The Human Side of Automation Pt. 3: Redefining Work

We've now agreed that the automation revolution will render some of us useless in the eyes of the current system. Lucky for us, systems are built by people and can be changed by people. Is it the system we should look to change in the face of the greatest productivity revolution the world has seen since fire, the wheel, and combustion engines?

Remember: when our current models of energy, mobility and communication change, we are headed for a revolution my friends; from combustion cars powered by oil combined with telephone communication to electric-power, autonomous vehicles empowered by internet communication. Life is changing as we know it. 

If the economy changes and doesn't need a percentage of its current workforce, it's because the economy no longer sees those people as productive. We have two options here; change our productivity or change the measure of what is productive. Part 2, Get a Skill and Part 5, The Big Pivot both address how to change yourself; if you can't adapt then there will be no place for you in the scheme of things. The economy excludes people all the time.

What we will address here is changing our view of what is productive. In its current form productivity is simply energy used for the production of goods or services. So if you are rendered useless all of a sudden it's because your goods or services aren't needed anymore or something (not someone) can do it cheaper and more efficiently. That tells you everything you need to know about value in its current economic form; goods, services, cost, and efficiency (efficiency here = speed). When asked why Amazon would become a 1T$ company, Bezos said something like, "Because consumers will never want their packages later." For today's system, he's right.

Work, as we were told:

"We see the machine in it's goriest glory when we look at the meat processing industry. Workers are regularly abused, injured and lied to. Cattle are pushed to be killed faster and with less waste. The goal is to improve the efficiency of any part of the machine and to decrease costs as much as possible. To do anything else means giving up profit at the superstore."

Seth Godin, Linchpin

What Godin hits on above is how unidirectional productivity has been in the industrial era. Producing things undoubtedly made our lives better and so we kept doing so in an effort to be economically productive. You weren't seen as productive unless you were actually making things and you weren't seen as efficient unless you were keeping costs low and rate of production high. We didn't typically care where it came from, or at what cost, as long as the price was right. Factory conditions in Bangladesh were far from our minds as long as the new dress we wanted was $25, not $100.

The 9 to 5 on the production line gave our day predictability and order. We couldn't live like Kings on the salary but we had a home we owned, two kids and a family dinner of meat & potatoes at 5:30pm around the kitchen table. Every day was the same so chaos was not allowed to cross the threshold. Order + Predictability = Productivity. One problem with the industrial equation is that it is trying to solve a post-industrial proof; it doesn’t work anymore.

In the system's defense, it worked, for a time, in the sense that we are all better off than our grandparents. This is almost universally true. In the new work era, It seems like our heritage view of productivity is being cast away in favor of something old work denied us; meaning.

Work, as we now know it to be:

Meaning, I believe, is an underrated tool of the capitalist. When order, predictability, and productivity were the trident of economic activity we made mediocre things, all in all. Plastic, cheap, easily broken or worn down, that we would just replace if disaster struck because the cost to us was minimal in the scheme of things. We're now taking a hard look in the mirror; meaning is allowing us to produce great work and when we are all able to generously ship great work the world gets better.

We're also looking at how we work.

"Corporations are tempted to squeeze as much apparent productivity as they can out of each employee. That's the factory mindset at work. If you work on an assembly line, of course it matters how many hours a day you stand there. This new model is very different. Ji Lee is a provocateur and artists famous for his street art. He also happens to work at Google. I have no doubt that he's added millions of dollars in value to the company through his orthogonal thinking and big ideas. And I also have no doubt that if he stopped doing his external projects and showed up at work more often, his productivity would plummet."

Seth Godin, Linchpin

Time is negotiable. The fact that we weren't told this is patently obvious in hindsight; Order + Predictability = Productivity. In essence, you really weren't needed because it wasn't your unique, hard-won gifts that the company needed. In fact, it was essential that you did not see your own gifts as unique in case you would be the one to rock the boat. How many of us have been told to be grateful just to have a job and put food on the table? This is a ridiculous thing to believe. Alas, if the boat is stuck on shore, it needs a good rocking.

The equation has changed.

Order + Predictability = Productivity has become Meaning + Community = Shipping Great Work

It's impossible that the current economic system will not change. That the economy will stay as is and the mindless productive tasks we've been doing for centuries will no longer need a human touch. Driving, factory work, legal services, surgery, and retail will all be the domain of non-thinking, non-human beings. Those like Diamandis are optimistic about this new world of human-centered, creative work. Where time is not what it once was and it is now spent on creativity, entrepreneurship, connection, and leisure.

I'm long-term optimistic and short-term concerned. I have an intuition that that is not how we are wired and the work revolution will come with a global panic that may be short term but will nonetheless be dramatic. Thus, closing the gap will require a complete overhaul of our education systems; the subject of Pt. 4.

Until then, let's rethink what it is to be productive.

#culture #business #technology #productivity #future #work