March 12, 2014

Episode Thirty Five: Humane Technology; They Shoot Jobs, Don't They; On Depression

1.0 Humane Technology

I am still preoccupied with the Californian Ideology and what, ultimately, technology is good at, versus what we wish technology were good at. Chris Butler pointed his post about the screen-mediated life in my direction[1], and what I took from it was this: we have a glut of technology created to enhance the human condition designed by people who prefer interaction mediated by screens. And I know it's not *that* bad, sure, the technology is created with the best intentions to enhanced the human condition and sure it's only at its worse when designed by people who broadly prefer interaction mediated by screens. 

Reporter's nagging is exactly that: the nagging of an inhumane service designed to gather data, and not in a personable way. Samantha, Reporter is not.

So this is the thing: how does, and what software or technology, makes us better humans? And by better, let me be clear: more empathic humans. And also: there's clearly a lot of technology made to be used by other technology. But the thing about technology to be used by humans is that ultimately humans are the ones using it, and while that might sound like a limp tautology, I think it's incredibly important. 

What gets the Californian Ideologists excited - and here I'm talking about the venture capital hockey-stick driven ideologues - are concepts like *scale* and *growth* and *disruption*. Humans, being messy things that are kind of unpredictable and unable to communicate to themselves let alone each other *accurately* necessarily need to be reduced down and abstracted away into structures - data structures, indeed! - that can be map/reduced and iterated over. Get a value from a human. Get a value from a billion humans. Perform this operation on it. Put the answer over there. The very thing about scale and map/reduce and all of these clusters, at a high level, is iterating and *doing the same thing*. Not necessarily doing lots of different things. Reporter gets nagging and treated like a chore when it always reacts the same way, does the same thing, *acts robotically*. Samantha, Reporter is not.

When Tim O'Reilly remarks that the future startup team will be "data scientist, industrial designer, software programmer" I wonder where the person who understands, on an emotional and empathic level, their audience. Sure, you don't need that for, oh, I don't know, flow control software or the bit of a driverless car that interprets its surroundings and context. Maybe. But for software and products used by humans? If I felt like I had enough energy or time I would be busy pitching a Business Leadership book *right now* with a trite title like: The Empathy Gap: What Silicon Valley Needs To Learn To Make The Next Big Leap and basically not say anything new other than Jesus Christ Why Haven't You Been Listening To Those Anthropologists And Field Researchers Like Jan Chipchase You Casually Employ And Then Don't Ignore. 

[1] http://chrbutler.com/2014/03/this-mediated-life/

2.0 They Shoot Jobs, Don't They? 

Not Steve, no. 

But a fascinating discussion the other day about what's exactly happening with all the jobs the information economy (alternatively, late-stage capitalism) is eating up. Nick Sweeney pointed out the paradox in yesterday's episode, that of technology being a labour-saving means of allowing you to do mindless work at all hours. And yes, some of this is the inevitable end-game of capitalism being some sort of Ferengi perversion of the Vulcan phrase Infinite Diversity In Infinite Combinations, Infinte Profit and Infinite Growth. 

The flipside of course is the labour-saving technology that saves so much labour that your job disappears and it's not so much that you have free time anymore as you're actually looking for a job, anything, to earn money because if you don't have any, well, no one likes living in poverty.

This happened before, of course, when we moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age, as Tom Coates pointed out[1] and whether there's any scope for a different post-work world or whether we're just going to create new work. Of course a fear is that politically there's always going to be someone on top and someone on the bottom and before you know it the 1% will be using us all as their personal TaskRabbits to buy things from high-end IKEAs and then assemble them. It may turn out to be TaskRabbits all the way down. 

It turns out that this fear of a revolution in productivity eating and never reconstituting and reformulating jobs or work isn't a new one: it's one that the smart Keynes already foresaw in the 1930s, where he worried about technological unemployment - when the increases in productivity would outstrip our ability to find uses for labour[2]. Seriously - read that economist article. Not being an economist, or someone particularly well-read on the subject, it feels like a pretty good backgrounder (although as ever, I'm entirely pleased to be pointed out wrong...)

Bluntly: jobs might be going away, and they might not be coming back in the numbers that we had for them. Employment may actually be trending down. And what is euphemistically called a "temporary phase of maladjustment" may well end up being the very thing that people like Perkins fears is the writing on the wall, unless society decides to do something about it.

[1] https://twitter.com/tomcoates/status/443482458428678144
[2] http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21594264-previous-technological-innovation-has-always-delivered-more-long-run-employment-not-less

3.0 On Depression

This is what it feels like to be depressed: It is February. I am in New York, a wonderful big city. It is Friday night and I am thinking about what I can do tomorrow, Saturday. In theory, tonight, I could even go and see Punch Drunk's production of Sleep No More. But I'm not going to do that. I ask all my friends: that is, the people I feel capable asking, the people I feel a connection with, and pointedly, the people with whom my relationships are mediated through screens where I'm able to hide when I need to hide, and speak when I need to speak, about what I could possibly do the next day. The suggestions come back pretty quickly. 

What ends up happening is that I spend the entire day, apart from a last-minute venture outside to visit friends, cooped up in my hotel room.

I guess what I'm saying is this: it took me a long time to figure out, and accept, and then deal with, and then to make what feels like minute progress (and sometimes didn't even feel like progress, to be honest, instead multiple relapses) with my clinical depression. The real diagnosis (and the real first this-is-really-really-serious) moment happened at the first startup I was at. And since, in the various managerial roles I've found myself in, whether in startups or in larger organisations, one thing has been inordinately clear: mental illness, of whatever kind, is way more common than anyone thinks. 

Another thing has been this, and I'm still not sure I can deal with it, to be honest: this is who I am. The particular patterns in my brain, whether grown or inherited or simply a result of an environmentally triggered chemical imbalance or over or under-reaction, are actually me. And might even be a good thing, because maybe I can't do the good stuff, or be the good bits of me, without the bad bits. Or that they're what make me, me. 

--

A bit of a woolly one today, I feel. Head's a bit all over the place. But still: managed to do one. And that's what I like about this (and what I have to remind myself about this) - the practice of writing.

See you tomorrow,

Dan