowledge of Nietzsche.

Pop Culture stuff.
Strong Movie History knowledge.  (Specialty in Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Kubrick)
Very strong Baseball knowledge; I’ve done quite a bit of work for Project Retrosheet, an attempt to get every play by play of every major league game.
Quite a bit of pop music knowledge (Specialty in The Beatles)
I have large music, comic book, and movie collections.   I even have a collection of art created for me from comics artists around a theme…. Comic Book characters attacking computers!
I have a game collection of over 300 games…and have designed a card game.  I was a playtester for a game that sold thousands of copies.

Now, I may have missed a thing or two…those of you who know me….goading/prompting is accepted.  We stress the positive here, but not the dour; the more ‘out of the box’, the more intriguing…..the better!   As we have said…I’m the guinea pig, and how well I do will connect with we do this for others.

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The idea is spreading….

This post on Seth Godin’s blog, (thanks Instapundit!)  goes right to the heart of what we discuss here….that the old “jobs” based economy has gone.  It’s a good read, and the ending couldn’t ring truer to me:

” No one is demanding that we like the change, but the sooner we see it and set out to become an irreplaceable linchpin, the faster the pain will fade, as we get down to the work that needs to be (and now can be) done. This revolution is at least as big as the last one, and the last one changed everything.”

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Crowdsource My Life…Please!

No, Uncle Miltie will not solve the nation’s problems….though not for lack of trying!  No, we’re about to try something exciting here at EOW.  We’ll be having something like one of Barbera Sher’s “Idea Parties”  very soon!   Watch this space for further developments!

 

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