Service jobs and Underemployment: waiting for noone

Thanks to Randy Sargent for sending along Computer Tablets Take over Part of Restaurant Server’s Job, an NPR story broadcast a few days ago, by Stacey Vanek Smith. The story dives into the use of Ziosk, an electronic food ordering and payment system at Uno’s in Framingham, and enters the uncomfortable and important territory of just what we yield when automation replaces yet another service job. We have quantitative behavioral analysis of the restaurant patrons, of the servers and of course a distancing of humans as technology takes yet another role away from human mediation. Will these ‘bots make some patrons happy? Sure- read the comments below the fold on the on-line transcript, if you have a strong constitution. But they will also again shift the calculus of employment, putting more future jobs under threat of large-scale automation and underemployment.

Trading Privacy and Accountability for Convenience

A short but bang-on article from Baratunde Thurston at Fast Company does a good job reminding us how we are always willing to trade away privacy and control for the sake of convenience, in his case by using common authentication from Facebook, Twitter, Google and others. His article points out how this behavior helps us until it becomes a disaster following identity theft. Thurston’s proposed solutions are technological and service-focused– let us revoke connections and permissions, for instance; but the bigger issue is that, as Thurston rightly points out, all these free conveniences are hardly free. We are the digital labors of the twenty-first century- unpaid and, instead, earning monetization opportunies for corporations everywhere by revealing our behavior in ever more specific and comprehensive ways.  When does this slippery slope trade end?

Automation and Employment: a new book

This Sunday’s New York Times book review had a cover story on Rise of the Robots, a new book by Martin Ford. Ehrenreich describes how Ford is talking through the ongoing threat to jobs that is posed by automation technologies.  Refreshingly, she dives into the question of “innovating our way out of this,” recognizing, as Ford does, that innovation alone is no longer going to compensate for all the job loss invoked through automation that increases company productivity with scant employment requirements. I will order and read Rise of the Robots and provide my own analysis in short order.

Ehrenreich explains that Ford’s proposed solution, a $10,000 minimum annual salary for all, is the best our clever but feeble minds can put together just now. I beg to differ. This minimum salary does not solve the problem- far from it. We need livelihoods and senses of purpose; and we need to rethink the externalities of automation, and how we distribute their true cost in society.