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Category Archives: Business

We Need Some Human Help

Welcome to the Valentine’s Day installment.

We navigate our days these days watched and prodded by our non-human talismans of technology1. These constant companions prompt us with questions or suggestions under the guise of being interactive. One not-so-subtly pops up on my phone lately, like an annoying partner in an old comedy routine (Didya see, didya see? What? Huh? What? Huh?), with the ironic phrase We need some human help.

Knowing our days are numbered to a suddenly-definable sum (whether the Biblical three-score and ten, shorter or longer) focuses our attention remarkably on what is important and what is not. Having been informed that I am scheduled to leave this earth sooner than I planned, I confess to a certain sensitivity to having my time wasted. In the past year I have confronted what seems more than my share of dysfunctional officials, health insurance that fails to reassure, and medical care that feels anything but caring. I know I’m not the only one facing an individual Gethsemane, but since when has that been a real consolation? I have watched my friends and acquaintances at home and abroad wishing the cup would pass for all of us: the lady whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year, a former colleague staying in a dissatisfying job for the health insurance, men and women seeking love and connection amidst the wasteland and darkling plain of fraught relationships. For some it proves too much to endure. We try to live our lives with a modicum of peace and happiness amidst Dickensian bureaucracy allied with bad technology, dysfunctional workplaces [bullshit jobs, ‘open’ offices], alienated lives and absurd trappings of so-called civilization. Human help indeed.

In your life you will know trouble, Jesus said, a phrase curiously absent from the dogma of positive thinking. Like too much sugar, being optimistically (if not relentlessly) positive can sweeten the appreciation of life or make it almost intolerable. Troubles exist in our lives whether we are rich or poor, privileged or marginalized, mentally-challenged or on the genius scale.

There are plenty of reasons to feel cynical and hopeless amidst the dehumanizing juggernaut of technology and capitalism, including an apparent media obsession with bad news and human failure. But being optimistic does not mean suspending our critical faculties or our humanity. I think it’s about time we fessed up, set aside our fear (or meanness or just plain obliviousness which technology so easily aids and abets2) and did what we can to ameliorate or sympathize with, rather than marginalizing, fellow human beings.

I don’t much care if you text, blog, tweet, e-mail or use a carrier pigeon. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes writes about the dilemma of globalization and the need for human (and local) connection. Globalization and technology used exclusively in the service of profit threaten to undermine our sense of agency and make individuals feel expendable. If community is to be more than a marketing ploy and love not just a slogan, the primary job each of us in this world of our creation is to take back hope from the ashes and connect to our own hearts and the hearts of others . ### — DA

1See Shoshanna Zuboff’s recent, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

2See emotional deskilling.

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Words & Pictures

There seems to be an overabundance of words recently: describing, explaining and inflaming our reactions to events from those in my previous home town to politics, to immigrants at the border.

Words seem to have lost their power to change anything. My own are no exception.

Emails, tweets, texts, blog entries, advertisements demand our attention this time of year and encourage us to buy and consume. We’ve all become desensitized to loquaciousness.

We send words out into the void, hoping for an intelligent reply, an acknowledgement from the common mass of men and women that we are not alone. Yet our own intimate conversations suffer. It’s obvious words have their limits. So I am drawing the birds in our garden.

Hummingbirds hover in the bamboo and sip nectar from the flowers. Doves land like B-52s and strut around like they own the place.

A pair of male and female gorriones (house sparrows) arrive each morning hopeful of finding breakfast if the doves haven’t eaten it all.

I stopped drawing and painting when I was younger, frustrated by a lack of skill and afraid of being a dilettante. The word dilettante is close to the more positive word amateur, with its root in the Latin amatore. You could do worse than to do a thing motivated by passion and love.

Drawing provides a different way of seeing. Cellphones allow us to collect images without looking, look without seeing. In our obsession with immediacy and sharing, we lose the interest and capacity for reflecting and appreciating the world around us in our own hearts and minds.

We all want to create and maintain an image of ourselves in the eyes of others. But our desire to be heard and noticed competes against all the other images and undifferentiated content, including cat videos.

At the same time our institutions seem increasingly in the hands of dilettantes, men and women who pursue politics, business, education and the arts serve mainly to fill their own hollowness; fulfilling an image but not the reality.

The Roman Empire fell because its citizens failed to create and support the substance beneath their institutions. Governing was given over to amateurs, or worse. The society maintained the image of civilization until reality intervened in the form of Goths, Vandals and internal corruption.

The Romans left behind wonderful sculptures, architecture, roads and aqueducts, and some not bad literature and theater. But ultimately their civilization failed to endure. – CDL

# # #

 

L is for —

Leap
Leave
Lose
Legal
Ludicrous

I am waiting to hear whether I can stay. We assembled my documents as best we can according to the latest information (which keeps changing). We woke in the middle of the night to try and make another (fourth? fifth?) appointment at the immigration office using the broken online scheduling system (which keeps breaking). Bureaucracy and crappy technology are a bad combination.

On TV here there are stories of political corruption, financial malfeasance and bus crashes. Despite this, immigrants from another country where things are worse flock across the borders. Since the fall in oil prices, professionals and working-class, immigrants and locals alike struggle to find work. People sell oranges in the streets and juggle at traffic lights.

In keeping with the Halloween spirit in my home country citizens exclaim and pontificate like people trying to dislodge a rabid bat that has flown in their house. The word loser has gotten a lot of attention there in the past few years – occupying the public rhetoric to the point of irony. It’s a sort of joke unless you are on the receiving end – among those who, to paraphrase A Wonderful Life (the title itself a bit of irony) ‘do most of the working and paying and living and dying’ in this world.

BBC/Getty Images


Love
Loyal
Laughter
Lucky

Like other immigrants, I left personal heartache and darkness; my job, my home, my city, my language, my connections – familiar landmarks by which I navigated a former life. I traveled to a different culture. I was fortunate to find new friends, affection, joy and love among intelligent, hard-working people who know how to enjoy life. Many of them have lost as well.

One had her social security savings embezzled at a previous employer. Another lost her husband to someone else. A young man in his late twenties fled from a nearby country and now works for low wages in a local restaurant. A few weeks ago we heard a Vivaldi concert with two of them. The weekend after we ate dinner and drank wine and danced at a friend’s house till three in the morning. People here know how to throw a party. If they are losers, I’m proud to be in their company.

Living in a privileged society does not make you immune from challenges and loss, of course. In the past six months a former colleague back home died in her sleep. She had a voice like angel and was afraid to tell our employer when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Another colleague in his forties who races bicycles had serious surgery last summer. A third in his fifties has a non-fatal form of leukemia and works to retain his benefits. Some self- help advice I’ve read suggests separating yourself from such people and the ‘negative energy’ they carry — a curious inversion of Christian charity.

Even though the rainy season has arrived, the strong sun requires liberal amounts of sun block. We were hoping to visit the surrounding villages and see historic sites. It’s hard to make plans. Leaving the country starts the visa process over, and I might have to pay a fine to return: Do not pass Go; Do not collect $200. Some days I feel like an exile. Contacting our embassy twice by phone and e-mail for an appointment resulted in impersonal replies to check their web site.

Lo siento (I’m Sorry)
Llegar (Arrive)
Levantar (Raise up, Carry)
Libre (Freedom)

We are all going about the business of trying to live as human beings in the face of institutions, bureaucracies and technologies that increasingly confound our notions of being human. Businesses wittingly or unwittingly abuse the talent and motivation of their employees. Countries squander the hope and goodwill of their citizens and immigrants arriving to seek a better life. Who are the losers?

We are programmed to pursue the better, the new and improved, the different. Because nothing is more constant than change, and what we have is never enough. As for me, here I am 2800 miles away from what used to be home. I tell myself in the positive thinking parlance of the day that I am going toward something. – CDL

###

 

‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

But Let’s Not

(Facebook Deletion Notice)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what the hell —

An Apology for the Internet from the People Who Built It (Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine)

Shoshana Zuboff: No Escape from the Panopticon (Lance Farrell, Sciencenode)

–CDL

Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

Detaching

— From a variety of things. Including soon, perhaps, Facebook. Bye fly, FB!

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

A Nation of Laws

‘Next!’ (Cartoon by Udo J. Keppler, Puck Magazine)

Who is left to uphold [the law]? The lawyers? Some of the best lawyers in this country are hired, not to go to court to defend cases, but to advise corporations and business firms how they can get around the law without too great a risk of punishment. The judges? Too many of them so respect the laws that for some ‘error’ or quibble they restore to office and liberty men convicted on evidence overwhelmingly convincing to common sense. The churches? We know of one…which had to be compelled by… a health officer to put its tenements in sanitary condition. The colleges? They do not understand. There is no one left; none but all of us.

Editorial by Samuel McClure, McClure’s Magazine, January 1903 (the same issue that published Ida Tarbell’s article on Standard Oil and Ray Stannard Baker’s exposé of union practices) — DA

Ruling Class, ca. 1900

McClure's Magazine Cover

Image courtesy Phil Stephensen-Payne, Galactic Central Publications

‘At first the ruling class — the bankers, the businessmen, and the lawyers – paid little attention to the members of the Farmers’ Alliance and the new Populist party.’

We prideful ones considered the Alliance candidates as the dregs of Butler County society; farmers who had lost their farms, Courthouse hangers-on… political scapegraces… demagogic rabble-rousing without any tie to reality… A child of the the governing classes, I was blinded by my birthright. ‘

Doris Kearns Goodwin quoting William Allen White, a child of privilege from Kansas who became a muckraking journalist at McClure’s Magazine during the Progressive era.

 

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