A Future with Underemployment

The April 2015 Atlantic contains an article by Kim Phillips-Fein entitled Why Workers Won’t Unite that provides a strong discussion of trends in underemployment, and why society is having a difficult time providing a unified response to this trend even as it happens before our eyes.  Phillips-Fein does a very good job of contrasting how labor pushed for systemic change during past crises with the present situation, where labor is defanged and where strategies for improving the situation are discussed academically, but not lowered into the den of political action. Some quotes:

Today, the labor movement’s decline is widely considered an irreversible reality– the inevitable outcome of globalization and automation, and the norm for a post-industrial economy, hardly worthy of comment.

..a narrow focus on skill building is an inadequate approach to tackling inequities, especially in an economy increasingly premised on short-term employment.

The realities of politics, visions of quality of life and labor power have changed so fundamentally that we are entering a space where our search for solutions is all about pioneering entirely new strategies; underemployment is a slippery slope that, like the gently heated water in a lobster pot, may just burn us far before disruptive events goad us into really responding like we mean it.

Products that think for people

Is this an April Fool’s joke? It isn’t, but the timing is right. Take a look at the website of the new Poppy products website.  Let the marketing wash over you. Some excellent quotes:

They anticipate your needs and make intelligent decisions to keep your family happy and healthy.

Nobody said new parenthood was easy — until now. While others stress over feedings, you’ll be worry-free with Poppy Formula.

We make products that think for you.

The marketing and product ethos are fascinating from the Robot Futures point of view because these products are supposed to basically replace parts of your brain for you. It is a balancing act between disempowerment and pleasurable convenience, and the boundary space here seems more humorous than serious. Will robots broaden our knowledge level and our potential for positive impact on the world, or will they replace various cognitive and manual functions a bit at a time? Did the copy writers talk to anyone who has actually had kids?

NYT Sunday Two-Fer

The New York Times sunday edition today has two very relevant articles, one on our robot futures and the second about education and accountability.

Starting with robotics, Mark Bittman- yes, the same Bittman who writes many an NYT recipe column- presents his own take on the chronic underemployment problem served to us by our future robots being developed today: Why Not Utopia. His underlying argument, that we need to rethink the fundamental social formula governing how we humans achieve equity and meaning in a future age with few jobs, hits the mark.  Well done Mark.

Now for education. The National section has a long-format report by Motoko Rich and Tamar Lewin, Fate of Education Law Generates Hope and Fear, that cuts to the heart of several issues I discuss in Parenting for Technology Education.  The authors points out how No Child Left Behind did its best work by forcing statistics to make educational inequity between race and gender entirely clear across the U.S. But the same act created negative feedback cycles by forcing increasing proficiency in an age of ever-redefined proficiency measures. Schools began, and continue, to react to the wrong stimuli, trying to force greater federal spending instead of focusing on the authentic well-being of the students. This article is right in line with my discussions, and points out a depressing current-day reality: the most recent federal budgets are about to further decrease funding in school districts, such as Philadelphia, where lack of funding is already causing chronic problems that will not be served at all well with more sticks in the form of budget reduction. Our children face a challenging technology future; making their everyday educational experience poorer is no way to help them in the face of this uncertain future.

Technology Fluency toy wins my approval: Ozobot

Thanks to my friends Rich and Bob for snagging me an Ozobot at SxSW, I have already watched my kids combine craft with robot programming using it. This is a great example of a technology device that leaves the field open for creativity and exploration- good stuff!


The children here are drawing mazes that the robot follows, then creating color sequences to try and experimentally determine all the color-sequence-codes that the robot understands, and what each does. Yes, you can go to the Internet and download it all. But this is far more interesting and challenging.