The clock at the Pantheon March 14, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
There was an interesting discussion on CBC Radio’s “Q” yesterday, March 13, as Jim Brown spoke with Jon Lackman, the author of a recent piece in Wired on UX (or “Urban eXperiment”), a group that occupies and repairs abandoned parts of the tunnel system under Paris. The group has mapped out and even rehabilitated sections of the underground in order to preserve them. They have even staged clandestine film festivals and art shows there!
Perhaps the most interesting part was the discussion of how the group repaired the clock in the Pantheon, now a kind of reliquary for the great and good of French history. The clock was admired as “an engineering marvel from the 19th century”, and a group of UX members decided to rescue it from its increasingly corroded state. Lackman describes their motivation in this way:
Oxidation had so crippled the works that they would soon become impossible to fix without re-creating, rather than restoring, almost every part. “That wouldn’t be a restored clock, but a facsimile,” Kunstmann says. As the project began, it took on an almost mystical significance for the team. Paris, as they saw it, was the center of France and was once the center of Western civilization; the Latin Quarter was Paris’ historic intellectual center; the Pantheon stands in the Latin Quarter and is dedicated to the great men of French history, many of whose remains are housed within; and in its interior lay a clock, beating like a heart, until it suddenly was silenced.
So, the team was motivated by admiration for the authentic clock itself and national pride (and, perhaps, contempt for the complacency of the government regarding the matter).
The group set up a workshop within the Pantheon itself, on a floor where “no one ever went anymore”. They examined the works and discovered that the stoppage of the clock was no accident:
What they discovered looked like sabotage. It appeared that someone, presumably a Pantheon employee tired of winding the clock once a week, had bludgeoned the escape wheel with an iron bar.
After several months on their own time and money, the clock was fixed. The group decided to inform the authorities, thinking they would be happy to have the clock working again. In the end, though, the authorities were not pleased. They sued members of UX, unsuccessfully:
Meanwhile, the government lost its lawsuit. It filed another, which it also lost. There is no law in France, it turns out, against the improvement of clocks. In court, one prosecutor characterized her own government’s charges against Untergunther as “stupid.” But the clock is still immobile today, its hands frozen at 10:51.
The authorities hired a clockmaker to “resabotage” the clock. The clockmaker refused, Lackman notes in the CBC interview, saying something to the effect that, as a professional, his job is to repair clocks, not to wreck them. However, he did remove the escape wheel, causing the clock to stop running.
It is a fascinating story. Whatever your view of UX and their activities, you have to admire their passion for their home and their dedication to the preservation of its technological heritage.
Does IT take away jobs? November 10, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
The Economist has recently published an intriguing blog posting on the displacement of jobs by IT. The entry is framed as an examination of the so-called Luddite fallacy: the view that efficiencies realized through the automation of work lead to job losses. It was this view that supposedly led the Luddites to smash their bosses’ sock making machines. (I feel constrained to point out that this mischaracterizes the Luddites of history who actually approved of automation but fought their employers’ project of undermining established labour standards.) As the article explains, this view is seen as a mistake:
Economists see this as a classic example of how advancing technology, in the form of automation and innovation, increases productivity. This, in turn, causes prices to fall, demand to rise, more workers to be hired, and the economy to grow.
In brief, the unemployed find new jobs and move on.
The article then raises the current economic situation as a counter-example. Automation and innovation continue apace today, yet unemployment remains stubbornly high. Why have the unemployed not yet moved on to find other jobs? The answer may be that automation really has eliminated that work.
The contention in the article, if I understand it correctly, is basically that automation is beginning to dominate the economy as a whole. In the past, for example, agricultural workers whose jobs were made redundant by farm equipment could move to the city and find work in factories. Now, however, the ability of computerized machinery to perform not only manual labour but cognitive labour has left people without another sector where they can migrate to. In effect, the article points out, the machines have become not only manual labourers but also mid-level, white collar employees.
This is where the problem hits close to home, if you like. Until now, people could find remunerative, white-collar work by undergoing advanced training, so that they could perform cognitive work that computerized technology was not capable of. In short, people could go to university. However, as doctors, lawyers, and programmers are being made redundant, it becomes harder for universities to give human beings a competitive advantage, certainly one that will last them for long in view of the pace of technological progress. Perhaps the increasing drive to make university studies more efficient or, at least, cheaper through putting courses online could be viewed as a response to this pressure. However, when students can no longer expect to find jobs as a result of their studies, they will probably stop signing up.
The article tries to finish on an up-beat note. Humans still have comparative advantages over computers: “the ability to imagine, feel, learn, create, adapt, improvise, have intuition, act spontaneously.” Whether these advantages will translate into employment is unclear, but it could happen. It may also suggest a resurgence of the liberal arts in education; these are the areas where imagination, feeling, creativity, and so on are traditionally cultivated. This is not to say that such qualities are lacking in the more technological disciplines, but these have tended to emphasize analytical skills and approaches more and more over the years. Shifting to a more artsy, less analytic curriculum might not prove easy or agreeable. However, it may prove necessary.
Virtual worlds and prison labour June 9, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
I recently came across this article describing how Chinese prisoners are being made to play World of Warcraft in order to enrich their guards. Prisoners, who are sent to work in coal mines, for example, during the day, are put to work playing the virtual reality game at night. There, they earn credits that they then turn over to the guards, who sell them to gamers overseas for real money:
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” Liu told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
Well, there’s another reason not to get locked up in a Chinese prison!
(Image courtesy of juanpol via Flickr.com.)
The practice of outsourcing WoW gameplay for money is called “gold farming” and is not new. It is the basis of a sizable industry in China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Even as a legitimate business, the work does not sound too great:
At the end of each shift, Li reports the night’s haul to his supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers, will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20. The small commercial space Li and his colleagues work in — two rooms, one for the workers and another for the supervisor — along with a rudimentary workers’ dorm, a half-hour’s bus ride away, are the entire physical plant of this modest $80,000-a-year business. … Collectively they employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion worldwide trade in virtual items.
If the work is so dull and unrewarding that players are willing to farm it out to others, then I can only think that it must be somewhat degrading for the people who do end up performing it. However, some employees seem to enjoy the work, at least some of the time. Also, doing dumb things for wealthy foreigners is the basis of many an industry, and I would hate to put 100,000 people out of work.
Of course, forced labour is another matter. Perhaps WoW could be changed just to auction or sell people credits (or artifacts, or levels) if they care to buy them. The British used to buy and sell commissions as officers in the Army. The presence of rich idiots in the officer corps did not help the Army, but I do not see that the same consideration would apply to WoW.
Sign up and pay up July 13, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
We have noted before how social media have changed the workplace. Now comes news about how social media has changed debt collection. This NPR story describes how debt collectors use social media like Facebook to track down debtors. The story tells how Isaac Vicknair, a chronic debt scofflaw, eluded paying back his student loan (among other things) for years, that is, until his employer, a vendor of solar panels, requested that he use Facebook to meet other people in the field:
He put his contact information on his account. It didn’t occur to him that it could lead to trouble.
“So within one day of putting my work information on Facebook, the secretary gets a call from some lady who totally gets my name wrong, and I pick up the phone, and they’re like, ‘Is Mr. Isaac Vicknair there?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this call before.’ Lots of times,” he says.
Rumbled! Apparently, debt collectors are onto this Facebook thing too.
The Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan is famous for his apothegm: The medium is the message. Let’s take it to mean that a new medium presents us with a kind of new language for understanding and interacting with the world; that is, a new way of thinking about things (and new things to think about too). Social media like Facebook have given us a novel concept of friendship: anyone with whom we are connected. In this sense, a debt collector is just as good a friend as your most intimate acquaintance. Yet, the older sense of someone whom you know reasonably well and with whom you share common goals and interests lingers and, sometimes, causes confusion and a few laughs.
Are tedious captchas a good thing? April 26, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article comments on how spammers may hire people to solve captchas on Websites. Say you were a spammer and wished to send people an email that originates on the New York Times (NYT) website. You know, “Your credit card number has won a contest; log in here to collect your prize from the New York Times”? The problem is that, in order to use the NYT email-an-article service, you must solve one of those little puzzles or CAPTCHAs.
(Photo courtesy of Ryan Staake; Wikimedia Commons)
These little puzzles are designed to be easy for people but difficult for computers. So, automating your spamming process is hard to do. Unless you can hire people to do the puzzles for you. Some spammers do just this, using impoverished people in India or Bangladesh to spend their days deciphering these little graphics, over and over again.
Many things could be said about this situation. On the one hand, such work seems degrading, an example of automation gone wrong resulting in the creation of mindless piecework through deskilling. On the other hand, if people are truly in such a poor situation that such work is economically attractive to them, then who is to say they should not do so? (Then there is the harm caused to the victims of the spam to consider.)
Interestingly, the article concludes by noting that the very tediousness of the CAPTCHA solving process impedes its economic sustainability:
That view was confirmed by an executive at one south Indian outsourcing company that advertises its captcha-solving prowess on a Web site. The executive, Dileep Paveri, said his firm had stopped offering the service because it was not very profitable.
His company, SBL, which is based in Cochin, got about $200 a month in revenue for each of the 10 employees it had hired to decipher the puzzles on behalf of a Sri Lankan client.
“We found that it’s not worth doing,” said Mr. Paveri, a manager in SBL’s business process outsourcing and graphics unit. Moreover, he added, “after some time, the productivity of people comes down because it’s a monotonous job. They lose their interest.”
You may dislike CAPTCHAs for being so boring. However, their very dullness may be one of their chief virtues, preventing them from becoming the foundation of an exploitive industry.
Hidden costs of information technology April 15, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Underage, underpaid workers working 15-hour shifts, sexually predatory security guards, hourly pay of just 52 cents per hour after deductions for the canteen food. No talking during work hours, no listening to music, no bathroom breaks. These are just some of the conditions that workers at China’s KYE Systems Corp. plant in Dongguan City have to endure.
At the same time, an article from the Huffington Post discusses the fate of 23-year old On-Yang, a young South Korean man who died of leukemia after a short career in Samsung’s semiconductor plant. Other young employees and former employees have died of various cancers, leading to concerns over exposure to toxins in the workplace. Of course, it is difficult to prove such a link, and the South Korean government seems to avoid publicity over the matter.
These items are cause for concern in their own right, but they got me to thinking again about the hidden costs of our everyday IT gear. In economic terms, these hidden costs are known as externalities, costs that do not show up in prices. Here are a few kinds of externalities relating to our computers and cellphones that have made the news of late:
- Adverse working conditions. Besides the manufacturing facilities mentioned above, China is where Canadians’ computers and cell phones go to die. There, they are disassembled in highly toxic and unregulated environments, by people who have few alternatives to making a living. Similar facilities exist in other developing nations, such as India and Nigeria.
- The extraction of raw materials, like coltan, help to fuel civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The materials are cheap because, in part, they are extracted under the guns of private militias.
- Computing imposes an environmental cost because of the electricity it uses. Demand for electricity used in computing is provided by coal burning plants, for example, which produces carbon dioxide, among other things.
What would be the price of your computer or cell phone if the costs of preventing or mitigating these problems were factored in?
To some extent, these problems can be mitigated through design. Computing devices can be made more efficient in order to reduce electricity usage, for example, and efficiency is something that is studied in the education of electronics designers. However, what more could be done, in the education of designers, to mitigate these problems further?
Work 2.0: u r fired :( March 24, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Sixteen-year old Chelsea Taylor was recently sacked (that’s British for “fired”) from her job at a cafe called “Cookies” after she was sent out with a ten pound note to buy some cookies. (Why Cookies had no cookies is not for mere mortals to know.) She returned without cookies and without the money having, she said, lost it.
The owner was not impressed and told Elaine, the manager, to fire Chelsea. Not being able to raise Chelsea on the phone, Elaine fired her via Facebook. Wow!
I wonder if they are still Facebook friends?
Seriously though, the incident raises some issues, such as privacy. I doubt that Chelsea really wanted to have this firing known to everyone within her Facebook circle (or the whole world, for that matter). Social media tools tend not to facilitate distinctions between people you know casually, at work, or at school, and so it can be hard to keep information flowing in the channels that you would prefer. It seems clear that this situation needs to change.
It will also be interesting to see how things work out for Chelsea. Perhaps she will be able to turn this 15 seconds of fame to her advantage. A chain of cookie shops, or a book deal, maybe? I do not mean to be too sarcastic, as I do not know Chelsea in the slightest and she did not solicit this situation. However, it does illustrate a truth of the Web 2.0 economy: attention is a scarce resource and, if you can grab it, it is an opportunity to make money. Is this a good thing, or will it tend to turn the entrepreneurial spirit into a temptation to cry like a baby for attention?
Finally, of course, there is the effect of the Internet on the nature of work itself. Here is how Chelsea responded to her Facebook pink slip:
“Even if she had sent me a text message or something it would have been better than on Facebook. She didn’t have the guts to tell me face-to-face.”
In the past, managers and employees usually had to deal with each other face-to-face. That can create a lot of anxiety on occasion, on both sides. The uptake of information technology into the workplace has brought about many efficiencies, by, among other things, assimilating management to data management. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. As information technology increasingly mediates the employer-employee relationship, that relationship is going to increasingly resemble the relationship between a user and a spreadsheet. What can employees do to ensure that managers continue to see them as people?