Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Dystopias, or Not

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I was actually having a pleasant afternoon, thinking about this blog, when I ran into a perennial problem.  Somebody or the other in an official capacity whose help I need to get something done looked at my paperwork, saw I was self-employed, and demanded to see “a profit and loss statement” for the “business.”

But, of course, I don’t run a business, I don’t even know what a profit and loss statement looks like, even if I wrote done my expenses they’d be mostly negligible and they wouldn’t make any sense (shipping, $5.95), so it is literally not possible to give her what she wants.

I’ve got a call in.  I’ll straighten it out eventually.  It just gets really tiring to have to explain this stuff over and over and over again.

But as to Mike’s dystopian future, a couple of things.

First,  I tend to think that we always bitch and moan that everybody’s job is being destroyed by technology and they’ll be left to starve in the street, but that isn’t what usually happens.  When X job becomes obsolete, people tend to move on to Y, and Y is often something nobody expected. 

I don’t know if the workers in the buggy whip factory were feckless enough to drift off into nothingness when the automobile arrived, but my guess is that most of them–or their sons–got jobs in automobile factories.

My friend’s mother who was a keypunch operator many years ago became a data entry clerk working on a computer, then a customer service rep where all her work was on a computer and the data was already entered.  Those jobs didn’t exist when she got the keypunch job, and the keypunch job didn’t exist when she first started working.

That said, I know the transition isn’t easy most of the time, and it’s impossible for some people.  But I don’t know what you’d even want to do about that.  Stopping change isn’t a good thing, and it isn’t possible in the long run. 

I don’t expect that we’ll end up with the “owners” who own everything and the rest of us starving in the street, for a number of reasons.

The most important of these is that the “owners” only get their money by virtue of the rest of us spending ours.   Nintendo won’t make gobs of money eliminating work for the people who buy GameBoy DSes and Wiis.  That’s not the stuff you buy when you’re poor. 

The stuff that worries me is not the rich having lots of money, but a couple of tendencies that are society wide.

The first is the “professionalization” of everything, and its concommittant bureaucratization.

That tendency wrecks not just individuals, but entire businesses. 

I’ve spent the week watching Borders crash and burn, and it’s a classic case.  When that chain started, it had several things going for it over its competitors, as well as economies of scale going for it over the local mom and pop places in the towns were it moved in.

It had a staff that knew books, for one thing.   They knew them and they loved them, and they stayed for years in a single location just to be around the books and talk to people (customers) about them.   It had carefully constructed ties to the local communities, too, staging events and targetting displays with what it knew to be local interest.

Then the money men moved in, and the inevitable happened.  The experienced and knowledgable staff was let go for cheaper clerks who might never have read a book, but were willing to work for peanuts.  Cut costs and you’ll make more money, right? 

The local interest stuff mostly went, too, in favor of campaigns directed for the central office.  After all, why give away free publicity when you could get publishers to pay for it.  Want a place for your book up near the front doors?  That’ll cost you.   How about a place on the newsletter’s “recommended” list?  That’ll cost you, too.

This is an enormously stupid way to run a bookstore, but in and of itself it wouldn’t bother me.  Doing nonsense like that will usually get you…well, what it got Borders this week. 

And that’s life.  The next guy who comes along will look at your mistakes and do things differently.  That’s how the world runs.  Oh, well.

Except, not now. 

The big problem with what just happened to Borders is that the next guy to come along can’t fix it.  Even Borders can’t fix it.  Why?

Because it would take literally decades to prove that the more expensive plan is a better business plan in the long run.  In the short run, if you do all those expensive things Borders did when it was first starting out, and you’re a public company–there will be a stockholder’s suit in no time flat, and the courts will demand that you do that cost cutting stuff right now.  Otherwise, you’re not acting in the best interests of the stockholders, which are defined as having their stock go steadily up in price.

This is, by the way, why you can’t find anything to watch on TV.   Advertisers pay a premium for a single demographic:  single people without children between the ages of 18 and 34. 

The more of this group your television station can attract, the higher the price it can charge per quarter minute of advertising time. 

Of course, this demographic is naturally limited in size, and with everybody chasing after it you’re going to lose what profit you could have made satisfying the other demographics who are searching desperately for something to watch–but, hey, your stockholder’s action group sees you’re targetting senior citizens and the ad dollars you can get from that are half what you can get for the golden demographic, and there comes another law suit.

Too many decisions aren’t discretionary any more.   And that includes everything from the core mission of a business (see above), to who it hires (don’t care what the labor pool is like in your area, your numbers better not trip any wires at EOC), to how it furnishes its offices (no stationary chairs at computer stations, even if you have to let go your best secretary when she can’t sit in them).

Businesses hire incompetent college graduates and turn away very competent high school graduates for the same job–because you can’t prove competence at a discrimination hearing, but you can prove credentials.  They follow elaborate rules on workplace “safety’ that often don’t make much sense but that are the only protection they have if somebody complains. 

But it’s not just businesses that have that problem.  Under the HIPPA laws, a nurse can lose not just her job, but her license, for giving out information she isn’t authorized to give out.  Under mandatory reporting laws, she can lose both if she doesn’t report any “suspicion” she might have of child or elder abuse.  It just makes sense to refuse to give out any information at all until she’s ordered to, even if that means that an old woman will die without being able to see her children at the end.  It just makes sense to report anything at all that anybody at all might think is strange, even if her gut is telling her that it isn’t that kind of thing at all.

Then there are teachers, who find themselves in the position of having to deliver mandated results made up by people who seem never to have entered a classroom at all–and to do it while making sure that virtually all of their charges get to graduate from high school. 

The nearly breathless stupidity of this is hard to fathom unless you’ve taught somebody these days.  The No Child Left Behind standards seem to have been somebody’s wish list of what every child should learn, unrelated in any way to what children actually learn and even more unrelated to the facts on the ground about differences in school populations.

It might have been plausible if the other side of it had been simply to flunk the kids who didn’t meet standards.  Here’s what it means to complete the sixth grade.  If you do it, fine.  If you don’t do it, come back and try again next year, or not. 

Instead, we blamed the teachers and the schools and acted as if there weren’t anything at all in the way of “success” except the schools not trying.

Which doesn’t mean they were trying, but you see what I’m saying here.

The other thing that gets to me is this:  we aren’t seeing “jobs” disappear, we’re seeing certain kinds of jobs disappear.  The issue isn’t doctors and lawyers and university professors and architects and engineers.  We’ll still have those.

The issue is bogus “white collar” jobs, many of which were makeshift to begin with.  They existed because we needed some place to put our kids who got “college” degrees that weren’t really college degrees. 

It doesn’t bother me at all that paralegals may be elbowed out by smart machines.  I know what paralegals do, at least in the law firms I’m used to.   They’re paid better than secretaries–most law firms insist their paralegals have “degrees”–but they do work the secretaries did better. 

As to the “junior associates,” the fact is that we’re turning out far more law school graduates than we have work for anywhere, and more and more of them from largely undistinguished and undemanding programs. 

They’re like a lot of other “college graduates” we’re producing, including a fair number of PhDs who do not in fact have the training their “degrees” say they have and who in fact cannot do the actual work of the business or profession they want to enter. 

But we’ve turned university education into a vast industry, the health of which requires more and more “students” taking more and more courses, no matter how lame or useless.

And those students will come out and simply refuse to take the kind of job they went to “college” to escape from.

And the result of all this is that kids who are not rich now have a harder time than they ever have before getting an actual college education.  When the budget cuts hit, the local state college isn’t going to cut business administration and elementary education.  It’s going to cut French, classics and physics, because, you know, nobody takes those.

I seem to have gone on and on forever here, and done it without ever getting into Kelo.

Maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

February 17th, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Dystopias, or Not'

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  1. Brava.

    “Because it would take literally decades to prove that the more expensive plan is a better business plan in the long run.”

    Most corporations in the US seem to run a quarterly finacial reporting system with “forecasts”. In Oz, I think it’s six monthly (but I don’t know for sure.” In either case, the “short term” is all that counts to modern stock-markets which drive modern management.

    We’re doomed.


    17 Feb 11 at 7:11 pm

  2. Let’s not let the students off the hook altogether. There are, even now, jobs going begging that require good technical skills or languages, but sociology or political science majors get a lot more free time evenings and weekends in college than people studying biochemistry or Chinese. Those might not be a “real” education, but they will keep you from living with your parents after graduation.

    For credentialism, I blame Hubert Humphrey, who pioneered the notion of making it a federal crime to fire or fail to promote someone for the “wrong” reasons. Since we can’t tell what the boss is thinking, we’ve been reduced to putting as little discretion in the system as possible. We can’t use tests, since if the test results don’t pass the same percentage of every government-defined group, this is held to prove the tests are biased. All that leaves is credentials–backed up by those endless, stupid performance reviews.

    If you want people to behave like adult human beings and not machines, you have to repeal laws which compel them to act like badly-programmed robots.

    I could rant about workplace regulation and judicial interference in corporate practices, but I’d be repetitious. We are reaping what we have sewn.

    Borders. It wasn’t all lawsuits. You wouldn’t need a quarter to prove competent help earn their keep. My home town Borders always had to fight with “corporate” because they sold too many mysteries for their size store. Even bean counters should know enough to stock more of what sells.


    17 Feb 11 at 8:32 pm

  3. I have often seen clains that the highly advanced technology countries all have large numbers of young people in university. Its used to support the argument that we should expand university enrollment.

    Perhaps it the other way around. Only highly advanced technology countries can afford to have large numbers of young people spending years in classrooms.


    18 Feb 11 at 12:34 am

  4. That’s not entirely true, Mique. Reporting is quarterly, but planning is usually based on fiscal years and most companies I’ve worked for have at least a five-year plan. Any farther out than that is just pulling numbers out of your ass, anyway.

    As for Borders – I’m sorry to see this happen. I don’t go to Borders often because it’s not convenient, but I like them much, much better than Barnes & Noble – what a disorganized mess those stores are. I’d love to have a good locally owned bookstore close enough to use, but they’re either in the city, where I rarely go, or they’re teeny little idiosyncratic things with a stocking plan that matches the owner’s tastes and nothing else.

    However, I doubt that Borders’ woes are entirely due to mismanagement. How does any bookstore compete with Amazon? I was doing some research for a paper last weekend and was able to find three of the books I need on the Amazon used sellers’ page for a couple of bucks each. For that it’s not even worth going to the library, let alone another bookstore.


    18 Feb 11 at 11:05 am

  5. “but, hey, your stockholder’s action group sees you’re targetting senior citizens and the ad dollars you can get from that are half what you can get for the golden demographic, and there comes another law suit.”

    Which groups are becoming,bit by bit, less important as companies increasingly take themselves private:


    Where fewer and fewer people own the company, the less relevant stock owners become. Facebook, you will not, got half a billion dollars — and no pesky stockholders to contend with.

    Forgive me if I make multiple small posts. I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff relevant to my comments over that past few days and it may take some time to track what I can of it back down.


    18 Feb 11 at 11:37 am

  6. “When X job becomes obsolete, people tend to move on to Y, and Y is often something nobody expected”

    Less and less so. Particularly with the success of Watson”

    ” don’t assume that means artificial intelligence won’t replace workers. Nearly all jobs in today’s economy are specialized, and as applications like Watson become more versatile and affordable, they will be used in a variety of areas, especially in large organizations.

    Machine learning is not limited to knowledge-based jobs and tasks. Heartland Robotics, a startup company founded by Rodney Brooks, a researcher at MIT, is reportedly developing a trainable manufacturing robot that will cost as little as $5,000 — a price point that makes up less than two months of a typical worker’s pay and benefits.

    While Heartland is initially focusing on manufacturing, the most significant impact on workers in the United States will come if and when low-cost, trainable robots and other forms of automation are used in the service sector.

    For many lower wage jobs, automation has been kept at bay by a human worker’s unique ability to recognize complex visual images and then interact with their environment accordingly. But machines and robots are growing increasingly dexterous and better at seeing and understanding the world around them. Robots in Japan, for example, are able to autonomously pick strawberries, selecting only the ripest berries based on their color.

    The technologies that power Watson will likely find their way into a variety of software applications and robots that can compete for both high and low skill jobs. ”


    “We are currently collaborating with a global pool of experts and applied scientists to take Watson’s underlying capabilities even further — into healthcare, financial services and government,” she said.

    Imagine a “massively intelligent physician’s assistant” who can out-House Dr. House, “comparing the symptoms of an individual patient with millions of related case histories to suggest accurate diagnoses,” Collins explained.

    As a wired Warren Buffett, Watson could answer personal financial questions such as “What should I do with a $50,000 inheritance?” without greed or personal bias. More sophisticated financial risk managers seeking answers to hypothetical scenarios — “What happens if China’s Central Bank raises interest rates by 50 basis points tomorrow?” — could count on Watson to “build an interactive risk-pricing system using a menu of models that evolve over time as the system learns,” Collins said.”


    In other words, almost NO jobs are safe.

    What job do you move to when a box is made that can already to it, without needing any pay or benefits? When the boxes have other boxes to design, build, and maintain them?

    If your computer is a web-based, web-centric machine running off a truly high speed (gigabit or better) connection, what need of a local computer tech?

    Googles Chrome operating system is designed so that if a Chrome netbook/laptop develops a problem, the user can just push a custom button — and the entire OS is reloaded from the web. All the applications are web centric, so THEY run off the web, and the data is stored — on the web. The computer is a disposable appliance. If it PHYSICALLY breaks, you just get a new one. All your “stuff” is safe on the web. It can easily reach the point where all the actual computing takes place on the web so the netbook/laptop/workstation is nothing but a dumb terminal so even “upgrades” will be a thing of the past.

    “over the past century and a half the shift from being a largely agrarian society to one in which less than 1 percent of the United States labor force is in agriculture is frequently cited as evidence of the economy’s ability to reinvent itself.

    That, however, was before machines began to “understand” human language. Rapid progress in natural language processing is beginning to lead to a new wave of automation that promises to transform areas of the economy that have until now been untouched by technological change.

    “As designers of tools and products and technologies we should think more about these issues,” said Pattie Maes, a computer scientist at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Not only do designers face ethical issues, she argues, but increasingly as skills that were once exclusively human are simulated by machines, their designers are faced with the challenge of rethinking what it means to be human.”


    To make a quick summary — Watson, manufacturing robots that are capable of “learning” and visual recognition etc. are on the brink of making most human occupations superfluous.

    And if the only jobs left are the most creative ones at the highest level – as the NYT article says “The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them,” — well fine, but there will be damned few of those jobs, the competition for them fierce – and robots will have replaced the workers at the fast food places, the grocery stockers . . . if they can replace the security guards there won’t be muck to do at the store. You won’t need computer techs, most of the machines will be fixing themselves, or be disposable.

    AI at the level of Watson is a huge game changer, on the level of the industrial revolution and electricity combined. BUT. Unlike those two, it leaves open a very real question of just what could be left for most people to do?

    It is no longer possible to assert that “a machine will never ‘x’ “.

    A machine probably will, and probably sooner than you think.


    18 Feb 11 at 12:14 pm

  7. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    18 Feb 11 at 12:34 pm

  8. Why the stock market (and hence stockHOLDERS) are increasingly irrelevant:



    18 Feb 11 at 12:47 pm

  9. Ah, found this one right on the heels of the last one, sorry:

    Wall Street’s Dead End

    “Nor are the remaining stocks an obvious proxy for the health of the American economy. Innovative American companies like Apple and Google may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but most of them don’t pay dividends or employ many Americans, and their shares are essentially speculative investments for people making a bet on how we’re going to live in the future.

    “Put another way, as the number of initial public offerings steadily declines, the stock market is becoming little more than a place for speculators and algorithms to compete over who can trade his way to the most money.”

    “Apple, for instance, is hugely profitable and sits on an enormous pile of cash; it is thus very unlikely to use its highly rated stock to pay for any acquisitions. It hasn’t used the stock market to raise money since 1981, and there’s a good bet it never will again.

    Meanwhile, the companies in which people most want to invest, technology stars like Facebook and Twitter, are managing to avoid the public markets entirely by raising hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars privately. You and I can’t buy into these companies; only very select institutions and well-connected individuals can. And companies prefer it that way.

    A private company’s stock isn’t affected by the unpredictable waves of the stock market as a whole. Its chief executive can concentrate on running the company rather than answering endless questions from investors, analysts and the press.

    There’s much less pressure to meet quarterly earnings targets. When the stock does trade, the deals can be negotiated quietly, in private markets, rather than fall victim to short-term speculation from the high-frequency traders who populate public markets. And companies love how private markets allow them to avoid much of the regulatory burden of being public.”


    18 Feb 11 at 12:51 pm

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