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
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.
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 “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 www.bluecollarthinktank.com @bcthinktank firstname.lastname@example.org
By Scott Dennis September 13, 2016
“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution…” –Stephen Hawking
There is a good chance that you are reading this article on a device that despite not existing just two decades ago you now find hard to live without. This technology gives you unparalleled access to a global market, a few clicks and your product is at the door in a few days or maybe a few hours; what could possibly be wrong with this level of convenience? Our culture is unique in that no group of human beings has ever had to cope with this level of social evolution brought on by technology, not even those who witnessed the dawn of the industrial revolution. Facing this reality many in the working class are instinctually asking, is the pace of change moving at the speed of progress or like a game of three card monte dealt out by sleight of hand?
A common graph used by economists when discussing the impact of automation on the working class looks very much like a fork in the road. It describes the labor force as being more productive yet receiving less wages relative to that productivity. The productivity line in the chart describes how efficiently anything coming to market is being produced, automation is key to making this output more streamlined when compared to the cost of production. The disconnect for workers is a how their take home pay and benefits do not grow and in many cases contract on average despite increasing revenues due to this improved productivity that they keep hearing about. This simple data set is the first step toward understanding what working class people in industrial societies are grappling with and how robots could be picking the forbidden fruit of human labor, their jobs.
Despite the massive implications of technological disruptions with the workforce and its secondary effects, the scholarly field studying this crisis is relatively small. These economists focused on working class issues are creating reliable mathematical models to understand the scope of technologies effect on labor. Leaders in the field such as Dr. Daron Acemoglu from MIT remind us that there have been many dire but incorrect predictions about technology creating widespread unemployment, beginning with Milton Keynes in 1930 and noted economic historian Robert Heilbroner in 1965.
There are many complex concepts employed in the economic research on this topic such as “Endogenous response of technology”, “Productivity Effects”, “Homotheticity” and the “Balanced growth path” (BGP) for the economy. The concept that working class people can be most concerned with is the ability of capital to create more highly skilled jobs when automation is introduced. Many of the models do prove that technology creates jobs loss and income inequality in the short run but that in the long run equilibrium returns due to the historic habit of new more complex tasks being created for workers, the point being that humans would have an advantage over technology in these cases. These studies also suggest that external pricing forces can slow down the need for capital investment in automation. In a recent paper Dr. Acemoglu states that “Under reasonable conditions, there exists a stable balance growth path in which the two types of innovations go hand in hand.”
The mission for an initiative like the Blue Collar Think Tank is to place a spotlight on this last point, are the working class living under “reasonable conditions?”
The connectivity to the market place that we all enjoy through our smart devices, puts enormous logistical pressure on the supply chain to work a smoothly as possible. There is a leaning toward optimization in this sector that acts as an example and cautionary tale for many other areas where labor still has a foothold. In the ports the changes are already taking place with automated container carriers and robot trucks that move cargo around the freight yard without the help of a longshoreman. Massive warehouses hum with activity twenty four hours a day with just a skeleton crew. How about your friendly neighborhood delivery man? There are robotics teams around the country that are very close to rolling out robots to replace them, that would equate to over half a million good paying jobs when one accounts for all the companies involved including the US Postal Service.
What new positions will be opening up to create the equilibrium predicted by many economic models when entire classes of labor are forever occupied by automatons
that require no sick time or maternity leave? This time predictions of wide spread unemployment may come to fruition because of two realities that did not exist in the past. First is the imbalance between stakeholders within today’s corporations, shareholders dominate the corporate landscape, labor holds few of the cards and most of their rights as employees have been stripped to increase profit margins. Secondly is the rise of artificial intelligence (A.I.), which is the game changer in terms of the theory of equilibrium being found in the creation of complicated tasks. Algorithms with ever increasing intelligence have the ability to tip the balance between labor and capital, supplanting an ever growing spectrum of job categories.
The good news is that technology is a tool that can only be as harmful or helpful as we allow it to be. Effective solutions begin with education of the workers affected by technological change. For every corporation involved with extensive automation labor leaders need to identify the managers or committee that make the decision on capital that can lead to automation running too far ahead of new job creation. In this era we cannot afford to wait for the market to create the change needed, working class strategies must be generated and implemented by policy makers working in the interest of citizens, not just corporations.
Scott Dennis writes for bluecollarthinktank and @bcthinktank