Mercy for “Meatware”: a Future of Working Smarter, not Faster

Mercy for “Meatware”: a Future of Working Smarter, not Faster

One of the many interesting threads that I picked out of the hot economics tome of 2014, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, was that, given that the success of the 20th century was a short-lived economic fluke because of an unprecedented confluence of world events, we in the 2000s in the West are seeing a gradual return to the kind of economic inequality that we saw in the 19th century and before. Already, the value of inherited wealth in relation to the economy as a whole is at par with where it was in 1910, and steadily rising.

I thought of this when grappling with this week’s topic, the redevelopment of the “Human Intelligence Task:” a 21st century, Western spin on piece work. We are returning to the 1800s economically in more ways than one, it seems — but there are thinkers out there searching for ways to make this reality work for the workers

In his article “Say Goodbye To Your Highly Skilled Job. It’s Now a Human Intelligence Task” journalist Mark Harris delves deep into the world of “Meatware:” digital crowdworkers who do multiple tiny online tasks from anywhere for a few cents to a buck or two. Most of these tasks are one step above automation — tagging suspected cancer cells in scans of patient tissue, for example, or filling out surveys, or transcribing information from format to format. Companies like CrowdFlower, zCrowd, and others sprouted up in the wake of the industry behemoth, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Scary headline aside, Harris investigates the current state of the market, where tasks can run the gamut from interesting and well-paid, to too complicated and not worth it. Until recently, crowdworking companies have been mostly content to connect tasker and task, without thinking of the quality of life this working style affords. But, industry development is now looking further into the future:

“‘The very ephemeral, very shallow kind of work on Mechanical Turk is going to generate some economic activity, but is generally not sustainable in the very long term,” [Praveen Paritosh, Google research scientist in human and machine intelligence] says. ‘What is sustainable is moving crowdworking further along the computational spectrum, where there is room for more skill, more education, more training.’”

Crowdworking companies are starting to realize that this “room,” and the engagement it brings, should result in more contented, higher paid workers — and therefore, productivity above and beyond that which results from the current, simple, dangling-carrot arrangement.

“[Isaac Nichols, founder of zCrowd] believes that workers will ultimately prefer an environment where they feel part of the larger business. […] ‘Look at any company structure and there’s a ladder to climb where people get paid more as they move up. There’s a similar structure to be built on top of the crowd,’ he says. ‘I’d love to see the day where someone can have a career in crowdworking: to work whenever they want, wherever they want, and get paid more for their experience.”

It will be really interesting to see where this trend towards higher quality of working life takes us. Even as we careen back towards 19th century economic conditions, what we know about the possibilities of technology will ensure our future will always be unique!

A Cooler Commute: Modeling the City Bus of the Future

As loyal readers of this newsletter know, we at DFC are advocates of making your workplace where you already are. Our “where” happens to be a cabin in eastern Ontario, but we look forward to the day when folks all over can use technological interventions to bring their workplaces to them . Until that happens, we fully recognize that most people have to bring themselves to work instead! But that means braving the dreaded commute. (*Organ riff, thunderclap*)
One strategy to help with the commute conondrum is currently being revived after making the viral rounds a couple years ago.  Engineer Song Youzhou has presented a working model of his “straddling bus” concept, heretofore only existing in animated form, at the recent 19th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo. The idea behind this bus is ambitiously neat: as wide as two lanes of traffic and two storeys tall, it’s elevated off its roadbed rails by its elongated sides. This allows it cars to pass underneath the bus, or it to overtake cars on the road, regardless of traffic conditions. Check out the 2012 concept video, still in play, here
Downsides include the fact that only personal-sized vehicles, like cars and SUVs, could fit under the bus — trucks will have to find another route. Also, as BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow points out , the concept video fudges the bus’s physics: where a real-live straddling bus’s turn radius would make it impossible to corner at most intersections, the artistic rendering conveniently bends parts of the bus that shouldn’t, to make it work. Both issues are major (ahem) roadblocks to real-world use.
But Song Youzhou is already addressing some of the problems: the new physical model employs more articulations to make those pesky turns easier. However, only time (and more prototypes) will tell if the “land airbus” will ever take to the streets. Until then, we can enjoy the daydream of a peaceful, traffic free glide in to work — if our work isn’t already in our living rooms, that is!

WeLiving Life — 21st Century Style

When it comes to the Great Work-Life Balance Debate, we at DFC fall firmly into the Live-to-Work camp. I mean, with all the neat tech out there that makes connection easier, why not use it to your advantage, to create space for more and higher quality leisure?
But for those who are team Work-to-Live, that same cornucopia makes it easier to always be “on,” allowing you eat, sleep, and breathe your career. This state of affairs is getting an interesting response from the folks at WeWork, the shared-office-space firm. Much like their subscription-based system of shared working space, they are now experimenting with shared living space — where instead of $325 USD a month for a dedicated desk and access to their app, $1375 USD a month gets you a bed, a communal laundry room/arcade, a roof-top deck, and more. Their mandate heralds “A New Way of Living”:
WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. We know life is better when we are part of a community that believes in something larger than itself. From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, WeLive challenges traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships. Whether for a day, a week, a month, or a year, by joining WeLive – you’ll be psyched to be alive.” 
Opinion is divided: over at Jezebel, they’re pointing out how suspiciously like a dorm the whole setup seems — with its connotations of Millennials entering the workforce and immediately refusing to grow up. Another concern is that, instead of addressing the reasons — many of them problematic — why traditional apartment rents in WeLive flagship cities New York and D.C. are “too damn high,” initiatives like WeLive could normalize the idea that over a thousand bucks in exchange for a bed physically located on Wall St is a reasonable prospect.
But in an increasingly isolated age, where those new technologies that make work easier also make it possible to see fewer actual human faces in your day-to-day, having socialization enforced by your living situation — and removing reasons to avoid it, like having an in-house cleaning team — is quite tempting. Only time will tell if WeLive will take off like WeWork has, and exactly how far we can extend the philosophical exercise that is 21st century life!

When Your Boss is a Psychopath

overpowering boss

Folk wisdom has established strong links between psychopathic tendencies and success in business — it seems almost intuitive that someone who is charming, good at taking the credit, and who experiences no remorse would make a great CEO!
psychopathic bossJoking aside, studies have found a significantly higher rate of psychopathic behaviour in upper management types — a whopping 4%, versus 1% in the general population.  And while working under a psychopath may be good for business, it can wreak havoc on the mental and emotional health of employees.
A team from Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières has sought to standardize the identification process for workplace psychopaths, and quantify those miserable health repercussions for workers. The team has confirmed the current identification test, the B-Scan 360, which rates a subject in four antisocial behaviour categories of five traits each. (Click here for the full list.)
The researchers then analyzed how psychopathic bosses affected their workers in both the public and private (specifically financial) sectors. They found some intriguing differences:
“Within the public sector, perceived psychopathy of managers directly predicted psychological distress. In the financial settings, psychopathy predicted distress only indirectly, via [a] common link to work-family conflict. It is possible that in the private sector, employees are more accepting of supervisors who exploit or manipulate them, because they’ve come to expect such treatment.”
The team also found data to complicate their conclusions, including the fact that there were more women in their financial sector group than in the public group — women who may have felt more pressure to keep family life in balance with their work, and whose psychopathic bosses may have given them more trouble over it than the men in the sample.
For those of us who work away from traditional offices, worrying about a psychopathic boss might not enter into our day-to-day lives. But, if your workplace has bosses, it may be handy to keep the B-Scan 360 around to periodically check in with. If you are a boss, it may prove even handier — after all, a functional, welcoming workplace environment is important for everyone.

Social Media and Depression

social-media and depression

We at DFC are huge advocates of the positive powers of social media: it does things like help foster connections between individuals, aggregate audiences for artistic works or political movements, and generate fun memes that bring joy to all (who love Ryan Gosling!).
But social media does have an acknowledged dark side: it can be a haven for bullies, and is often tapped to collect information on its users, for reasons both obvious and disconcerting.
A team out of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh has shown that the more active a young adult is on social media, the more likely they are to experience depression. This news may add another point in either of social media’s positive or negative columns.
The team asked a sample of American young adults to complete questionnaires related to their use of the top 11 social media platforms (including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit), and also tested them (with an established scale) for depression. They found:
“significant and linear associations between social media use and depression whether social media use was measured in terms of total time spent or frequency of visits. For example, compared with those who checked least frequently, participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression. Similarly, compared to peers who spent less time on social media, participants who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had 1.7 times the risk of depression. The researchers controlled for other factors that may contribute to depression, including age, sex, race, ethnicity, relationship status, living situation, household income and education level.”
Due to the nature of the study, the relationship between social media and depression was not proven to be causative either way — that is, whether depression prompted heightened social media activity, or is exposing oneself to perfectly photographed breakfasts or vacations or life causes the malady. But now further research can be pursued, and we can continue to vindicate or vilify social media as needed!

The Mystery of Writer’s Block: A Problem of Happiness

As anyone who’s written anything (a novel, a report, heck — this blog!) knows, writer’s block can be a mysterious and tenacious foe. Much thought has been given over to why the muse, often so gentle and helpful, sometimes says “See ya!” and strolls off into the distance without any warning, maybe to catch a movie, maybe never to return, leaving you high and dry and blinking at a blank PowerPoint screen at 2am.

Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker describes a history of writer’s block (a phenomenon only named in the 1940s, I was surprised to read), and some of the concerted efforts to find out exactly what the infernal thing is. In short, it seems to have something to do with our topic du jour here at DFC: happiness. Or, more accurately, lack thereof.

A study in the 1970s and 1980s led by Yale psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, discovered that self-reported and empirically confirmed blocked writers were, obviously, unhappy. What was interesting to them was the fact that, after giving their subjects a barrage of psychological tests, they found could divide the thwarted authors into four distinct categories of unhappiness:

“The first, more anxious group felt unmotivated because of excessive self-criticism—nothing they produced was good enough—even though their imaginative capacity remained relatively unimpaired. (That’s not to say that their imaginations were unaffected: although they could still generate images, they tended to ruminate, replaying scenes over and over, unable to move on to something new.)

The second, more socially hostile group was unmotivated because they didn’t want their work compared to the work of others. (Not everyone was afraid of criticism; some writers said that they didn’t want to be “object[s] of envy.”) […]

The third, apathetic group seemed the most creatively blocked. They couldn’t daydream; they lacked originality; and they felt that the ‘rules’ they were subjected to were too constrictive. Their motivation was also all but nonexistent.

Finally, the fourth, angry and disappointed group tended to look for external motivation; they were driven by the need for attention and extrinsic reward. They were, Barrios and Singer found, more narcissistic—and that narcissism shaped their work as writers.”

Singer and Barrios then embarked on an analysis of and intervention in their subjects’ mental imagery. Guiding the unfortunate authors through smaller, less emotionally fraught visualization exercises proved to the subjects that they still had imaginative ability. That success subsequently unleashed the writing ability of a solid majority of them.

This study ended up supporting the “folk remedies” for writer’s block that were long known: just put something, anything, on paper — even doodles or an account of last night’s dream — to keep the juices flowing. Pretty soon the muse will come waltzing back in from his or her vacation, bearing a conciliatory snow globe or set of souvenir spoons, and both of you can finally get back to business!

Neurasthenia — The Scourge of Modern Life (Whenever It May Be)

If you’ve been tuning into this blog often over recent months, you may have noticed a bit of a thematic shift. With the debut of our remote office solution The Lifestyle Workplace(TLW), we have become increasingly interested in the concept of happiness — how to spark it, how to cultivate it, and how to carry it with you in a world where over-connection is king.
TLW is a new initiative to help users strike a balance between work life and home. But this effort is not a new one.  Achieving that balance is a struggle of modernity: and, really, when you think about it, every time period can consider itself the most “modern,” in comparison to what came before.
Julie Beck at The Atlantic has written an interesting breakdown of a neurasthNeurasthenia suffererenia — or “Americanitis” — a terribly modern condition that came to attention during a time when America suddenly realized its modernity: immediately post-Civil War.
It was a time of great social upheaval, not just because the country had just hauled itself out of the deadliest conflict it has ever been involved in but due to the technological leaps the culture was making. More people were moving to cities, the railroad was expanding westward, photography and the telegraph were reaching popular saturation, and women were making more inroads into public life and higher education.
This was all too much for the neurasthenic, resulting in headaches, body aches, indigestion, anxiety, and lethargy. This was because, the prevailing theory went, the overloaded human machine, having expended too much of its “nervous energy” on managing the speed of modern life, collapsed into psychological malaise. Sound familiar? 
“It was a bit of a grab bag of a diagnosis, a catch-all for nearly any kind of discomfort or unhappiness. […] This vagueness meant that the diagnosis was likely given to people suffering from a variety of mental and physical illnesses, as well as some people with no clinical conditions by modern standards, who were just dissatisfied or full of ennui. ‘It was really largely a quality-of-life issue,’ [author of Neurasthenic Nation, David] Schuster says. ‘If you were feeling good and healthy, you were not neurasthenic, but if for some reason you were feeling run down, then you were neurasthenic.’
This phenomenon was almost a badge of honour — after all, one had to be a member of a quickly advancing society (i.e. American), in order to be neurasthenic at all. (It also had unfortunate classist and racist implications as well: Dr. George Beard, coiner of the term for the condition, claimed that non-white people and members of lower classes were free of neurasthenia because they lacked minds active enough to be affected. Ugh.)
What’s really interesting to me is the fact that you can transplant the laments of the 1860s about how we’re all moving too fast to today and they still sound solid. Any bets the next hot de-cluttering regime or self-help system will command us to slow down, turn back the clock to a simpler time, and unplug from our technology! It’s a problem that has kept and will keep cropping up, at least as long as we keep getting more modern — though TLW, as a toolbox, can certainly help!

Introverts on the Job: At Risk of Burnout?

It seems like everyone is talking about introversion and extroversion: how to present powerful ideas, how to communicate, and how to help them work together. While each personality type has its strengths, our world — with its focus on interconnection and near-constant communication — is clearly built for the extrovert. According to Michael Godsey, writing for The Atlantic, this can have catastrophic effects on introverts working in extroverted workplaces, especially teaching. These effects can include one of the worst behavioural workplace evils: burnout.

Godsey writes of his own experience, and of teachers who left the profession mere years after they started in it, after the dangling carrot of quiet nights in marking papers had been replaced by the stick of taxing “professional learning community meetings” and “collaborative overload.” There was support, but the wrong kind for Godsey:

“[T]he district assigned to me a mentor to help orient me — he took me out to coffee, and we just talked about good literature and lesson ideas for an hour. The principal, visibly flustered that we didn’t observably ‘do anything,’ assigned me a new mentor who, among other things, encouraged me to divide my class into cooperative groups and then share the results with my department and administration. The implicit message seemed to be similar to what [fellow teacher Ken] Lovgren said explicitly: ‘A calm and focused teacher is suspected of underworking, and so everybody, regardless of their personality type, is expected to work constantly in groups.’

While teaching can be especially exhausting, Godsey’s tale can be extrapolated to any workplace where an introvert might be in over their head. Did you get bone-tired simply reading the above quote? Well, you may be an introvert, and as such, chances are higher your job may not be the best one for you.

Charity — and Happiness — Begin in the Workplace

It is a hazard of our economic system that the majority of us (that is, adult humans participating in capitalism) must have a job in order to fulfill certain comforts. We need money for food and shelter, an RRSP or other structured savings for the future — and sometimes, heck, just a reason to get up in the morning.
Some lucky workers find fulfillment in their actual jobs: their “calling” and their career have happily dovetailed. But we at DFC are interested in how everyone can find happiness at work. Part of that involves taking control. But sometimes that is just plain not possible, and we have to look at more unusual ways to be happy.
An interesting recent study shows that there is a connection between an individual’s history of charity donations, and their overall happiness. While having money for yourself doesn’t really make you happier after a certain point, giving it away to others does — and also appears to affect your physical health as well:
“People who donate to charity have lower blood pressure, [project leader Prof. Elizabeth Dunn of UBC] said, even when controlling for factors like income, wealth, age and exercise, which suggests the giving itself is responsible.

Dunn measured people’s blood pressure before and after giving, and found it fell when people gave significantly to other people or causes, but did not change when they spent money on themselves.

The extent to which people feel connected to the cause is also important, she said, with more of an effect when people feel personally connected to the cause to which they are giving.”
So if you’ve done your darnedest to find something fun in your current job, but can’t, you can try making your own happiness by donating part of your income it to a charity that speaks to you. (If you need suggestions, I find the list at The Life You Can Save  to be well-vetted and very helpful.) The charity can do its important and necessary work, and you derive the emotional and health benefits of giving. Plus, you can revel in the subversion of using the money you earned through your misery for the greater good — Everybody wins!

Do What You Love: Is Happiness a Motivator while Working?

During the mid-20th century growth explosion, leading economic experts, including John Maynard Keynes, sought to predict what the trend might mean for the West’s working future — the future in which we are now living. Keynes posited, roughly, that if economic productivity continued its upward trend, working hours would also trend downward. In the future, the average worker would spend a handful of hours a week at his or her job, spending the rest at leisure.

While productivity is higher, this latter point is clearly not the case. A new paper by Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman investigates why working hours in the United States haven’t followed their predicted path — after a dip starting in the 1930’s, working hours haven’t budged since the ’70’s — and his theory might have interesting reflections on workplace happiness.

Friedman refutes the idea that today’s humans are more materialistic, and work more to earn money for what they want next. He also complicates the hypothesis that, in today’s hyper-compartmentalized world, workers are more invested in the social relationships they have at work.

What he does find compelling is the increasing gap in equality in workers, and theorizes that most Americans spend more time at work not because they want to, but because they can’t afford not to. Wages have not kept pace with increased productivity, leaving many folks at the lower rungs of industry working as many hours as they can.

But what of the other end of that inequality spectrum — the, dare I say, 1%? Why are they spending long hours at work to, when they don’t have to?

[Friedman] theorized that for many top earners, work is a labor of love. They are doing work they care about and are interested in, and doing more of it isn’t such a burden—it may even be a pleasure. They derive meaning from their jobs, and it is an important part of how they think of themselves. And, of course, they are compensated for it at a level that makes it worth their while.”

So, for the majority of American workers, personal economic necessity pushes workplace happiness off the list of priorities. And for “top earners,” happiness is a motivator because the possibility of it exists for them. Keynes’ vision of productivity has come essentially true, but in practice it is skewed by inequality. The process of righting that imbalance should be an interesting one to watch.