Random finds (2018, week 4) — On a world without jobs, Amazon Go and our own loss of agency, and too much music

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Wavy tiled roof of Springingstream guesthouse in Fujian province, China, by Beijing studio WEI Architects, is based on the outline of surrounding mountains.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity and thinking.

Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs

“Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative,” writes Andy Beckett in his long read for The Guardian, titled Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs.

“Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life […] more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. ‘Hard-working families’ are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.

In all these mutually reinforcing ways, work increasingly forms our routines and psyches, and squeezes out other influences. As Joanna Biggs put it in her quietly disturbing 2015 book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, ‘Work is […] how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.’”

But for ever more people, work is not working in ever more ways. As a source of social mobility and self-worth, it increasingly fails even the most educated people — supposedly the system’s winners. And with more zero-hours or short-term contracts, more self-employed people with erratic incomes, and more corporate ‘restructurings’ for those still with actual jobs, work is also increasingly precarious, Beckett writes. “Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging — what the American anthropologist David Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs’ in a famous 2013 article. […]

The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world — despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.”

Furthermore, work is badly distributed. “People have too much, or too little, or both in the same month. And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected.” According to social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek, “The crisis of work is also a crisis of home” as workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations.

And finally, beyond all these dysfunctions, loom the most-discussed, most existential threats to work as we know it: automation and climate change.

“Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before. We know work’s multiplying problems intimately, but it feels impossible to solve them all. Is it time to start thinking of an alternative?”

People like Graeber, Hester and Srnicek “are members of a loose, transatlantic network of thinkers who advocate a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater. They call this future ‘post-work.’”

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According to historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, “The emergence of the modern work ethic […] was ‘an accident of history.’” (Illustration by Nathalie Lees for the Guardian)

“One of post-work’s best arguments is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the work ideology is neither natural nor very old. ‘Work as we know it is a recent construct,’ says [Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work]. Like most historians, he identifies the main building blocks of our work culture as 16th-century Protestantism, which saw effortful labour as leading to a good afterlife; 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs; and the 20th-century desires for consumer goods and self-fulfillment.

The emergence of the modern work ethic from this chain of phenomena was ‘an accident of history,’ Hunnicutt says. Before then, ‘All cultures thought of work as a means to an end, not an end in itself.’ From urban ancient Greece to agrarian societies, work was either something to be outsourced to others — often slaves — or something to be done as quickly as possible so that the rest of life could happen.”

This “anti-work tradition, when it was remembered at all,” Beckett writes, “could seem a bit decadent. One of its few remaining British manifestations was the Idler magazine, which was set up in 1993 and acquired a cult status beyond its modest circulation. In its elegantly retro pages, often rather posh men wrote about the pleasures of laziness — while on the side busily producing books and newspaper articles, and running a creative consultancy with corporate clients, Idle Industries. By the early 21st century, the work culture seemed inescapable.”

Today, however, this inescapable work culture has many critics, not only on the political left. “[P]ost-work has the potential to appeal to conservatives,” says Beckett, as “[s]ome post-workists think work should not be abolished but redistributed, so that every adult labours for roughly the same satisfying but not exhausting number of hours.”

On the European continent, working less has long been a mainstream notion. “In France in 2000, Lionel Jospin’s leftwing coalition government introduced a maximum 35-hour week for all employees, partly to reduce unemployment and promote gender equality, under the slogan, ‘Work less — live more.’ The law was not absolute (some overtime was permitted) and has been weakened since, but many employers have opted to keep a 35-hour week. In Germany, the largest trade union […] which represents electrical and metal workers, is campaigning for […] a 28-hour week. Even in Britain and the US, the vogues for ‘downshifting’ and ‘work-life balance’ […] represented an admission that the intensification of work was damaging our lives. But these were solutions for individuals, and often wealthy individuals […] rather than society as a whole. And these were solutions intended to bring minimal disruption to a free-market economy that was still relatively popular and functional. We are not in that world any more.”

But now that work is so ubiquitous and dominant, will today’s post-workists succeed where all their other predecessors did not?

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“Belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s,” says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (Photograph by Getty)

“In Britain, possibly the sharpest outside judge of the movement is Frederick Harry Pitts, a lecturer in management at Bristol University. Pitts used to be a post-workist himself. He is young and leftwing, and before academia he worked in call centres: he knows how awful a lot of modern work is. Yet Pitts is suspicious of how closely the life post-workists envisage — creative, collaborative, high-minded — resembles the life they already live. ‘There is little wonder the uptake for post-work thinking has been so strong among journalists and academics, as well as artists and creatives,’ he wrote in a paper co-authored last year with Ana Dinerstein of Bath University, ‘since for these groups the alternatives [to traditional work] require little adaptation.’”

He is, however, more positive about post-work’s less absolutist proposals, such as redistributing working hours more equally. And also other critics of post-work are also less dismissive than they first sound. “Despite being a Tory MP from the most pro-business wing of his party, Nick Boles accepts in his book that a future society ‘may redefine work to include child-rearing and taking care of elderly relatives, and finally start valuing these contributions properly.’ Post-work is spreading feminist ideas to new places.”

Yet, according to David Frayne, “a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes,” we are, in some ways, already in a post-work society, albeit a a dystopic one. According to Frayne, “the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust.”

“Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In today’s lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell. As with free-market capitalism in general, the worse work gets, the harder it is to imagine actually escaping it, so enormous are the steps required,” Beckett writes.

“But for those who think work will just carry on as it is, there is a warning from history. On 1 May 1979, one of the greatest champions of the modern work culture, Margaret Thatcher, made her final campaign speech before being elected prime minister. She reflected on the nature of change in politics and society. ‘The heresies of one period,’ she said, always become ‘the orthodoxies of the next.’ The end of work as we know it will seem unthinkable — until it has happened.”

And from this, it’s just a small step to Amazon’s latest venture: Amazon Go.

Amazon Go and our own loss of agency

“Technology’s march is taken as gospel. But if we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s that Valley giants often miss key human externalities. Case in point: Amazon Go,” NewCo founder John Battelle writes in Is This the Society We Really Want?

“[T]he rush to praise the ‘store without cashiers’ as the future of retail was immediate and sustained,” and Battelle found Ben Thompson’s take on Stratechery representative of the bunch.

“For decades, technology helped the industrial world work better; more and more, technology is replacing that world completely, and there will be pain. That, though, is precisely why it is worth remembering that the world is not static: to replace humans is, in the long run, to free humans to create entirely new needs and means to satisfy those needs. It’s what we do, and the faith to believe it will happen again will be the best guide in figuring out how,” Thompson wrote in Amazon Go and The Future.

“The lines outside Amazon Go, though,” Thompson continues, “are a reminder of exactly why aggregator monopolies are something entirely new: these companies are dominant because people love them. Regulation may be as elusive as Marx’s revolution.”

But, Battelle wonder, “do people really love them? Do we really want to buy our food at automated, faceless Amazon stores? Do we really want to cleanse all human contact from what is now one of our most human and most social activities — the gathering of our sustenance? When did society collectively decide that we no longer value the produce guy, the butcher, or the cashier who knows our kids and asks how our mother in law is faring?”

What he finds most troubling about Amazon Go is how easily we are accepting our own loss of agency, in exchange for the vaunted goals of convenience and efficiency. “We’re losing something critical here, and we’re not talking about it enough. Sure, we wring our hands about ‘job loss,’ but that’s not my point. It’s something deeper — we seem to be gutting our society … because we can?,” he writes.

According to Thompson, Amazon is freeing workers from jobs that were once necessary in an industrial economy, so that they may find more creative and fulfilling roles. “But what if in fact helping someone understand the intricacies of an eggplant, while also connecting in a uniquely human fashion, is in fact what our society does want?” Not all interactions of humanity should be seen as a decision tree waiting to be modeled, Battelle says — “as data sets that can be scanned for patterns to inform algorithms.”

“After a nearly 14-month trial run open only to the Seattle company’s employees, Monday marks the public debut of the store — among Amazon’s boldest efforts to reshape brick-and-mortar shopping,” Matt Day writes in Amazon Go cashierless convenience store opens to the public in Seattle. (Photograph by Bettina Hansen for The Seattle Times)

In Five Quarters, food writer and author Rachel Roddy shares a wonderful anecdote about her Roman butcher, Sartor selezione carni (“dal 1927”) at Mercato Testaccio.

“It was Mauro who first served me more than nine years ago when, having just moved into my new flat right next to the old market, I visited the stall for the first time to buy a lamb chop. He sized me up politely but quizzically, anticipating a miscommunication. I confirmed his suspicions by uncertainly repeating the word I had looked up in the dictionary three times: ‘Costolette. Costolette. Costolette.’ On the third attempt he understood. ‘Solo una’ (‘Just one?), he said, holding up his index finger. ‘Si,’ I said, returning the gesture, which made me feel even more feeble. A woman next to me was engaged in some serious shopping, on the counter before her a mound of neatly wrapped packets. ‘Solo una,’ Mauro repeated, just before his cleaver hit and then flattened the meat against the thick wooden board — twack. At which point I understood his insistence: the chop, or rather cutlet, was tiny, a mouthful of pink flesh attached by a seam of fat to a slim rib. From where I was standing I imagined that, once cooked, I could eat three, four, five even, given the amount of packing and unpacking I had done that day. But it was too late, I couldn’t remember one useful word. ‘Si,’ I said and Mauro handed me a small parcel. ‘Mangiano poco, queste donne Americane,’ (‘they eat little, these American women’) he said, and everybody laughed as I had proved a point. I wanted to tell him I was English and could eat 10 of his costolette.”

Experiences like these are uniquely human. As Alan Moore, the author of Do Design: Why beauty is key to everything, said, “Beautiful experiences lift the human spirit. They say, optimistically, life is worthwhile.”

But technology companies are ruthlessly efficient machines. “They identify markets fraught with ‘inefficiencies’ and apply their scale, processing power, and absurdly one-sided data monopolies to remake those markets in their own image,” Battelle writes.

Of course, Amazon Go isn’t the first and only example of how tech firms try to eliminate life’s ‘inefficiencies.’ The mobile-only supermarket Picnic which uses electric delivery vehicles instead of stationery outlets is another example. In a post on Medium, Picnic’s CTO Daniel Gebler wrote, “The fundamental truth is that grocery shopping is monotonous, time-consuming, and repetitive.”

“Very few people in the world enjoy the weekly supermarket haul. Thus, it can be considered a chore. Grocery shopping has been a burdensome fact of life for too long, but it can (and should) be streamlined,” he writes. “By exploiting technology, deep learning techniques, and behavioural analytics, we wish to create an in-app grocery store that provides a fast, seamless, and delightful experience to its users.”

Ordering through their app is indeed fast. Of course, you still have to wait for your stuff to be delivered to your door, so ‘fast’ is a relative concept. What ‘seamless’ means, I don’t know. It’s one of those words that always pops up with regard to online services and everybody seems to take for granted. But I don’t see why my ‘analog’ (grocery) shopping isn’t or can’t be seamless. Yet, I am perfectly willing to grant them their ‘fast and seamless’ but not ‘delightful.’ There’s nothing delightful about ordering your groceries, or whatever it is, online. There’s nothing delightful about walking around in your supermarket with your head in your phone, being constantly monitored by an algorithm.

This is what delightful looks like …

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Workaday charm: a street market in Sicily, from Rachel Roddy’s Two Kitchens. (Photograph by Nicholas Seaton/Headline Home)

These are humane and serendipitous places where you still need all of your senses. Places that bring together people from all walks of life, and, above all, places where you can learn and experience what it means to be truly human. Not places where only tech companies like Amazon learn from you and your behaviour — where you are reduced to nothing but ‘data,’ all in the name of efficiency, convenience and, of course, progress.

“[Ben] Thompson’s justification for the socio-political inevitability of Amazon’s approach — that displaced workers will find new, more fulfilling roles in society — is now pervasive amongst tech’s defenders. I’ve spent a fair amount of intellectual cycles trying to understand exactly what those new roles might be — Craft brewer? Hot yoga instructor? Elder careperson? — but now I think perhaps I’m paying attention to the wrong question. Perhaps a better one is simply this: Why get rid of the produce guy in the first place?” — John Battelle

Too much music

Thinking about buying a media streamer to complement my analog listening habits, I came across an article by James Jackson Toth, titled Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening.

“It has been said that we are living in a golden age of music fandom; with a single click, we can access almost every piece of music ever recorded, and for less than it would cost to hear a single song on a jukebox in 1955. But I’ve begun to feel that my rabid consumption of music, when coupled with the unprecedented access encouraged by new technology, has endangered my ability to process it critically,” Toth writes.

“Streaming has become the primary way we listen to music: in 2016, streaming surpassed both physical media and digital downloads as the largest source of recorded music sales. There are plenty of valid complaints about a music world dominated by streaming. Among the many arguments musicians level against Spotify, for example, one typically repeated is that the artist is the only link in the food chain getting the proverbial shaft. This argument is often predicated on notions of economics, intellectual property and ethics. Missing from a larger discussion is the radical idea that maybe it is the consumers who are being done the greatest disservice, and that this access-bonanza may be cheapening the listening experience by transforming fans into file clerks and experts into dilettantes. I don’t want my musical discoveries dictated by a series of intuitive algorithms any more than I want to experience Jamaica via an all-inclusive trip to Sandals.”

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“In Charlotte Zwerin’s 1988 film Straight, No Chaser, Thelonious Monk road manager Bob Jones tells a story about Monk appearing on a television show sometime in the late ’50s. Monk is asked what kind of music he likes, to which he replies ‘all kinds.’ The interviewer, hoping for a ‘gotcha’ moment, smugly asks ‘even country?’ to which the maverick pianist coolly deadpans, ‘I said all kinds.’”

A few years ago, Toth started noticing his brain was no longer retaining song titles. This was “[p]artly due to the ubiquity of music playlists and partly due to supply outweighing even my most insatiable of demands.” All music was rapidly becoming Muzak, and in the interest of trying to experience it all, he was fast approaching a saturation point that was rendering him numb. “This fact troubled me, and I wanted to do something about it,” he writes. So, Toth concocted a bold experiment. For the entirety of 2017, he would listen to just one album a week. But after just four days of listening to Autechre, he resigns himself to the fact that the experiment is a complete failure.

The experiment failed not only because it was unpleasant, Toth writes, but especially because “[m]odern life, with all of its informational density, has rendered filtering out the noise virtually impossible.”

When Cormac McCarthy was asked in a 2009 interview with John Jurgensen for the Wall Street Journal whether he believed a 1,000-page book would somehow be too much, he said, “The indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘Moby-Dick,’ go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.”

Toth feels he may be right. “As long as we try to maintain the Sisyphean task of trying to experience everything, our brains, unable to adapt and forever lagging behind exponential technological progress, will continue to struggle. […] The diluvial nature of modern media leaves us little time to pause. The challenge, then, is to cultivate the patience and the discipline necessary to engage more deeply than the modern world allows. Just because we are flooded doesn’t mean we have to drown.”

And also this …

“Over the last six years, I’ve developed a sort of unified theory of everything detailing our ever-escalating, almost invariably out-of-synch relationship with the technologies we create, and how their largely unintended side effects have molded our societies and our era. I can boil it down to three dominant trends that demarcate our current existence,” Douglas Coupland writes in I no longer remember my pre-internet brain.

“The first is that the online world has vastly outpaced our ability to create political stability. Until we figure out how to counterbalance the epistemic closure of the echo chamber, the majority can no longer be trusted. […]

The second: We have a new relationship with time. Time now moves far too quickly, and everything feels like it happened either 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago. We’ve hollowed out medium-range memory. I postulate that this is because we no longer experience time in terms of real, everyday experiences. Time now registers in our brain with online data intake and the microscopic dopamine hits it generates. Data is the new time. The cloud is the new infinity.

[…]

Third: We’re an ungrateful species. Imagine if you were to tell people in 1992 that in 20 years they could have the answer to pretty much any question they could have — anywhere on Earth, free, instantaneously and without any form of judgment — they’d assume a) you were lying or b) if you weren’t lying then, why, you must surely be from the golden age of humanity! And yet here we are, bored, bored, bored. Next!”

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Signs of the times, by Douglas Coupland.

TV and film are the art forms most radically altered in our new reality, says Coupland. “And then, as a bonus, there are books. I don’t know who you are, reader, but I am going to guess you didn’t read nearly as many books last year as you did, say, 10 years ago. You may be buying them (thanks Amazon), but I’m guessing they collect dust beside the bed, right beside where your laptop charger lives. This is a really charged assessment and people go nuts when you bring it up. We’re so enculturated to people loving books — yay books! — but if you get people really, really drunk, the truth will emerge. People simply aren’t reading as much literature as they did a decade ago.”

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? In How Technology Is (and Isn’t) Changing Our Reading Habits, Alexandra Alter, who writes about publishing and the literary world for The New York Times, discussed the tech she’s using.

“About a decade ago, when Amazon introduced its first e-reader, publishers panicked that digital books would take over the industry, the way digital transformed the music industry. And for a while, that fear seemed totally justified. At one point, the growth trajectory for e-books was more than 1,200 percent. Bookstores suffered, and print sales lagged. E-books also made self-publishing easier, which threatened traditional publishers.

But in just the last couple of years, there has been a surprising reversal. Print is holding steady — even increasing — and e-book sales have slipped.

One possible reason is that e-book prices have gone up, so in some cases they’re more expensive than a paperback edition. Another possibility is digital fatigue. People spend so much time in front of screens that when they read they want to be offline. Another theory is that some e-book readers have switched to audiobooks, which are easy to play on your smartphone while you’re multitasking. And audiobooks have become the fastest-growing format in the industry.”

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When Alexandra Alter doesn’t want to lose herself in what she’s reading — or lose her balance on the subway — she reaches for her Kindle. (Photography by Jeenah Moon for The New York Times)

“Indie bookstores have made a surprising comeback in recent years (a trend that might be connected to the resurgence of print books). A lot of independent stores have been so successful that they’ve expanded into mini-chains.

The future of Barnes & Noble looks uncertain, and the company has suffered setbacks after a few disastrous strategies. It made a huge and, in retrospect, unwise investment in digital hardware and its Nook device, and then tried to become more of a general-interest gift and toy and books store, which probably alienated some of its core customers. Lately, it has tried smaller concept stores, with cafes with food and wine and beer. There was some snickering online after its new chief executive announced that its latest strategy was to focus on selling … books. Snickering aside, I think it’s the smartest thing the company can do. In many parts of the country, Barnes & Noble is the only place people can buy books, and it’s still a beloved brand.

Amazon’s entry into the physical retail space has been fascinating. I’m not sure how successful the experiment has been. When I visited the Amazon bookstore at New York’s Columbus Circle, it definitely felt like a device store that also sold books. The store even looks like a 3-D version of the website, with book covers facing out and curated sections that reflect what’s popular with Amazon’s customers. But they’re expanding rapidly across the country, so something must be working.”

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“He was, in the same person, austere and genial, dignified and playful … cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable.” — Historia Augusta, Hadrian 14.11, Loeb Classical Library (Photography by Elie Posner for The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The ancient sculpture-duplication process called ‘lost-wax technique’ or ‘cire-perdue’ is an intricate and sophisticated technique, which involves plastering, molding, detailing and casting, before the mold is smashed and the hollow, and therefore much lighter-weight, metal replica is revealed.

This intriguing video by the Israeli animators Renana Aldor and Kobi Vogman combines stop-motion and 2D animation to demonstrate the ancient casting process using a bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who was one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ from the Nerva–Antonine dynasty, and ruled from 117 to 138 CE. The bust was made for the 2015 exhibition Hadrian — An Emperor Cast in Bronze in The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The intricate, ancient bronze-casting process that ends with a satisfying crunch. (Directed by Renana Aldor and Kobi Vogman)
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Take it slow and don’t pretend to know. Socratic ignorance is the hallmark of wisdom.

“Having no fixed position, which seems unthinkable on the internet, is actually a liberating way to navigate the world.” — Ephrat Livni in In praise of slow thinking in the internet age

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