Random finds (2016, week 39) — On the abundance of underused workers, innovation, and our expectations of desirable design

The Citroën DS 19 saloon was introduced during the Salon de l’auto in Paris, 1955.

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking.

On the abundance of underused workers

Ryan Avent’s new book The Wealth of Humans looks at how technology is changing labour markets. Jeremy Kingsley spoke to him for TheLong+Short about having too many workers, basic income, the end of money, video games and Trump.

“As technological progress marches on and artificially intelligent machines make us ever more efficient,” Kingsley writes, “we face a future revelling in the rewards of rising prosperity, working fewer and fewer hours. We can put our feet up, let the robots take over. But in his new book The Wealth of Humans, Economist editor and columnist Ryan Avent reflects on a world of too many workers with too little work for them do, and finds that the future looks crushingly bleak before it gets any better.”

The Wealth of Humans, by Economist editor Ryan Avent.

“An abundance of underused workers — a wealth of humans — will make it harder for them to bargain for higher pay, says Avent. We’ll face stagnating wages, rising inequality, and radical political upheaval. Indeed we’re already facing it. We have, though, faced it before. While the Industrial Revolution eventually brought us great prosperity and peace, it was not before more than a century of revolution, war and chaos. Avent reckons we’re on the cusp of a digital revolution that promises to be just as destabilising.

Where we go from here comes down to the second meaning of the book’s title — that is, how we distribute the wealth of humans (or humans and their machines). We’ll need to fundamentally change the way the economy works, says Avent, considering more radical means of redistribution and ways of living. Rethinking the world of work requires overhauling the social contract. We’ll also have to rethink work itself in a world of technological abundance, and discover how to order our day-to-day lives when we don’t need to work so much. Or maybe at all.”

The future needn’t be bleak, but as The Wealth of Humans explains, we can’t expect to restructure the world without a wrenching rethinking of what an economy should be.

[Kingsley] “The political disruption to come that you dwell on is troubling stuff, but you are already seeing it — with Trump, with Sanders, Brexit, you have a lot of people who are left behind by globalisation and technological change. But overall, even though you say we are failing at the politics of this, you seem optimistic that we’ll sort it all out?”

[Avent] “Well, we have one experience with this really and that was the Industrial Revolution. And it was dicey. There were very many periods in which a lot of things went wrong. But we did emerge on the other side much much richer, and generally in a more peaceful and prosperous world. So I don’t know. It’s hard to know what the odds were at the time. Maybe if you could rerun it, in nine times out of 10 we have a nuclear war between communism and capitalism and that’s it.

I think based on what we know it seems like it takes us a while to get the institutions right but we do ultimately get them right. And that’s really all I’m basing that on. But it is disconcerting to see the kind of tone of the political shift that we we’ve seen. It’s immediately negative, and focusing on who we can exclude and how excluding others will make life better. And that’s troubling, and, I guess, that’s the way things often go. Hopefully recognising why these things are occurring will help us to come up with better ideas.”

“To generate the prosperity that we saw in the 50s and 60s you need more than 100 years of social reform and the construction of a social safety net.” — Ryan Avent

“How likely is it that a robot will take your job?,” Tim Dunlop, the author of Why the Future is Workless, asks in Humans are going to have the edge over robots where work demands creativity.

“It is a question asked with increasing urgency as everything from 3D printing to driverless cars to machine learning is rolled out by a tech industry that sees automation as almost a sacred duty. To answer, let’s begin with a little-discussed fact. We live in a capitalist system, and the point of capitalism is to destroy jobs, not create them. That might sound counterintuitive but it is easy to explain. Capitalism is driven by profit. Wages are a cost to be controlled in pursuit of that profit. This means that whenever capital can find a way to turn a buck without employing a human, it will take it, whether it be with robots in factories, automated checkouts at supermarkets or drones to deliver packages.”

Why the future is workless, by Tim Dunlop.

According to Dunlop, “the indicators are such that we should take seriously the idea that the era of full-time employment that can support a person at a comfortable standard of living across a lifetime may be coming to an end. The approach we should be taking is not to find ways that we can compete with machines — that is a losing battle — but to find ways in which wealth can be distributed other than through wages. This will almost certainly involve something like a universal basic income. Whether robots take all the jobs or half of them or even ‘only’ 20% of them, we are going to have to rethink our relationship with work and paid employment. In an era of such change, this is not wishy-washy utopianism: it is the hardest of hard-headed realism.”

“As I said, the point of capitalism is to destroy jobs, not create them.” — Tim Dunlop

By contrast, in Why we’ll never run out of jobs, an optimistic Tim O’Reilly explains why we can’t just use technology to replace people. Instead, he argues, we must use it to augment people so they can do things that were previously impossible.

On the need for deeper innovation

In last week’s Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship, I wrote about how startups, and no doubt also corporate innovation labs, try to solve non-existing problems — from ‘reinventing’ slippers and flying cars to the many startups that seem to “provide for themselves everything their mothers no longer do,” as Allison Arieff so pointedly called it in Solving All the Wrong Problems.

“Here is just a sampling of the products, apps and services,” she writes, “that have come across my radar in the last few weeks:

A service that sends someone to fill your car with gas.

A service that sends a valet on a scooter to you, wherever you are, to park your car.

A service that will film anything you desire with a drone.

A service that will pack your suitcase — virtually.

A service that delivers a new toothbrush head to your mailbox every three months.”

And the list goes on … “When everything is characterized as ‘world-changing,’” she asks, “is anything?”

In Innovation is in all the wrong places, also Tom Goodwin, the senior vice president of strategy and innovation for Havas Media US, talks about a need for ‘deeper innovation’ — not token gestures on the edge, but fundamental rewiring of business from the core.

“I live a pretty cosmopolitan futuristic life atop a glass skyscraper in New York City, but I’ve yet to get a pizza delivered by drone, order a taxi from Alexa or open a hotel door with my smartwatch. I’ve also not booked a hotel from a bot (because trying that drove me crazy) nor consumed news from one, because that’s a terrible way to do it. In a world where what’s possible is advancing at breakneck speed, it’s odd that British Airways has developed an emotionally aware smart blanket, but doesn’t ‘do’ email. It’s strange that IKEA has VR to help you experience your kitchen, but struggles with the basics of e-commerce. My car rental company has invested millions in onsite video-calling kiosks, but their app loses 50 percent of the bookings I make.”

Goodwin says “we’ve got the questions wrong. It shouldn’t be how are you innovating or which project is doing new things, but why are you doing it and on what level.”

“Innovation at the marketing layer is interesting. It’s Honest and Dollar Shave Club, both pretty sizable changes to products or how they are sold, supplied and paid for. But while examples like this have huge valuations and momentum, it’s not clear how groundbreaking they are. The real examples of innovation come from companies built for the modern age. They’ve taken new behaviors, new technology, new workflows and, above all else, new consumer expectations. Here we see the obvious examples like Uber or Airbnb, but also companies like Facebook, which has become a media owner of vast scale that does not actually make any content.”

For all companies, innovation needs to be deeper. Not token gestures on the edge, but fundamental rewiring of business from the core.

“Maybe you do need an innovation lab,” Goodwin concludes at the end of his highly entretaining post. “Maybe working with startups is key. Maybe your organization needs impetus and expertise — but for goodness sake, no more iBeacon-driven vending machines, no more 3D-printed trinkets. Let’s stop thinking of technology as a trendy tattoo — a surface-level commitment best kept on a conspicuous but not often used part of the body. Let’s think of it as oxygen — essential to the beating heart of your business.”

A bit more …

“Throughout history, our definition of desirable design has consisted of a combination of qualities, but what they are and how they relate to one another has changed constantly. Similar shifts in taste have occurred in other fields, but the pace of change within design has been unusually frenzied and will become more so in future,” writes Alice Rawsthorne in By Design on Frieze.com.

“Tasteful rubbish is still rubbish.” — design critic Reyner Banham

One quality that has always been — and still is — essential to desirable design is usefulness. “Another quality recently joined ‘usefulness’ as a non-negotiable ingredient of desirable design: integrity. In other words, if we have any reason to feel uncomfortable about the ethical or ecological implications of any aspect of a design — from development, testing and manufacturing to distribution, sales, marketing and how it will eventually be disposed of — we are unlikely to consider it desirable.

Thanks to Flaminio Bertoni’s inspired styling and André Lefèbvre’s brilliant engineering, a vintage Citroën DS 19 saloon looks as beguiling to us now as it did when Roland Barthes nicknamed it la déesse after its launch in 1955, as the French pronunciation of the letters ‘d’ and ‘s’ sounds like the word for ‘goddess’. But these days, any pleasure we might take from the DS 19 is marred by our knowledge that a car of its age is likely to be a gas-guzzling, environmental time bomb.”

The Spanish company Simon recently introduced a light switch composed of a flat rectangular panel, which is operated solely by touch with no visual clues to guide the user. Simon’s research suggests we are now so accustomed to operating our phones through touch that we are ready to do the same for other objects. (Simon 28 light switch, 2016)

“Historically, one of design’s biggest problems is that it is so often confused with styling and dismissed as a superficial medium that focuses on the visual aspects of objects or spaces. Equally pernicious is the presumption that design’s stylistic ploys are mostly deployed to commercial ends by tricking us into paying too much for things of dubious value that we will soon discard with the rest of the unrecyclable, toxic junk in bloated dumps.

The growing importance of other design qualities — whether they are haptic, functional or ethical — should challenge these stereotypes and encourage more people to develop an increasingly eclectic and sophisticated understanding of design and its potential to make our lives more desirable in so many respects — not least by consuming less rubbish, tasteful or otherwise.”


In Foundation stone, seven leading architects look back at the foundations of their career, and how how their childhood homes have shaped them. One is John Pawson, who is renowned for his minimalist buildings. They range from the Novy Dvur monastery in the Czech Republic to Calvin Klein stores across the world, and the new Design Museum, due to open in November in the former Commonwealth Institute in London.

“Minimalism is a label that follows me. I’m not against it, but it means different things to different people. In my terms, minimalism doesn’t mean painting it white and not having any possessions; for me, it’s about clarity — trying to get to the essence of things.”

John Pawson in his modernised 19th-century house in Notting Hill. (Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Guardian)

“I now live in a 19th-century row house in Notting Hill. […] The interiors are designed around the way we live, with everything we need and nothing we don’t. As in my parents’ house, the kitchen table is the main gathering place — it’s where we talk, eat, work and sit down with family and friends. Whatever else is different, I like to think my parents would recognise the atmosphere of the place, and feel at home.”


Illustration from Digitization and The Loss of Iconography, by Sue Walsh.

Michael Brandt, the co-founder of Nootrobox, writes on FastCoExist about Apple’s newest headphones, the AirPods. These “are not actually headphones: they’re aural implants. Absent any wires, earpods are so unobtrusive that you may never take them out. Like the eyeglasses on your face, they’ll sit in your ears all day, and you’ll remove them only at night. For Apple, this is more than just an incremental update to their headphone product. This is a paradigm shift, a Jedi move by Apple where the seam between human and computer is disappearing.”

Ear detail: Mark Strozier/iStock. AirPods: Apple.

“What makes AirPods a winner is that Apple will throw their whole ecosystem behind it. We’ll have better Siri, we’ll have interesting interactions using Watch as a controller, and we’ll see a flurry of apps we can’t even imagine. These aren’t just wireless headphones, this is the entire internet implanted in your ear.”

We’re seeing our prediction of humans as the next platform come true before our very eyes.

“What’s the next implant we’ll see in the mainstream? I predict that we’ll see a consumer product for continuous blood monitoring, for biomarkers such as cholesterol, glucose, and ketones. The value is enormous for a hook into our bodies that lets us seamlessly track macronutrient levels, the immediate and long-term effects of our diet and environment, and early signs of disease. […] The fact that Apple is launching the first generation of mainstream aural implants makes this an exciting time for biohackers like myself.”


“Work starts from problems and learning starts from questions. Work is creating value and learning is creating knowledge.” — Esko Kilpi in Productivity revolutions

“One well-known firm that Mats Alvesson and I studied for our book The Stupidity Paradox (2016) said it employed only the best and the brightest,” writes André Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, in an essay for Aeon, titled Stupefied.

“When these smart new recruits arrived in the office, they expected great intellectual challenges. However, they quickly found themselves working long hours on ‘boring’ and ‘pointless’ routine work. After a few years of dull tasks, they hoped that they’d move on to more interesting things. But this did not happen. As they rose through the ranks, these ambitious young consultants realised that what was most important was not coming up with a well-thought-through solution. It was keeping clients happy with impressive PowerPoint shows. Those who did insist on carefully thinking through their client’s problems often found their ideas unwelcome. If they persisted in using their brains, they were often politely told that the office might not be the place for them.”

In a world where stupidity dominates, looking good is more important than being right.

“Another big driver of stupidity in many firms is the desire to imitate other organisations. As Jan Wallander, the ex-chairman of Sweden’s Handelsbanken, said: ‘Business leaders are just as fashion-conscious as teenage girls choosing jeans.’ Many companies adopt the latest management fads, no matter how unsuitable they are. If Google is doing it, then it’s good enough reason to introduce nearly any practice, from mindfulness to big-data analytics.

But often there are very weak reasons for following ‘industry best practice’. For instance, when the Swedish armed forces decided to start using Total Quality Management techniques, some officers naturally asked: ‘Why?’ The response: ‘This is presumably something we benefit from, since this is what they do in the private sector.’ In other words, we should do it because others are doing it.

But adopting ‘best practice’ often has little or no impact. One study of oil and gas companies found that they would introduce diversity programmes that had little impact on making people more tolerant. One employee commented: ‘It really is a feel-good exercise. You know we can all feel good that we are this happy multi-coloured family — that’s going to bring in all this money for the firm. The truth is quite another matter.’”


“Many great thinkers have devoted their time to trying to understand the ideal society; laying out a system of government, values, and behavior, practiced in their utopia,” says Scotty Hendricks in Meditations on The Philosopher King, Plato, and if Utopia is possible. “Few, if any, of these thinkers ever had a chance to directly enact their ideas. While the ideas of great thinkers are often cited by leaders, there are only rare moments when a concept in a Utopian vision is given a real, concrete, demonstration. But what happens when those moments arrive? They are few and far between, but they do occur. Often we get only bits and pieces of a utopia put into practice, but even these moments can be enlightening.”

In the original Utopian book, Republic, Plato lays out the idea of a city state lead by Philosopher Kings, stating “Until philosophers are kings […] cities will never have rest from their evils.” Luckily for us, there is a clear example of this being put into action, when the Roman Empire was lead by Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

The Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD.

“In the end, Plato’s ideal society would make modern readers shutter. But even considering the ideas of this great thinker can help us improve the societies around us. Even while few would endorse moving to Plato’s ideal city, they would all endorse studying what works, what doesn’t, and if it can be recreated elsewhere. The life of Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we can learn and benefit from the idea of a perfect country, even if we don’t accept all of it.”


“Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this… We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live. So philosophy is about making sense of that situation that we find ourselves in.” — Clare Carlisle in Philosophy Bites.

Gertrude Stein, an American author and poet best known for her modernist writings, extensive art collecting and literary salon in 1920s Paris. (Painting by Picasso, 1906)
“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein