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Video Tim O'Reilly and the 'WTF?!' Economy (Video) 111

This is a conversation Tim Lord had with Tim O'Reilly at OSCON. Tim O'Reilly wrote an article titled "The WTF Economy,", which started with these words: "WTF?! In San Francisco, Uber has 3x the revenue of the entire prior taxi and limousine industry." He talks about Uber and AirbnB and how, with real-time measurement of customer demand, "The algorithm is the new shift boss." And then there is this question: "What is the future when more and more work can be done by intelligent machines instead of people, or only done by people in partnership with those machines?"

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.

Slashdot: Sure.

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.

Slashdot: Sure.

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 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.

Slashdot: Right.

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.

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Tim O'Reilly and the 'WTF?!' Economy (Video)

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  • And then there is this question: "What is the future when more and more work can be done by intelligent machines instead of people, or only done by people in partnership with those machines?"

    People have been asking this question for literally 150 years or so. Even if we restrict our horizon to things published in the last month, there's quite a bit []. Do we need another take on this? And from... Tim O'Reilly?

    factory machines that don't need humans to run them, and many other changes the 1950s and 1960s futurists didn't expect to see

    No, this is exactly what they expected to see. The main thing they were wrong about is that they expected to see it within 20 years.

    • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

      No, this is exactly what they expected to see. The main thing they were wrong about is that they expected to see it within 20 years.

      I've found that the one thing Futurists are consistently really bad at is predicting the future.

    • With the tool being able to replace the original tool maker (homo sapiens), what you will get is techno feudalism, resource redistribution, and war over said allotment

      There's a reason the UN is pushing for Agenda 21. They're will be too many people on this planet that won't be contributory AT ALL to civilization. Now as to who stays and who goes???

      • The war won't last long, and it won't end well for the surplus population (who, pretty much by definition, won't have access to the powerful weaponry).
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Well the other thing they were wrong about is what will happen to the people when their work day effectively goes from 8 hours to 1 or 2 hours. The futurists somehow thought that the rich people would still allow the non-rich people to actually eat and, beyond that, to actually have possessions. It turns out that they were wrong on that count.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Dude that's been the last 20 years. 40 years for government work.

        8 hour day, 2 hours of actual work, the rest wasted in 'all hands meetings' etc.

        The real problem is those that do no work at all, but demand time from those that do. Perhaps we could tell them the world was about to end and put them on an ark.

        • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

          For anyone who's tempted to dismiss the AC because he's an AC, research backs him up. The average white collar worker does a few of hours of productive work a day. Judging by the highway construction guys, it doesn't seem like blue collar workers do much more.

    • they will still need engineers and plumbers, but most of humanity will just become surplus labor

      the rich and powerful will release a virus, and 99.9% of the problem will take care of itself

      as a bonus, climate change will reverse with the world population reduced to 7 million and no more massive fossil fuel use

  • I really enjoyed the main video, but I'll never see the Flash video I guess - kind of a shame to produce something and then purposefully make it un-viewable to a significant portion of your readership.

    There were a lot of people who could not get behind the term "sharing economy" used in a previous sorry to describer Uber and the like. Hopefully they can get behind the term "on demand" economy, which also does a great job of describing the fundamental difference between her style jobs and traditional jobs.


    • I don't use Flash, so is it not all in the transcript?

      • What transcript? The video is totally different than the text below, and the lower flash-only video I assume is also different.

        • by mjm1231 ( 751545 )

          So you're saying the little link under the video that says "Hide/Show transcript" is half lying? Perhaps it should have read "Hide/Show some text partially related to the video"?

          • Didn't see that since it was undertake Flash video I couldn't play...

            But the transcript is only for the main video, which I was able to watch fully - not the bonus content. I can see where you might also have been confused on that point, since it was below the Flash video (though it you'd watched the main video you would have known).

          • by Roblimo ( 357 )

            Please accept my apologies - Somehow I managed to *not* paste in the second half of the transcript. Usually -- really, almost always -- the transcripts have *more* info than the videos. So I slammed in the rest just now, with a little less polishing than usual, but it's all there.

            And Flash. Everybody who actually works on the site (and reads your comments) agrees with you.We tell them over and over, but I've been working on Slashdot since it was brand new and shiny (UID 357), so what do I know? Obviously n

    • by tom229 ( 1640685 )
      Im curious, you boycott flash for what reason? It sucks... I get it. I can't watch a flash video and run a Windows virtual machine without a new i7 processor. It's seriously brutal. But to go far as to not have it all seems a bit extreme. Are you worried about security? If you work at the pentagon you might have an argument.. although you probably shouldn't be browsing slashdot on your work computer regardless.
      • by vux984 ( 928602 )

        It sucks, it drains battery, it's a vector for ads, its an attack surface,its a vector for malware, is uses bandwidth, and it constantly wants to update which is annoying. (And given that its a big vector for malware... it needs to be updated.)

        Does the flash updater try to install crapware too unless you opt out every single time? I just can't be bothered with it.

        I do still have flash on one of computers, but not most of them. I find I don't miss that much that I actually want to see.

      • Im curious, you boycott flash for what reason?

        Because the web as a whole works better without it now.

        I had click-to-flash installed for a while, but the websites I use most regularly (including my bank) work better if they think I just plain don't have Flash at all and have to give me something else.

        The real question is why the hell would you keep Flash around when it's so easy to do without now? You don't have to work for the pentagon to find it desirable that your bank credentials will not be scraped (th

    • Uber jobs won't be helping the poor make a few bucks for much longer. They're researching self driving cars for a reason. Then both taxi drivers and uber drivers will be SOL.

      And job displacement and an ever growing class of people who cannot get jobs no matter how educated they are and how much student debt they take on, and increasingly useless job retraining programs that just give false hope and let the politicians claim they're doing something ... that's the dystopian picture painted in many sci-fi sto

  • The algorithm is the new overseer []

    TFTFY, Tim.

  • Only if we're lucky will we be able to automate all the tasks and scrap the need for human labour. We will also need a socialist or communist system of wealth distribution if we scrap all the paid jobs. The biggest fear is a partial but not full automation occurs, where millions to billions of people get put permanently out of work, but there's still a worker class. Assuming we kept the current economic models, we'd be driving millions of people into poverty and creating a super stratified ultra-rich class.
    • Assuming we kept the current economic models, we'd be driving millions of people into poverty and creating a super stratified ultra-rich class.

      Ah, so you're talking about business as usual...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...while we can make machines do just about anything, it will almost always be cheaper to have people do them so why would the corporations who make these decisions do anything else?
    And the moment you start talking about someone other than the corporations making these decisions the cries of "welfare state" and "socialism" will be deafening.

    Without some sort of massive political/social upheaval I dont see us ever getting to a point where "the people" benefit from time saving devices to the extent TFA is sug

  • If I was making a new civ tech tree, the "wtf economy" would be right before tech singularity. Doesn't end well.

  • A minority taking more than their share. I would love to work less but still have a secure lifestyle which is what mechanization and Taylorism was supposed to bring use. But if wealth accumulates into the hands of a fewnot due to any hard work or cleverness on their part but accident of birth, all it leads to is unemployment and eventually starvation.

  • From TFS:

    ... that as machines took over the humdrum tasks, humans would work less and create more.

    Unfortunately, the people whose jobs are being replaced by machines aren't usually the creative type. DaVinci might have been an autoworker before a robot welder replaced him and he could devote his time to creative endeavours, but Jane Smith, who used to be the receptionist/phone answerer at Multi-Corp, didn't start winning Pulitzers once the call director replaced her.

  • Imagine how little you would need to work without the overhead of HR, legal departments, management, and governments? These are things that can be automated away over time. If you need a task and can just pay for that task everyone would be so much wealthier and have more time.

    Most people on a salary job do very little actual work. Lots of time is wasted doing useless things. You could choose more money or leisure. The more specialized we all get the better.

    • by matfud ( 464184 )

      Most people on contract jobs do very little work.

      Just to counter your baselessly "Most people on a salary job do very little actual work" claim.

      So who is doing all the "hard work"?

      Who empties the bins at the office? Who unblocks the toilet? Who makes sure that you get paid? Lots of people who do actually work.

  • Flash? Boooo! (Score:4, Informative)

    by ciaran2014 ( 3815793 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2015 @05:32PM (#50304669) Homepage

    C'mon Dice, making Slashdot Videos require proprietary software?!

    (This is my first time voicing a Dice-era complaint.)

  • "as machines took over the humdrum tasks, humans would work less and create more"

    No, what happens is humans work less, and spend more time looking for work in order to survive. The problem with the utopian ideal is that they keep pinning it on the idea that you'll be able to survive with little or no money, which is star trek bullshit that will never happen.

  • Postcapitalism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mspohr ( 589790 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2015 @06:18PM (#50305041)

    Interesting book by Paul Mason is saying something similar but in a broader context. Things are changing due to technology and better access to information. It's hard to control information. Technology is eroding the price of information. Non-market social organizations are replacing capitalist organizations.
    "The neoliberalist capitalist model has resulted in civil wars and economic disaster, and it’s only going to get worse. Unless, Paul Mason argues, we take advantage of the technological revolution we are living through and create a postcapitalist sharing society. If we let prices fall and delink work from wages, we can save the world from disaster" []

    "There is, alongside the world of monopolised information and surveillance created by corporations and governments, a different dynamic growing up around information: information as a social good, free at the point of use, incapable of being owned or exploited or priced. I’ve surveyed the attempts by economists and business gurus to build a framework to understand the dynamics of an economy based on abundant, socially-held information. But it was actually imagined by one 19th-century economist in the era of the telegraph and the steam engine. His name? Karl Marx." []

    "The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next."
    It is the elites – cut off in their dark-limo world – whose project looks as forlorn as that of the millennial sects of the 19th century. The democracy of riot squads, corrupt politicians, magnate-controlled newspapers and the surveillance state looks as phoney and fragile as East Germany did 30 years ago."

    • You and he keep telling yourselves the good, little people will win against the corporate Military-Surveillance cabals. It really is an enjoyable fairy tale, akin to that of David.
      • by mspohr ( 589790 )

        Actually, if you had read the article, you would know that Paul Mason admits that he has serious reservations about whether or not what he is seeing will take place. I also have the same reservations. The oligarchs are powerful and will fight back with their control of government and all of their money (and they do have all of the money).
        He offers this as a possible future... not a prediction.

    • by edis ( 266347 )

      The thing is, those "striking" changes will only take niches to fill. Yes, they will make impact here and there, but, for illustration purposes, Linux and open source likewise was nearly expected to change everything fundamentally - and did it? It did, but to certain extents only. Of course, incremental and intervening changes in/with new media, as per McLuhan, will advance all the time. But, again, nature of processes is evolutionary and fragmented. Expectation of sensations should be put aside. Was there

  • "What is the future when more and more work can be done by intelligent machines instead of people, or only done by people in partnership with those machines?"

    The future is lower prices until everything is free. Human effort is the only thing that needs to be compensated. You know? Really! WTF?!

  • Something's happening here; what it is ain't exactly clear

    This is just latest class warfare incarnation.

  • I seem to be in contact with people who simply are blind to what is happening right under their noses. Change and the degree of change and the rate of change are dramatic and will cause huge chaos if we do not as a society prepare in advance for what is already happening. Yet everyone I meet seems to believe that the type of change that more literate people tend to see is book stuff that will never happen. And you can bet if they are in denial about climate change they are totally lost when it comes t
  • this is very interesting video regarding the subject. havent seen such an interesting video on the subject before

I just asked myself... what would John DeLorean do? -- Raoul Duke