Workers Identity in a robotic world

Workers Identity in a robotic world

By Scott Dennis Jan 18, 2017


 “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Dr. King brought to light our nations struggle with racial inequality, in his many brilliant speeches he carved a narrative that helped to solidify an identity for the oppressed. If you listen closely to the logic of his discourse you find an economic model at the heart of racism. In the American south land owners intentionally created enmity between the races to frighten poor whites into accepting lower wages. The equation was simple to understand, work for pennies or we will get slaves to replace you. For the millions of workers facing obsolesce due to technology this may sound familiar.

Years later Dr. King would point out anecdotally that the southern white policemen that locked him in jail were bringing home the same pay as a black rail car operator in Chicago, the racial advantage was an illusion held onto by racists who could not face the reality of belonging to the larger multi-racial group called the working poor. As a society we have to ask ourselves if anything has changed and if the wonders of our technological advances are lifting all people up or creating a new procariat, or class of people as economically “precarious” as King faced in his time.

What is the identity of a worker?

It is important to note that a workers identity is looked at in a very different way by government and policy makers versus an individual’s own thoughts on how they relate to work. Everyone reading this has their own opinion on what work means to them ranging from a disgruntled factory worker, to a middle manager looking for inspirational leadership as well as contented academics nestled in the ivory tower. Policy and corporate decision makers see things in a different context. With the economic downturn in 2009 concerns about workers could be summed up from a passage taken from Dennis Snower’s Keil Institute study (May 2013).

“..workers can adopt either an elite or underclass identity. An elite worker has a pro-work ethic, with a low disutility of work and a high disutility from being unemployed. This gives the worker a strong incentive to take up work and thereby raises her job finding rate. Conversely, the underclass worker has an anti-work ethic, with a high disutility of work and a low disutility from being unemployed, leading to a lower job finding rate.”

Studies like these are most common when the system is seen to be broken as was the case in 2009. In the simplest terms work has always needed labor and industry makes it their business to drive the narrative to understand where the attitudes of the people are and to control them when possible. Groups like Blue Collar Think Tank are taking action by thinking through strategies for workers with changing identities in the face of technology.

All labor that uplifts humanity

As you toil in your cubicle you might not think that your work helps to uplift humanity, but it does in the practical sense of your taxes being used to improve infrastructure, provide a social safety net for those in need or your contributions to schools and the institutions of your faith. Community bonds are strengthened through friendships at the workplace and when you understand the inherit dignity of work a creative zeal can spark inspiration in even the most mundane occupation. This is why we are at a cross roads in the face of uncontrolled automation, we could suffer the erasure of the workers identity unless we take a determined and holistic approach. In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote in Progress and Poverty:

“The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.” 

So as Dr. King famously asked where do we go from here? It starts as it did then with understanding who we are in these changing times so that the interests of humanity can be heard above the churning of technological progress. Asking not always can we do this thing but should we and what are the consequences? The new identity of the worker should echo George’s quotation to bring security for its own sake. Workers will need to be more organized in the future to get to that point and will also need to unmask those who want to divide them for their own interests so that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

Scott Dennis writes for @bcthinktank

Is Sushi Chef a Blue Collar Job? Jiro’s Nightmare


Is Sushi Chef a Blue Collar Job? Jiro’s Nightmare

By Scott Dennis 12/6/2016

“Good Cooking Favors the Prepared Hand” – Jacques Pepin

In Jiro’s dream there is always the same theme, sushi and how it is made. He finds peace in the wooden bar and the santoku hocho knives sharped and ready. The years of tradition and training make him confident when he hears the “Noren” or door curtain open only to reveal a machine. It faces Jiro and hums a metallic tune, within seconds spewing forth a perfectly proportional piece of sushi onto his bar, Jiro’s dream has become a nightmare.

Ask yourself, if you were controlling the world when would it be okay to automate the tasks we do? Consider your local sushi chef, when you sit down at his bar and rub together your chop sticks you are entering into a rather unique arrangement. Few culinary experiences are as intimate as you observe the chef’s skills with the knife and his subtle use of his hand to fold the rice. Too much rice and it is more than a mouthful, l too little and the taste of the fish tips the balance of flavors that that the chef has worked for years to perfect. Thanks to the intense romance sushi lovers have with this process some of the most expensive restaurants in the world are now sushi bars; however looking at this through the lens of automation perhaps all of this ancient technique is just elaborate marketing for fish slapped on rice?

As human beings we are beginning to ask ourselves where we want to draw the line between our desire for human craftsmanship and the convenience of automation. Despite what seems like an unstoppable tsunami of technological influence in the workplace and in the economy, we can actually decide and should retain the power as citizens, consumers and people to have a debate about how human work is valued. The first move toward valuing human work is to start the heuristic process and sort through cognitive biases that are working against our own interests, organizations like Blue Collar Think Tank are providing a sustained platform for these timely questions.

“… we can actually decide and should retain the power as citizens, consumers and people to have a debate about how human work is valued.”

There is a short horizon to the self-driving car or robot mail carrier, but we may not see a pilotless commercial aircraft in our lifetimes, why is that? To return to the food metaphor the supply chain for a nice steak is almost fully automated from farm to a fine dining restaurant but we value a human being applying heat to it before we eat it. We need to distill this rationale to understand where technology is properly applied and where it can do massive damage to our society.

Scott Dennis writes for Blue Collar Think Tank


The Power of funding a cause


The power of funding a cause

By Scott Dennis November 3, 2016


The private sector has been good to many of us, even in uncertain times most have managed to place their children into good schools and keep a roof over their head. For those who have achieved this American dream or built on the hard work of their blue collar parents an important expression of this good will is becoming a charitable donor. The ability to write off charitable donations on your taxes may make the process easy but the decision on what cause to support can be a challenge. There are many important and personal motivations for giving and most follow a trend, the five reason that capture the mind sets of the philanthropist are:

  • I want to make a difference in people’s lives
  • Supporting people I know and care about gives me satisfaction
  • I have an emotional attachment to a cause
  • I want to leave and legacy or a memorial to someone important
  • It’s the civic duty to of those who have prospered to give back


What are non-profits?

It is important to the potential gift giver to know that non-profits are not created without the hard work of many dedicated people. The incorporation of a 501c3 (the IRS designation of a not for profit enterprise) can be a complex and costly venture, with very little financial return for those doing the leg work. Every group regardless of size is required to communicate their message, form a board of directors that supports the mission, create a business plan, calculate budgets and execute a smart marketing strategy; sounds like a private sector business! The key difference is that a non-profit is selling ideas, not products; ideas that have the potential to become engines of profound change in society. The way to get involved is for donors to add their names to the data bases of think tanks, charities or community projects that they feel strongly about.

What should you look for in an organization?

Since valuable time is being invested in a project that will promote the donor’s interests, it is vital to get to know the leadership. Typically an executive director or development officer will work to motivate gift giving, but it is also a best practice to research who is on the board of directors. A donor should ask themselves how the board members are supporting the mission. Do they all contribute money, time and contacts? Are they at the very least experts that are driving the narrative of the non-profit? Creating a relationship with the organization means showing up at events, taking the time to meet with the leadership and providing input when needed. This level of involvement should culminate in a firm understanding of the mission as well as the practical needs of keeping the non-profit’s operations going.

The ask

If the relationship between donor and the non-profit plays out correctly the director will eventually ask for a financial contribution. This can be a difficult and awkward moment for all sides as is often the case when it comes to money. By this point the nonprofit will have done their best to analyze the donor in terms of their accessibility, affinity for the project and capacity to give. A donors past behavior will dictate the scope of the gift request, have they attended all the events, have they given consistently and are they open about their capacity to give? As a potential donor it is right to expect that the non-profit leadership have viewed them as important enough for a relationship to be cultivated over time. When a financial gift is requested a firm grasp of how donations will be used to advance the goals of the organization should be clear and operational needs transparent. Providing a donation for your cause is a constructive investment of anyone’s time and money. Whether it is fulfilling a civic duty or helping people you feel connected to, the support of a non-profit is where prosperity in America comes full circle.

Scott Dennis writes for www.bluecollarthinktank @bcthinktank

Humanity 2.0


Humanity 2.0 “Let the Robot be the couch potato: Keep Your Job & Expand Your Knowledge

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology but we have cleverly arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.” Carl Sagan

By Scott Dennis October 18, 2016

How did you find yourself watching pharmaceutical commercials during the middle of the work week? The reason is that you are out of work and how to respond to this fact can be the toughest road that you ever traveled. But let’s not be so self-absorbed, what if the delivery man and the postal worker or the taxi driver all suddenly found themselves on the couch watching television with you, unemployed and disturbed by the multiple side effects of a new prostate drug? Harry Truman once said that “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job, it’s a depression when you lose yours” there is a radical change coming to our job market and ironically it is due to our own ingenuity.

Anyone reading this knows that technology has changed the workplace dramatically over the last thirty years and often for the better. However it is time for the human species to reflect on the decisions we make about how technology is applied and for whose benefit. Breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI) also puts pressures on us to make decisions about the role robotics will play in our lives before AI makes the decisions for us. If that sounds like a stretch consider how far new algorithms used by machines have come, they are now paired with annotated data sets that were unimaginable just a few years ago. That is to say the algorithm gives the technology rules on how to think and learn, but the amount of information in the cloud or from google provides virtually unlimited substance for learning.  This is why we have seen Watson become the Jeopardy! Champion or Deep Blue defeating the World Chess master Garry Kasparov.

In the short term this is a problem for labor but in the long run professional managers will also be greatly affected. Freshly minted MBA’s need to be aware that they will also have skin in this game of technology adversely affecting jobs. Experts in the field of labor history point out that in a rational market new jobs tend to be created with the churn of advancements in industry, however we in the labor market need to leverage political policy and labor law in case AI creates a distinctly “irrational” economy. Outlined here are a few ideas on how to avoid an increase in inequality and joblessness in our communities.

Understand there is a problem. Organizations like Blue Collar Think Tank and other nonprofits are laying out the issues for citizens to understand in a clear way, without the technical or legal jargon to confuse the issue.

Make corporations accountable. It can feel that decisions made to optimize or digitize work processes are made in a vacuum or behind closed doors. Publically traded companies should be compelled to have 51% of their shares held by an employees, through a fund or other legal frame work. With this scenario new capital expenditures in technology that will result in layoffs can be made with all stakeholders involved.

Buy in from the tech sector. Some of our greatest minds are makers in the very sector where these challenges to labor are emanating from. In the race to help humanity they may very well harm it. A good lesson can be learned from another cutting edge field, DNA genetics. What researchers have realized is that despite having the tools to manipulate our very genetic code they cannot come to agreement on what a “normal” healthy person should be. It’s the same for technology, the mantra should not always be “can we do it”, but perhaps “should we do it”.

Merge Human Resources and IT in the workplace. Information technology can be a distinctly inhuman arm of any company. This is ultimately what Carl Sagan was referring to when he mentioned “the clever arrangement where nobody understands technology”. In the same way HR stresses ethics in the workplace, technology that is used by employees need to come out of the server closet so that everyone effected by it understands it. This needs be a new workplace best practice as workers are influenced as much by IT as they are ethical concerns on the job.

Finally when thinking about these challenges it is helpful to maximize what is uniquely human for our future economy. Think about the power of a great orator to summon up emotions. Team work amongst co-workers that help communities achieve goals or entirely human motivations like the proper raising of our children. In the final analysis we may  realize that our technology is our most human trait after all.

Scott Dennis writes for @bcthinktank