Monday, September 20, 2010

A Middling Problem, Part 1

"Ford!'' he said, "there's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out.'' -Douglas Adams

(This post goes out to Bix Santana of How to Cook A Yogi for inspiring me to get back to the blogging life. Thanks, Bix!)

Recently, veteran journalist Simon Head gave an afternoon’s-length workshop at NYU on “A Contrarian View of the American Economy in the Information Age”. This is worth mentioning for several reasons.

The first is found in the workshop’s title. Mr Head’s view, which he has been building on since his 2003 book, The New Ruthless Economy, is that today’s so-called knowledge workers are “de-skilled”, that is, forced by the pursuit of efficiency into ever-narrower, Taylorized categories of workplace behaviour. As a result, their skillsets are increasingly non-transferable. Technology itself – in particular, the IT systems designed to model and enhance complex corporate functions – abets this process by not only boosting productivity and thereby obviating the need for excess human labour, but also by rendering the remaining participants unfit for new employment. Once let go, what else can a call center worker pretend to be, other than a drone who can only follow a scripted decision tree?*

But to get back to the title: What’s so “contrarian” about this view? This is not a new theme for the world, and certainly not for Mr Head, who first deployed his future book’s title in a 1996 article for the NYRB. I was able to catch up with Mr Head during one of the breaks and asked him precisely what was so contrarian about his hypothesis. Mr Head is a Senior Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University, so I thought he was crossing swords with some obtuse mainstream phalanx of sociologists or economists. I was very surprised to hear that, according to him, the prevailing view was represented by the likes of Chris Anderson of Wired, Nicolas Negroponte and Clay Shirky of NYU.

Now, beyond the completely justified drubbing meted out to Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project not just by the free market but also by the project’s former employees (I mean this in a purely amoral sense, just as the market itself did), I don’t know much about Negroponte. He just seems na├»ve, so I’ll leave him out of it. But having waded through more than my share of breathless bullshit propagated solely for the purpose of generating buzzword income for the techno-industrial complex, Wired is justifiably the Omni Magazine of our time. Actually, scratch that, since even Omni had the modesty to label at least part of its content ‘science fiction’.

As for Clay Shirky, I tar him with much the same brush. He belongs to the same cabal of ‘thought leaders’ that will be among the first to be boiled down into Soylent Green by our impending robot overlords. You can grind your teeth through his TEDTalk on ‘cognitive surplus’, or you can read Jonah Lehrer’s very nicely mannered takedown of same, or you can just recall Wilensky’s dictum, that

We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.**

Negroponte’s OLPC project at least spawned the netbook industry, but persuading people that they possess creative prowess that they do not have – or, worse, have no need to cultivate – is the mark of a dilettante and demonstrably harmful to society.

So much for our ‘intellectual mainstream'. I won’t dwell on whether Head actually considers them as necessary ground for his counterpoint, or whether they’re merely fish in a barrel. Let us return to the matter at hand, which is indeed quite serious.

The second item worth mentioning about Head’s workshop is this: at one time, this talk of ‘de-skilling’ might have been dismissed as so much milquetoast Marxist kvetching, but it has been rendered urgent by the appearance of what seems to be, by all accounts, structural unemployment. Is there a connection?

First, let’s be clear about what structural unemployment means. It is, quite simply, a mismatch between the jobs on offer and the skills and/or mobility of the available workforce. It doesn’t matter if the jobs are there, if you don’t know how to do it, or can’t get to it (for example, if your mortgage is so far underwater that you can’t afford to sell your house, hint). The position remains effectively unfilled. You can’t go from being a fashion model to being an art conservator, at least not overnight.

There have been clear traces of structural unemployment in our current situation. What is interesting is that this phenomenon may not just be caused by occupational or mobility issues, but also by technological phenomena (a possibility already noted by other observers). In fact, a recent piece in the Economist bolsters Head’s view nicely. In addition to the ongoing, ever-more-dramatic polarization of income in the United States, we are also witnessing – in both the US and Europe – a ‘hollowing-out’ of middle-skill middle-income occupations, such as “salespeople, machine operators and factory supervisors”. The most important thing to realize here is that we are not talking about the stereotypical 3rd-generation autoworker bathing in entitlement. We are talking about the the middle class that is the aggregate demand in this country.

It should be noted that the studies cited by the Economist article also unfortunately question Mr Head’s prescription of unionization as the answer to this “de-skilling”, as the pattern of joblessness is “similar in countries with very different levels of unionisation, prevalence of collective bargaining and welfare systems”.

Thus, in a supremely ironic gesture, America has just about innovated itself out of existence. Whether it’s moving to the cloud or capitalizing on high-frequency trading algorithms, corporations are putting paid the idea that immunity exists for those who are high enough on the value chain.

But wait, I hear you say, can’t education save us? That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Re-train and all will be Morning in America again? This will be the subject of my next post.

* Which brings up an interesting point. Head mentions the fact that, at least in the earlier history of manufacturing, when a worker’s machine broke it was not unusual for him (yes, him) to have the skills and tools with which to fix it. One pauses to consider if the advent of microcontroller-driven assembly lines are in fact the material reason why Toyota instituted the ability for its Japanese workers to stop the assembly lines. That is, you didn't have a choice but to stop the line when you noticed something was wrong, since you couldn't fix it yourself. Not even kandan is what it seems.

** It is worth noting that at some point Wired picked up the first half of that quote – which does have a long and interesting history to it – and wrote it up as one of the “best thought experiments”, ascribing its coolness to the fact that “our minds have a hard time grasping the infinite. Mathematically, it's true.” Thanks, Wired!).


  1. Good piece. Went a long way to helping me understand "structural unemployment" and clearing up something I read in The Onion a few months back. They reported that according to the Labor Department, so many women had become yoga teachers that the country was now facing a serious shortage of massage therapists. I suspect people are going to be really sore about this.

  2. I remember that article. It's my contention that supply and demand will be brought into balance as a result of two consequential trends:

    1) in a saturated marketplace, a certain number of mediocre yoga teachers won't be able to make a living, and will return to being massage therapists;

    2) at the same time, those mediocre yoga teachers will have injured so many students that the demand for massage therapists will spike.

    this is what is known as equilibrium.