My (late) father was an engineer. Politically, you could have called him a TechnoUtopian. He believed -- along with most of his engineer, ham radio, and science fiction writer and reader friends -- that as machines took over the humdrum tasks, humans would work less and create more. O'Reilly seems to have similar beliefs, even though (unlike my father) he's seen the beginnings of an economy with self-driving cars and trucks, factory machines that don't need humans to run them, and many other changes the 1950s and 1960s futurists didn't expect to see until we had flying cars and could buy tickets on Pan Am flights to the moon. Listening to these conversations, I remember my father's dreams, but O'Reilly isn't as optimistic as a full-blown TechnoUtopian. He takes a "Something's happening here; what it is ain't exactly clear" view of how work (and pay for work) will change in the near future. Please note that Tim O'Reilly has been called "The Oracle of Silicon Valley," so he's totally worth watching -- or reading, if that's your preferred method of taking in new information.
NOTE: Today we have a "main video," plus a "bonus video" that is viewable only with Flash. But we have a transcript that covers both of them. Enjoy!
Tim Lord for Slashdot: Tim, you've been thinking and writing a bit lately about what you are calling the WTF Future Of Work. Explain... What do you mean? What is changing the world of work that really is on your mind?
Tim O'Reilly : Well, I started with this phrase the WTF economy because there are a lot of WTF kinds of things that make you think both what the f*** and what's the future. So there's a set of things, like the fact that AIs are starting to help doctors diagnose illnesses. There's a lot of talk about AIs and robots taking over more and more jobs. There's the fact that we have these new network enabled businesses like Uber which are literally a multiple of the size of the entire previous industry. They’re using technology to deliver the service where it wasn’t delivered before, and we’re seeing the kind of disruption that we saw on the Internet now coming to the physical world. But at the same time we also have some things that are just WTF. I started digging into some of the labor issues around Uber and the on-demand economy for example, and the frequent criticism is, well these are not good jobs, comparing them perhaps to unionized auto jobs in the 1960s and I go “Yeah, but what about the rest of the low wage jobs in our economy?” And there's some real WTF stuff there.
Slashdot: There are still people who are flipping hamburgers.
Tim: Well, more than that if you have a low wage job, whether it is at McDonald's or Wal-Mart, or even a progressive employer like Starbucks you are subject to the whims of scheduling software that tells you when to work. I wrote this line in this piece I wrote recently it is called the algorithm is the new shift boss. But what people don’t realize is the algorithm is programmed to make sure that people don't get more than 29 hours of work.
Tim: To keep them part time, so you don’t have to pay expensive full time benefits. You have absolutely no agency. In our work with Code for America we discovered one of the big problems in the criminal justice is what are called bench warrants--people literally getting arrested because they didn’t follow some administrative procedures. It turns out that one reason why people don't do that is because they can't get off work. So they have a choice between losing their jobs or going to the courthouse. They don't go to the courthouse and six month later they send out a warrant out for their arrest and they end up in Jail. That’s crazy.
Slashdot: And that system doesn’t call their cell phones here.
Tim: And so I look at this and I go, okay, so over here on one side we have people vilifying Uber and Lyft in the on-demand economy where workers set their own hours, they work as much or as little as they like. They have enormous agency and that's what they value about the work.
On the other hand, we have other low-wage jobs in which people are completely slaves of the machine. And who are we beating up on? We’re beating up on the guys who are actually exposing the data to the workers and making a market in labor, and I kind of go, “How do we go forward from that?” How can we make those better jobs? They're not necessarily great jobs, but the environment of low-wage jobs around them is far worse. And so I go but there is a way forward here that's enabling workers being able to have agency and freedom.
And also for – I think we have – we do have to put pressure, we have to ask questions like, “Okay, if we have low wage workers, how would we have a scheduling – who are subject to algorithmic scheduling which does leave have great benefits for the bottom line of companies. How would we actually build the kind of freedom that you get with a platform like Uber, into that scheduling software?” It's not impossible. There are companies like Managed By Q and others who are saying, “Yeah, we built that scheduling software even though we’re making people employees, where they have the freedom to set their own schedule and more control.” It’s a matter of choices. There’s also I think massive need that I think has come out of this discussions, to figure out how to decouple benefits from employment at a particular corporation.
Tim: That 29 hour thing Italked about is a bug in the system. If you start saying well, benefits should be centered on the individual and you go yeah, fractional benefits, you work here 10 hours, you work here 15 hours, you work here another 15 hours we can figure out, how to allocate the incoming payments from all those employers and coordinate them. And we need to actually to start building stuff like that, so that when policymakers go as they are starting to that's a really good idea. We don't go down the path of saying well, we need to spend $1 billion like healthcare.gov to implement it and go, no actually that already exists because some hackers have built it. So that's kind of part of my hope.
But unpacking even further this on-demand economy, in the way when I did Web 2.0 I tried to unpack Google for the world and say, well here is the things that it teaches about data is the new Intel inside, it teaches about the value of user contribution, it teaches about cloud computing, it teaches us about constantly evolving software--there are a whole bunch of things. In a similar way I think this on-demand economy teaches us just a bunch of things. There is this sort of decoupling of work from employment. But there is also I think in the success of Uber, and Lyft, Airbnb versus some of the second tier players.
Tim: I think there’s a real lesson about doing some things that actually make a difference. Many of the companies that are, you know kind in the noise are for example, enabling what – the fabulous joke tweet sites, Startup L. Jackson said at the end of 2013, “the Uberification of everything is turning San Francisco into an assisted living community for the young”, and you go – that's not the point of this. But in fact, you could not rent a hotel room or get a hotel room in many locations, you can't get a cab in many locations, but now you can get an Uber or Lyft. You can Airbnb, I got married in New York recently not far from the cloisters, and we were able to get Airbnb and walked to our wedding site up in Fort Tryon Park, three miles away. That's real utility. And so, I think that there is a really interesting question here about how do you understand what this technology can do. That’s hard. You know, what would be the equivalent of Uber or the Uberification or anything not for the young, but for the elderly, for the shut in person who needs home care. How could we revolutionize home care, so they’ll be able to age in place--those are interesting challenges. You also see something like SolarCity, where you’re saying, okay, how could we invert the generation of power. And again, it's democratizing, it's also creating jobs all the solar installers, all those Uber drivers are good. This is actually a way forward, let's figure out the problems with it, let's build on it, but let's really start by identifying interesting important problems that we can solve using technology. And then another piece that I’ve unpacked this into is that you can only do some of this work because you give the workers super powers. So, if you think about it to be say a London taxi driver, you have to pass this exhaustive exam called The Knowledge, it’s one of the hardest exams in the world, and most taxi drivers don't have that same level of skill, but now really – the reason why so many more people were able to come into the market and work as an Uber or Lyft driver is because of GPS. The reason they’re able to find fares more efficiently rather than driving around hoping to flag someone is because of technology. So there's a whole story about augmentation and that's another part of what I'm trying to get out in my event in November.
How do we think about augmentation? How do we think about a world where technology isn't just used to replace people, to improve the bottom line by replacing people, but actually improve the bottom line by enabling people. I think the Apple Store is another great example of that. They completely rethought the workflow of the store, they put more retailer people in there, and they used the smart phone instead of the cash register that changed the whole way that worked, it became one of most successful retailers ever. And so you think about that and you go, okay, where else can we augment workers instead of replacing them? And that’s why I'm kind of looking into augmented reality in the workplace into AI in the workplace as an augmentation. It's also why I look even at a broader definition of augmentation, how technology can really enable a renaissance of manufacturing in America. One of the featured speakers is Limor Fried of Adafruit, she is doing open source hardware, she gives away all her designs which is built and meaningful business with tens of millions of dollars of revenue with no venture capital, but she is an engineer with superpowers, right? She's sitting there, if you go visit Adafruit, here’s Limor with her design station, her micro factory, which can’t be a more than a couple of hundred square feet next to her. And then you basically it is the rest it's a warehouse and shipping and she kind of built her own shipping software and then there's the little video studio where they make her Ask An Engineer, you know Hangouts and other kinds of video programs that are effectively the marketing _____ of giving away free engineering education. One of my favorite Adafruit stories of course is apparently some girl asked her mother after watching quite a few Ask An Engineer episodes where Limor and also she invites a lot of other female engineers, and this little girl asks, “Mommy, can boys be engineers too?” And yeah, you think about the social transformation in that, you just got to love it. But back to my theme, there’s a kind of augmentation that’s enabling, a renaissance of certain kind of small business in America. This is a manufacturer, but look at Etsy and Marketplace of small businesses and you look at the funding mechanisms that are coming up, we are featuring Kickstarter on the program, Yancey Strickler, at our Solid Conference talking about that there has been half a billion of dollars investment in hardware startups, on Kickstarter. That’s a huge sum is coming from crowdfunding of projects. And once again yes there are problems, not every Kickstarter succeeds but guess what, not every venture capital investment succeeds either, not every government investment in technology. I think once again people are focusing on the problems without looking at the enormous potential and I think in all of this there are signs of what the next economy looks like. We’re understanding how people are going to work, how we can put people to work, how we can improve the lives of workers and how technology can be made to serve our human aims rather than just serving the inhuman bottom line of these aliens among us that we called corporations.
Slashdot: I think, a lot of what you’re talking about is most visible with one person who has some skill, I just hired off of Craigslist somebody mowed my lawn, from another city’s airport who didn’t have PayPal set up and within an hour, set up a PayPal, I paid him, he mowed my lawn and sent me a picture, and that’s a – sort of – one person with a lawn mower multiplied by Craigslist, is a lot different than driving a neighborhood.
Tim: Yeah, I think that we have this enormous opportunity to make people’s life better and it won’t look like going back to the 50s or 60s, but we can take some of the values that came from that. One of the people on my program is a guy David Rolf who’s the guy who is a labor organizer one of the most successful in history, actually I think largest labor organizing thing of some service workers in LA since Ford was unionized in the 40s, right, but he was like it was easier to organize voters to pass the $15 minimum wage ordinance than it was to organize workers at Seattle airport which is what he was trying to do and he started to figure out Oh you go to Internet you do so there is a new model to how you do these things. But one of the things that he said that was great, he said God didn't make being an auto worker a good job, it was the set of choices that came about because people fought really hard for it, and I think it's super important that we as a society figure out what kind of world we want.