Working on Inevitable
- September 3, 2018
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Susan Fowler recently wrote a compelling piece for Vanity Fair: ‘What Have We Done?’: Silicon Valley Engineers Fear They’ve Created a Monster, where she argues that Silicon Valley is reshaping the nature of work – right now, today.
The gig-economy ecosystem was supposed to represent the promised land, striking a harmonious egalitarian balance between supply and demand: consumers could off-load the drudgery of commuting or grocery shopping, while workers were set free from the Man. “Set your own schedule,” touts the Uber-driver Web site; “Be your own boss,” tempts Lyft; “Make an impact on people’s lives,” lures Instacart.
These companies have commandeered the language of startups and entrepreneurs with phrases like “be your own boss.” But working in the gig economy clearly doesn’t have the same kind of potential economic returns as the gig economy. Early at her tenure at Uber, she relates this experience:
A few weeks into my tenure at Uber, where I started as a software developer just a year after graduating from college, still blindly convinced I could make the world a better place, a co-worker sat down next to my desk. “There’s something you need to know,” she said in a low voice, “and I don’t want you to forget it. When you’re writing code, you need to think of the drivers. Never forget that these are real people who have no benefits, who have to live in this city, who depend on us to write responsible code. Remember that.”
I think this is such a telling comment. It’s so important for those of us who write code – or really anyone who works in a business – to remember the humanity of their customers, partners, and suppliers. The difference is that when you’re writing code it is easy to forget that the algorithms you’re writing affect real people.
But when we’re writing coded for health care applications or pharmacy dosage or for incentive pay, or for scheduling work, we’re affecting real people.
Fast forward to a few months ago:
We began to enumerate the potential causes of worker isplacement—things like artificial intelligence and robots, which are fast becoming a reality, expanding the purview of companies such as Google and Amazon. “The displacement is happening right under our noses,” said a woman sitting next to me, another former engineer. “Not in the future—it’s happening now.”
“Most people,” I said, interrupting the hubbub, “don’t even see the problem unless they’re on the inside.” Everyone nodded. The risk, we agreed, is that the gig economy will become the only economy, swallowing up entire groups of employees who hold full-time jobs, and that it will, eventually, displace us all. The bigger risk, however, is that the only people who understand the looming threat are the ones enabling it.
In my own conversations with people on the outer rings of these issues (startup-land, entrepreneurs, but perhaps farther from the gig economy), I observe too many times that my fellow software engineers and entrepreneurs view these changes as inevitable. That there’s no sense fighting the gig economy, no sense doing it differently. These same folks would mostly argue all of the following:
- Autonomous cars must replace human drivers
- Robots and algorithms replace human workers
- Gig economy replaces full-time jobs
- Offshore replaces onshore for remaining jobs
- Open beats closed (with respect to Android vs. Apple, Windows vs. Apple)
But one thing I know is that nothing is inevitable. When the industrial age had our economy in its grip, we created unions and limited child labor and created holidays like Labor Day here in the USA. It is possible for us, as a society to change the “inevitable”. It’s only inevitable if we choose to let it be.
As a society we can choose to provide a safety net or services that make the gig economy more user-friendly (e.g. portable benefits, retirement savings, vacation, etc.). We could establish minimum gig wages that aren’t based on the hour of labor but based on some other metric.
As businesses we could do the same. We can choose whether to hire and invest in people to do our work or whether to offshore or outsource our work to others. We always have choices. And the inevitable isn’t inevitable – it takes lots of hard work to make it happen – and it may take lots of hard work to make something else or something better happen.
I know at BP3, our primary motivator is helping people; business is all about people. Without the people involved, there’s simply no purpose in business whatsoever.