Unbundling and Rebundling

What is a plumber, anyway?

Tim Harford, better known as the Undercover Economist, always has reliably entertaining thoughts. His latest piece explains Why Microsoft Office is a bigger productivity drain than Candy Crush Saga. Drawn in by that title like moths to a flame, we find the following critique:

Microsoft Office may be as much a drag on productivity as Candy Crush Saga. To see why, consider Adam Smith’s argument that economic progress was built on a foundation of the division of labour. His most celebrated example was a simple pin factory: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points" and 10 men together made nearly 50,000 pins a day.
In a modern office there are no specialist typists; we all need to be able to pick our way around a keyboard. PowerPoint has made amateur slide designers of everyone. Once a slide would be produced by a professional, because no one else had the necessary equipment or training. Now anyone can have a go — and they do.
Well-paid middle managers with no design skills take far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at. They also file their own expenses, book their own travel and, for that matter, do their own shopping in the supermarket. On a bill-by-the-minute basis none of this makes sense.

Superficially, this take is amusing as ever, but on reflection, I do find it a little disingenuous. Leaving the slides out of it, because actually those are part of my job, nowadays it is true that we all book our own travel and so on – but on the other hand very few of us office drones keep our own vegetable gardens or even know how to, and those that do mostly treat it as a hobby.

All that has happened is that the frontier of specialisation has moved, and what was once common knowledge for everyone is now a specialised job, while what once required specialists is now expected of everyone. Where once everybody knew how to grow their own food, now we delegate that to small groups of professionals using specific tools. Meanwhile, data processing, which used to be literally the preserve of a priestly caste, has been democratised to the point that any office job will require people to know at least the basics.

I would love to have an assistant to do my expenses and so on, and instead here I am toiling in the salt mines – but let’s face it, if your expense platform is at all decent, and you have reasonable IT skills, this should take roughly no time at all. Booking your own travel ensures that you get what you want, making your own compromises inside of the corporate travel policy.

This definitional error has some interesting consequences, as it is certainly true that most people are probably slower typists than professionals who worked in typing pools, when such things still existed. If your measurement of productivity is words banged out on keyboard per minute, it is almost certainly less efficient for professionals to do it themselves. And yet, hitting the keys yourself is always a far quicker way of getting your ideas out than dictating to even the fastest typing pool. How do you measure the productivity difference between an exec tapping out three lines on their iPhone while waiting to board a flight, versus having to wait until they get back to the office on Monday? Sure, those three lines are terse, jargon-filled, and probably stuffed with typos or interesting autocorrect-isms, but they get the point across.

All of this transformation informs Tim Harford’s predictions for 2118:

In an insightful essay from 1996, Paul Krugman predicted that there would be "no robot plumbers" in 2096. I agreed with him then. I am no longer so confident. It seems quite plausible that in 100 years’ time — and perhaps much sooner — plumbers, taxi drivers and many journalists, too, will simply have nothing serious to contribute to the labour market.

I would be seriously impressed by a robot with the combination of agility, strength, and inference reasoning required to work as a plumber. I may well be proved wrong by events (and if so, I will take refuge in probably not being around to be embarrassed by my wrongness), but I suspect it won’t quite work out that way. Instead, I suspect that the job of "plumber" is one of the safest out there, and for many of the same reasons that it was impossible to outsource: in addition to knowledge, it requires great situational awareness, problem-solving capabilities, and flexibility – all of which are weak points for automated systems.

More vulnerable are the jobs that delaminate into separate tasks, some of which will be re-bundled into new and different jobs, and others will be automated away. The job of "typist" is gone the way of the dodo because it encapsulated a single task which could either be made part of other jobs (we all do our own typing) or automated (mail merge and variables make it easy to generate and circulate even quite complex documents, without human typing).

The job market will certainly be radically different in 2118 – that prediction is fairly safe – but I expect that there will still be jobs, and people doing them - people augmented by automated capabilities.

Photo by Jouni Rajala on Unsplash

War of the World Views

There has been this interesting shift going on in coverage of Silicon Valley companies, with increasing scepticism informing what had previously been reliable hero-worshipping. Case in point: this fascinating polemic by John Battelle about the oft-ignored human externalities of “disruption" (scare quotes definitely intended).

Battelle starts from a critique of Amazon Go, the new cashier-less stores Amazon is trialling. I think it’s safe to say that he’s not a fan:

My first take on Amazon Go is this: Fcking A, do we really want eggplants and cuts of meat reduced to parameterized choices spit onto algorithmized shelves? Ick. I like the human confidence I get when a butcher considers a particular rib eye, then explains the best way to cook that one cut of meat. Sure, technology could probably deliver me a defensibly “better" steak, perhaps even one tailored to my preferences as expressed through reams of data collected through means I’ll probably never understand.
But come on.
Sometimes you just want to look a guy in the eye and sense, at that moment, that THIS rib eye is perfect for ME, because I
trust* that butcher across the counter. We don’t need meat informed by data and butchered by bloodless algorithms. We want our steak with a side of humanity. We lose that, we lose our own narrative.

Battelle then goes on to extrapolate that "ick" out to a critique of the whole Silicon Valley model:

It’s this question that dogs me as I think about how Facebook comports itself : We know what’s best for you, better than you do in fact, so trust us, we’ll roll the code, you consume what we put in front of you.
But…all interactions of humanity should not be seen as a decision tree waiting to be modeled, as data sets that can be scanned for patterns to inform algorithms.

Cut Down The Decision Tree For Firewood

I do think there is some merit to this critique. Charlie Stross has previously characterised corporations as immortal hive organisms which pursue the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance:

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

These alien beings do not quite understand our human reactions and relations, and they try pin them down and quantify them in their models. Searching for understanding through modelling is value-neutral in general, but problems start to appear when the model is taken as authoritative, with any real-life deviation from the model considered as an error to be rectified – by correcting the real-life discrepancy.

Fred Turner describes the echo chamber these corporations inhabit, and the circular reasoning it leads to, in this interview:

About ten years back, I spent a lot of time inside Google. What I saw there was an interesting loop. It started with, "Don't be evil." So then the question became, "Okay, what's good?" Well, information is good. Information empowers people. So providing information is good. Okay, great. Who provides information? Oh, right: Google provides information. So you end up in this loop where what's good for people is what's good for Google, and vice versa. And that is a challenging space to live in.

We all live in Google’s space, and it can indeed be challenging, especially if you disagree with Google about how information should be gathered and disseminated. We are all grist for its mighty Algorithm.

This presumption of infallibility on the part of the Algorithm, and of the world view that it implements is dangerous, as I have written before. Machines simply do not see the world as we do. Building our entire financial and governance systems around them risks some very unwelcome consequences.

But What About The Supermarket?

Back to Battelle for a moment, zooming back in on Amazon and its supermarket efforts:

But as they pursue the crack cocaine of capitalism — unmitigated growth — are technology platforms pushing into markets where perhaps they simply don’t belong? When a tech startup called Bodega launched with a business plan nearly identical to Amazon’s, it was laughed off the pages of TechCrunch. Why do we accept the same idea from Amazon? Because Amazon can actually pull it off?

The simple answer is that Bodega falls into the uncanny valley of AI assistance, trying to mimic a human interaction instead of embracing its new medium. A smart vending machine that learns what to stock? That has value - for the sorts of products that people like to buy from vending machines.

This is Amazon’s home turf, where the Everything Store got its start, shipping the ultimate undifferentiated good. A book is a book is a book; it doesn’t really get any less fresh, at least not once it has undergone its metamorphosis from newborn hardback to long-lived paperback.

In this context, nappies/diapers1 or bottled water are a perfect fit, and something that Amazon Prime has already been selling for a long time, albeit at a larger remove. Witness those ridiculous Dash buttons, those single-purpose IoT devices that you can place around your home so that when you see you’re low on laundry powder or toilet paper you can press the button and the product will appear miraculously on your next Amazon order.

Steaks or fresh vegetables are a different story entirely. I have yet to see the combination of sensors and algorithms that can figure out that a) these avocados are close to over-ripe, but b) that’s okay because I need them for guacamole tonight, or c) these bananas are too green to eat any time soon, and d) that’s exactly what I need because they’re for the kids’ after-school snack all next week.

People Curate, Algorithms Deliver

Why get rid of the produce guy in the first place?

Why indeed? But why make me deal with a guy for my bottled water?2

I already do cashier-less shopping; I use a hand-held scanner, scan products as I go, and swipe my credit card (or these days, my phone) on my way out. The interaction with the cashier was not the valuable one. The valuable interaction was with the people behind the various counters - fish, meat, deli - who really were, and still are, giving me personalised service. If I want even more personalised service, I go to the actual greengrocer, where the staff all know me and my kids, and will actively recommend produce for us and our tastes.

All of that personalisation would be overkill, though, if all I needed were to stock up on kitchen rolls, bottled milk, and breakfast cereal. These are routine, undifferentiated transactions, and the more human effort we can remove from those, the better. Interactions with humans are costly activities, in time (that I spend dealing with a person instead of just taking a product off the shelf) and in money (someone has to pay that person’s salary, healthcare, taxes, and so on). They should be reserved for situations where there is a proportionate payoff: the assurance that my avos will be ripe, my cut of beef will be right for the dish I am making, and my kids’ bananas will not have gone off by the time they are ready to eat them.

We are cyborgs, every day a little bit more: humans augmented by machine intelligence, with new abilities that we are only just learning to deal with. The idea of a cashier-less supermarket does not worry me that much. In fact, I suspect that if anything, by taking the friction out of shopping for undifferentiated goods, we will actually create more demand for, and appreciation of, the sort of "curated" (sorry) experience that only human experts can provide.

Photos by Julian Hanslmaier and Anurag Arora on Unsplash

  1. Delete as appropriate, depending on which side of the Atlantic you learned your English. 

  2. I like my water carbonated, so sue me. I recycle the plastic bottles, if that helps. Sometimes I even refill them from the municipal carbonated-water taps. No, I’m not even kidding; those are a thing around here (link in Italian). 

Travel Observations (An Ongoing Series)

When you travel enough - a status I remember with vague fondness, the childhood before entering the adulthood of Travelling Too Damn Much - it’s all a blur, and it’s the little differences that begin to stand out. The hazelnuts you get when you fly with Turkish Airlines. The deep-voiced prayer before take-off from Saudi. The generalised contempt from Air France cabin crew. These are colour notes, expressions of their national character. Where it gets interesting is beyond this space.

I have been awoken - several times - from a sound sleep by British Airways cabin crew because my bag was not shoved far enough under the seat in front of me for their exacting standards. Fine, it could be a hazard in an evacuation – except that I was sitting in a window seat, the only hazard was to me, and I still have no idea why BA, and only BA, are so excessively devoted to verifying the position of cabin baggage.

They are also distressingly nervous about the whole refuelling procedure. If you’ve ever boarded a BA flight during refuelling, you will know about it, because about once a minute there is a blaring warning to KEEP YOUR SEAT BELTS UNFASTENED while the aircraft is being refuelled. Most other airlines recognise the complete futility of worrying about seat belts during fuelling, as any mishap involving avgas will see the aircraft engulfed in a fireball long before it could be evacuated, seat belts or no seat belts.

Lest this start to turn into an anti-BA rant, what is up with non-English-speaking airlines hiring people with atrocious - nigh on incomprehensible - accents to record in-flight announcements? In every instance the announcer is one of the worst English speakers of that nation that I have encountered, equalled only by the country’s railway announcer. Look, it’s a one-shot recording; hire someone people will actually understand. I remember getting more information from the Greek-language announcement than from the English one on the late unlamented Olympic Airways.

On the topic of announcements, all airlines’ cabin crew just love the sound of their voice. Look, it’s very nice of you to welcome us and so on, but many of us have heard the same message roughly once a week (if not more) for many years. By the eighteenth announcement that interrupts our in-flight entertainment, always at EAR-SPLITTINGLY LOUD VOLUME, we are about ready to storm the galley and risk explosive decompression to throw you out of the plane at ten thousand feet. The worst is the multi-lingual crew, who feel the need show off every. single. last. language they speak, including ones utterly irrelevant to the route being flown. If you must make these announcements, at least give us the chance to skip them, once we’ve heard one language we understand?

I know, I know, first-world problems, but here we are.

Photo by Marco Brito on Unsplash

Very Metal Hurlant

Terminal 1, Paris Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG), looking like something drawn by Enki Bilal in the snow.

The interior of the terminal is also pretty cool. The whole building is a ring around an empty core, criss-crossed by transparent Habitrail-style walkways, complete with disconcertingly bouncy moving walkways.

France: please don’t ever change.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Google is back in the news - and once again, it’s not for anything good. They added a Promotions folder to Gmail some time ago, and the pitch was that all the emails from brands that wanted to engage with you would automagically end up in there.

The problem is that this mechanism works a little too well, as Seth Godin describes:

You take the posts from this blog and dump them into my promo folder--and the promo folder of more than a hundred thousand people who never asked you to hide it.
Emails from my favorite charities end up in my promo folder. The Domino Project blog goes there as well. Emails from Medium, from courses I've signed up for, from services I confirmed just a day earlier. Items sent with full permission, emails that by most definitions aren't "promotions."
Here's a simple way to visualize it: Imagine that your mailman takes all the magazines you subscribe to, mixes them in with the junk mail you never asked for, and dumps all of it in a second mailbox, one that you don't see on your way into the house every day. And when you subscribe to new magazines, they instantly get mixed in as well.

It may be that this mechanism has recently received a revamp, as others are reporting sudden impacts on their newsletters:

The charitable explanation would be that Google’s system may be extrapolating from a few people who hit “report as spam" instead of “unsubscribe". However, there is an inherent conflict of interest when an advertising-funded company offers to rid us of unwanted advertising in the one channel in which it does not itself sell advertising.

I wrote about this issue the last time this functionality was showing up in breathless headlines about how "Google kills email spam!!!1!":

the actual reason Google is doing this is to reduce or even eliminate a channel marketers can use to connect with consumers without going through Google. Subscribing to e-mail updates is a direct connection between consumers and brands. Google would rather be the middleman in that transaction, selling AdWords to brands and collecting a toll on all the traffic.

Much like Facebook choking off unpaid organic reach in favour of forcing operators of pages (including free community pages!) to pay to promote their content, Google is choking off what had been a communications channel that it did not gather a tax on. Facebook was able to do what they did because they own their own platform and can make their own rules. Google might be able to get away with their own cash grab because of the dominance of Gmail in the email world – but email is not just Google.

As convenient as Gmail is, a single middleman becoming this important is very dangerous for email. In the same way, as good as Google Reader was, it became so central to website subscriptions that nearly everything ended up funnelling through there. When Google killed Reader, it was an event of apocalyptic proportions. Fortunately, Google had only killed one RSS platform, and others were able to release their own in short order.

Will Gmail end up like Facebook – or like Reader?

Photo by Mathyas Kurmann on Unsplash

Still Beautiful

Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 at FRA this morning, looking like it’s just getting going. I’ll miss these planes when the last ones retire.

One more:

“Does my nose look big in this?" 😂

ML Joke

A machine learning algorithm walked into a bar.

The bartender asked, "What would you like to drink?"

The algorithm replied, "What’s everyone else having?"


Citroën DS 19, at Museo dell’Automobile in Turin.

The Déesse has long been one of my dream cars, but I can’t do it justice in words. Fortunately, Roland Barthes did it for me:

La nouvelle Citroën tombe manifestement du ciel dans la mesure où elle se présente d’abord comme un objet superlatif. […] La «Déesse» a tous les caractères (du moins le public commence-t-il par les lui prêter unanimement) d'un de ces objets descendus d’un autre univers, qui ont alimenté la néomanie du XVIIIe siècle et celle de notre science-fiction: la Déesse est d'abord un nouveau Nautilus.

I don’t know whether Renaud Marion had this maquette in mind when he came up with his Air Drive series, but it seems probable. Unfortunately, "Air Drive" did not include a DS, but Jacob Munkhammar has stepped up to fill that gap.

There’s a dealership I’d love to visit! I wonder whether that’s the one where they got the flying DS taxi for Back To The Future II?

Water Wet

Well, the EU has come out and said what we all knew already: Uber is a taxi firm, not a tech firm.

This is of a place with the decision by Transport for London to revoke Uber’s license to operate, which is currently under appeal. There are a few important things to say about the EU result in particular.

Love Uber, Hate Uber

First of all, there is a distinction to be made between Uber the service and Uber the company. The service is incredibly convenient, and has in many ways completely superseded traditional taxi services, especially when travelling. Instead of a myriad of taxi firm numbers for each city that I visit regularly, and the requirement upon arrival to make sure I have enough local currency to get wherever I need to go, I can just whip out my phone as soon as I’ve cleared customs, and usually arrive at the meeting spot around the same time as the car.

When I reach the destination, I simply get out of the car and walk away, and my receipt is emailed to me automatically. This is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a taxi service.

Uber the company - well, that is a different story. From untold counts of sexual harassment (which are now to be made into a movie), to active evasion of regulators in the Greyball programme, to the actual matter of this case - claiming that their drivers are "independent contractors", rather than employees - this is not a company that anyone should support.

Let’s Get Some Perspective

Sure, capitalism is always pretty red in tooth and claw, and the various regulators that Uber has been doing battle with have hardly covered themselves in glory over the years. The taxi drivers trying to present themselves as innocents who have been hard done by could have implemented something similar to Uber years ago, but preferred to continue operating vehicles that were hazards to safety and hygiene, claim that the credit card machine was perennially out of order, refuse to provide tax receipts, and offer to fill in vastly inflated amounts on an expense slip as compensation.

There is also an argument that Uber increased provision of transportation services in previously under-served areas, and even provide a cheaper way to get to hospital than an ambulance1.

All of this is true, but we cannot overlook how these results were achieved.

Remember, too, that what we have seen until now is Nice Uber. This is Uber still operating in a mode where they are willing to burn their investors’ capital to capture market share, funding up to 40% of the cost of a ride. Assuming that they are successful in capturing a monopoly, that subsidy would presumably end shortly afterwards, and in order to keep fees to riders down, the payment to drivers would surely take a hit. Nasty Uber looking to monetise its monopoly and cut its stupendous losses ($2.8B last year alone) would surely start cutting corners elsewhere, too.

The Code Of Law Is Not A Code To Be Broken

This ruling brings to light once more a common tech fallacy. The tech world runs on codes. Success can be had by operating precisely within the codes, or by finding ingenious loopholes that let you do something unexpected. Confusion sometimes occurs because the law is also a code. Some techies misinterpret the code of law as being similar to the codes and specifications that they are used to, and think that they have identified a cunning loophole that nobody else has thought about and which allows them to route around some provision of law that they do not like. For instance, they might decide to start a taxi firm, except - aha! - the drivers are not employees, but "independent contractors" who operate their own vehicles (which are in turn leased from the totally-not-their-employer taxi firm). And the best part is, it all follows the letter of the law!

The thing is, computer code is not at all the same as a code of law. It is true that regulation moves slowly and can become outdated, and there is significant abuse because of that. In Italy, for instance, the German low-cost bus booking app Flixbus is in trouble with the law (link in Italian) because incumbents have managed to get laws proposed that would ban bus companies from operating unless they own their vehicles. That requirement is obviously a problem for Flixbus, a booking platform that aggregates across multiple bus operating companies, but does not actually run any buses itself.

This is precisely the sort of situation that the "app economy" is supposed to disrupt: instead of a Balkanised patchwork of bus companies, have a single multinational app platform through which passengers can book trips in more comfort - although perhaps at the expense of a comfortable status quo for incumbent local bus operators.

This is how Uber would like to present itself too - as plucky David taking on established Goliath, or as an underdog going up against The Man, who is also hand in hand with City Hall. However, there is a fine line between opposing laws and regulations, and working actively to evade them. In the latter situation, once the law does catch up, it will shut down whatever loopholes were being used, and then the consequences are far more grave than if a technical loophole were closed through a software update. Not only does the cunning hack to the law code no longer work, but the would-be law hacker may now find themselves subject to penalties far more draconian than for violating the GPL.

Welcome To Europe

Lately American firms have been unpleasantly surprised to find that the EU’s bark does in fact have a bite behind it. They had generally ignored the EU as being toothless and slow-moving, but activists and politicians have goaded the behemoth into motion, and the $2.4 billion fine against Google was only the start. Margrethe Vestrager, the current European Commissioner for Competition, is outspoken and determined to enforce a particularly European vision of competition. Given that Neelie Kroes is now on Uber’s Public Policy Advisory Board, perhaps this is a sign that Uber’s leadership recognise this fact, and will move with more tact from now on.

I Come Not To Bury Uber

It is true that getting a taxi used to be a hassle and now it’s mostly not, and that fact is largely thanks to Uber - but we cannot simply accept Uber's culture of "ask for forgiveness rather than permission - in fact, forget forgiveness, we’ve done it and that’s that". I hope the service can continue while the company is reformed under new leadership, but that will have to be done without this figleaf that Uber is a technology firm or part of the sharing economy or whatever. It’s a taxi firm, it owns vehicles and employs drivers, and it had better apply its substantial and undoubted ingenuity to working out what that means.

Photos by Peter Kasprzyk and Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.

  1. As a European, this story has any amount of WTF to it. Sorry, America, but your healthcare industry is utterly bananas, and you need to fix it. Single-payer systems have their flaws too, but they absolutely beat the alternative.