Wicked Problems and ends to limitless [x]

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2011

That Steelweaver post on Reality As A Failed State I mentioned a few days back really did the rounds. So I’m going to link to Karl Schroeder at Charlie Stross’s blog once again, and without any sense of shame – he’s been quiet for ages, but he’s spooling out a year’s worth of good shizzle over the space of a few weeks at the moment, and I think he’s a voice worth paying attention to.

Here he is talking about the “metaproblems” that Steelweaver mentioned, which have not only been known and named (as “wicked problems” for some time, but are already a subject of intense study… which is a good thing, too.

It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no ‘right’ formulation and no ‘right’ answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn’t keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren’t aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand ‘the real situation.’ But they’re not going to do that, and granted that they won’t, the solutions you work on have to incorporate their points-of-view as well as your own, or they’re non-starters. This, of course, is mind-bogglingly difficult.

Our most important problems are wicked problems. Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn’t use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult–but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope.

Here are a few wicked problems I think are exemplary. I touched on one of them yesterday, in fact, namely the roboticisation curve in manufacturing; far from liberating the toiling masses in some utopian fusion of Marx and capitalism, it might well increase the polarisation and widen the gap between the poor masses and the super-rich elites, a process that Global Dashboard‘s Alex Evans refers to as “jobless growth”::

In some developed economies (and especially the US), research suggests that job opportunities are increasingly being polarised into high and low skill jobs, while middle class jobs are disappearing due to “automation of routine work and, to a smaller extent, the international integration of labour markets through trade and, more recently, offshoring”. Meanwhile, data also show that while more women are entering the global labour force, the ‘gender gap’ on income and quality of work is widening between women and men. These trends raise a number of critical uncertainties for employment and development to 2020.

If automation of routine work genuinely is a more significant factor in developed economy job polarization than international trade or offshoring, then the implication is that developing economies may increasingly also fall prey to job polarisation as new technologies emerge and become competitive with human labour between now and 2020. Chinese manufacturing and Indian service industry jobs could increasingly be replaced by technology, for example, and find their existing rates of inequality exacerbated still  further.

And here’s a serendipitous look at the economics of a world where replicators and 3d printing become cheap enough to be ubiquitous [via SlashDot]:

Prices for 3D printers are tumbling. Even simple systems often cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago. Now, 3D printers for hobbyists can be had for a fraction of that: MakerBot Industries offers a fully assembled Thing-O-Matic printer for just $2,500, and kits for building RepRap printers have sold for $500. The devices could be on track for mass-production as home appliances within just a few years.

So, will we all soon be living like Arabian Nights sultans with a 3D printing genie ready to grant our every wish? Could economies as we know them even survive in such a world, where the theoretically infinite supply of any good should drive its value toward zero?

The precise limitations of replicator technology will determine where scarcity and foundations for value will remain. 3D printers need processed materials as inputs. Those materials and all the labor required to mine, grow, synthesize or process them into existence will still be needed, along with the transportation costs to bring them to the printers. The energy to run a replicator might be another limiting factor, as would be time (would you spend three days replicating a toaster if you could have one delivered to your home in an hour)? Replicators will also need inputs to tell them how to make specific objects, so the programming and design efforts will still have value.

[…]

Perhaps the most important limitation on the replicator economy may competition from good old mass production. Custom-tailored suits may be objectively better than off-the-rack outfits, but people find that the latter are usually the more sensible, affordable purchase. Mass production—especially by factories adopting nimble 3D-printing technologies—can still provide marvelous economies of scale. So even when it is theoretically possible for anyone to fabricate anything, people might still choose to restrict their replicating to certain goods—and to continue making their tea with a store-bought teabag.

The unspoken underpinning of that last paragraph (as hinted by my bolding) is the important bit: the economies of scale of fabbing will see more and more human labour replaced by machines – machines that don’t need holidays, or even sleep; machines that don’t get tired and make a higher percentage of dud iterations as a result; machines that, before too long, will be able to make other machines as required. The attraction of such a system to Big Capital (and small capital, too) is pretty obvious.

And all in the name of chasing perpetual infinite growth, a central assumption of most modern economic thought (or at least the stuff I’ve encountered so far) that relies on a lot of other assumptions… like, say, the assumption that we’ll always be able to either produce more energy, or use the amount we have available more efficiently [via MetaFilter]:

It seems clear that we could, in principle, rely on efficiency alone to allow continued economic growth even given a no-growth raw energy future (as is inevitable). The idea is simple. Each year, efficiency improvements allow us to drive further, light more homes, manufacture more goods than the year before—all on a fixed energy income. Fortunately, market forces favor greater efficiency, so that we have enjoyed the fruits of a constant drum-beat toward higher efficiency over time. To the extent that we could continue this trick forever, we could maintain economic growth indefinitely, and all the institutions that are built around it: investment, loans, banks, etc.

But how many times can we pull a rabbit out of the efficiency hat? Barring perpetual motion machines (fantasy) and heat pumps (real; discussed below), we must always settle for an efficiency less than 100%. This puts a bound on how much gain we might expect to accomplish. For instance, if some device starts out at 50% efficiency, there is no way to squeeze more than a factor of two out of its performance.

[…]

Given that two-thirds of our energy resource is burned in heat engines, and that these cannot improve much more than a factor of two, more significant gains elsewhere are diminished in value. For instance, replacing the 10% of our energy budget spent on direct heat (e.g., in furnaces and hot water heaters) with heat pumps operating at their maximum theoretical efficiency effectively replaces a 10% expenditure with a 1% expenditure. A factor of ten sounds like a fantastic improvement, but the overall efficiency improvement in society is only 9%. Likewise with light bulb replacement: large gains in a small sector. We should still pursue these efficiency improvements with vigor, but we should not expect this gift to provide a form of unlimited growth.

On balance, the most we might expect to achieve is a factor of two net efficiency increase before theoretical limits and engineering realities clamp down. At the present 1% overall rate, this means we might expect to run out of gain this century.  Some might quibble about whether the factor of two is too pessimistic, and might prefer a factor of 3 or even 4 efficiency gain.  Such modifications may change the timescale of saturation, but not the ultimate result.

So it ain’t just Moore’s Law that could be running into a brick wall real soon. A whole lot of caltrops on the highway to the future, then… and we’re still arguing about how to bolt more governers and feedback loops onto fundamentally broken polticoeconomic systems. Wicked problems, indeed. It’s hard not to feel bleak as we look into the eye of this abyss, but Schroeder suggests there’s a way out:

Here’s my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society–or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.

What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia’s worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.

Digital direct democracy, in other words, with mechanisms built in to ameliorate the broken bits of our psychology. Oh, sure, you can scoff and say it’ll never work, but even a flimsy-looking boat starts looking like it’s worth a shot when the tired old paddle-steamer starts doing its Titanic impersonation in the middle of the swamp. What Schroeder (and many others) are suggesting is eminently possible; all we lack is the political will to build it.

And it’s increasingly plain that we’re not going to find that will in the bickering halls of the incumbent system; it’s only interested in maintaining its own existence for as long as possible, and damn the consequences.

Which is why we need to turn our backs on that system and build its replacement ourselves.


Foxconn’s robot recruitment drive: the beginning of the end of labour?

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2011

Alex Knapp picks up on the story about Foxconn’s plans to draft in a cool million robots for their manufacturing plants within three years, and ponders whether this is good news for the unemployed in the West:

A good portion of this move to robotics labor has, no doubt, to do with labor costs and the reports of working conditions in FoxConn’s factories in China. I do wonder, however, what this means for the future of outsourcing to Asian markets, though. If labor costs can be reduced by employing more robots in the factory, and if its feasible for a company like FoxConn to use such a large number, it begs the question of why Western companies might continue outsourcing.

One of the major reasons, after all, that companies are outsourcing their operations to Asia is for the labor costs. If those labor costs can be obviated by greater automation, then other considerations come into play. After all, America and Europe are still where most of the customers are, and with the price of oil on the rise, cheaper transportation costs might come into the mix. Moreover, with both Europe and the United States teetering on the brink of another double-dip recession, policies geared towards bringing manufacturing home via tax incentives and other measures are more likely to become law.

Hmm. Even allowing for the traditional hyperbole of corporate press releases, a million automated machines will displace a whole lot of jobs. But Knapp is far more confident than I am about governmental willingness to pass laws that make demands of their corporate paymasters, let alone ones they’d actually be obliged to adhere to; the geographically-bound nation-state has no leverage on the transnational corporation, and the only incentive you can offer them is a taxation low-ball and further erosion of worker’s rights. In other words, sure, you might get manufacturing returning to the West, but it’ll only happen because labour costs have equalised… and that’s only going to happen in places where you’ve carefully created a huge stock of labour that doesn’t have any other options. Sweatshop USA… it’s a sign of how bad things are if you can count that as a victory condition.

And to extrapolate further, the rapid maturing of fabrication technology is going to obsolete a lot of more complex machinist gigs, too. They may well be countering fabbers and sinterers among the Foxconn “robot” list, of course, though the article mentions more simple stuff – welding, spraying, low-level assembly, which are exactly the sorts of jobs that robots have traditionally obsoleted before. I watched pick’n’place machines and surface mount technology completely gut the electronics assembly industry here in the UK back in the nineties, and less than a decade ago it was already cheaper for one company I know of to source components internationally, ship them to the UK for collation, ship them out to Thailand for assembly and then back again for QA and (extensive) rework, than it was to pay UK workers to do the full process locally. That sort of price margin isn’t going to be significantly eroded by concessionary tax rates, though increased transportation costs will admittedly contribute as well.

I think if there’s anything to take away from this inexorable slide toward nigh-total automation, it’s that we can no longer sustain a global economy that relies on mass employment in the manufacturing industry to keep the money moving. I suspect there’s a tipping point in the near future (or possibly in the recent past) at which – barring existential-scale disasters that knock us back into pre-industrial ways of life – it will never again be cheaper to get humans to build things than it is to get machines to do the same work.

What happens after that point to the business models of tchotchke makers and Next Big Thing gadget creation, I have no idea… and the more economists and politicians I listen to, the more I suspect that no one else has a bloody clue either. If anyone can show me how this *isn’t* a big old zero-sum game that’s going to hit a brick wall sometime soon, please pipe up and do so.


The end of the job

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2011

Via Gerd Leonhard, here’s Glen Hiemstra suggesting that the current unemployment trough in the US (and, by extension, much of the rest of the West) is here to stay. Grim news on the surface, but Hiemstra’s theory – which I have a certain degree of sympathy for – is that it’s the post-industrialisation notion of “a job” that’s had its day, and that employment will become a far more fluid thing, with everyone becoming their own freelance “company of one”.

In the real future you will be working at a stint rather than a job. To work at a stint is to become part of a project team for 18 months, followed by joining three friends doing a start-up business that folds after two years, after which you sign on with a multinational which disappears in a merger…and the beat goes on. This requires a reinvention of the social contract around security and benefits.

Since you have become a stint worker, you will have shifted from being an employee to being a free agent. This will not be new, as increasing numbers of us are already free agents in 2011, but for most of us it requires a change in perspective. The biggest change involves learning how to think of your self as a company of one.

The most profound shift may be the disappearance of employers as we have known them, as they are replaced by amoeba-like networks that come together to complete certain projects and tasks. Consider a feature film production. The project is conceived, some key people flesh out a proposal, funding is arranged, a global network of talent is hired, they work together for weeks or months, and then disband, never to work in that exact combination again.

Obviously there will remain many exceptions to this enterprise model. The corner grocer, the local coffee house, the dry-cleaning store down the street will likely continue to be small and stable, with fixed employees, though even these employees will likely be free agents working on a stint.

It’s not that huge a leap, really; my own employment prospects for the next year or two are already looking to be very similar to Hiemstra’s stint model, as are the careers of many of the other knowledge workers and artists I know. The job for life – which was still the assumed end-point of the education system in the UK when I was spat out of it in the mid-nineties – was already pretty much dead; even the folk I know in ‘proper’ jobs rarely work for the same company for more than a few years at a stretch. Work has become nomadic, even if not necessarily in geographical terms.

Hiemstra’s vision has some worrying gaps, though, the most obvious of which being the fate of the working class, already reeling from the massive downscaling of manufacturing jobs in the Countries Formerly Known As The First World. Will they shift to the service industries (retail, catering, logistics and goods-fulfillment gruntwork etc.), or maybe self-train themselves into the knowledge-work economy? In a theoretically ideal free employment market (which would have to involve nigh-universal freedom of movement across national borders, for a start), Hiemstra’s ‘stints’ would adjust in workload and number until everyone had a chunk of work to do, with the wage spread shrinking and evening out in response to market forces. However, the arrival of such an employment market is by no means a given, and quite possibly a naive thing to even hope for, let alone predict.

Furthermore, Hiemstra’s model leaves plenty of space at the top for the global super-rich to maintain their current status at the top of a tall and ever-narrowing pyramid of wealth… and while that might be sustainable economically, I’m not sure that the social fabric will be able to take the strain for very much longer. (After all, things are pretty tense already, aren’t they?)

I’m still far from being any sort of expert in economics, but the more I think about this situation the more I conclude that the biggest barriers to a fairer and freer employment market world-wide are the nation-state and the fiat currency… and as they’re also the two things that best serve the folk already at the top of the pyramid, there’s going to be considerable resistance to their dismantling, to the extent that no one with the power to attempt such will be interested in doing so. (No point shitting in your own penthouse, after all.) So while Hiemstra’s atomisation of jobs into stints looks pretty inevitable, I’m left wondering whether bottom-upward construction of new subeconomies based on mutual exchange is the only way for the workers of the world to free themselves from the velvet-gloved tyranny of corporatist capital. After all, if we don’t do it ourselves, who will?


The crap jobs of tomorrow

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2010

Via BoingBoing, the New York Times looks at a new breed of grim bottom-end employment in the digital age: Internet Content Reviewing. Main responsibilities include trawling through an endless river of text, images and video to ensure the removal of offensive content… and if you’ve more than a passing moment hanging out on the intertubes, you’ll have some idea of just how nasty some of that content might be.

With the rise of Web sites built around material submitted by users, screeners have never been in greater demand. Some Internet firms have tried to get by with software that scans photos for, say, a large area of flesh tones, but nothing is a substitute for a discerning human eye.

The surge in Internet screening services has brought a growing awareness that the jobs can have mental health consequences for the reviewers, some of whom are drawn to the low-paying work by the simple prospect of making money while looking at pornography.

[…]

David Graham, president of Telecommunications On Demand, the company near Orlando where Mr. Bess works, compared the reviewers to “combat veterans, completely desensitized to all kinds of imagery.” The company’s roughly 50 workers view a combined average of 20 million photos a week.

The compensation isn’t exactly awesome, either: wages peak out at US$12 per hour, and that’ll fall rapidly once someone gets a reliable outsource operation up and running. At least if you’re a sewer worker you can wash the stench off when you get home.

Leaving aside the extremity of the case in hand, though, it’s worth noting that this is essentially a gatekeeper/curation task – and we’ve already noted that curation is a growth industry thanks to the geometric expansion of content. Augmented reality will provide a whole new environment for this sort of work in the next few years… though I doubt the prospect of working outdoors will do much to ameliorate the essential unpleasantness and tedium of the task.

What other new (and shitty) jobs might our bright digital future provide?


Welcome to the Dropout Economy

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2010

American pride?This one’s doing the rounds everywhere at the moment (I spotted it thanks to Chairman Bruce and John Robb), and with good reason: it’s a provocative piece, especially coming from Time Magazine. Welcome to the Favela Chic future, American style:

Middle-class kids are taught from an early age that they should work hard and finish school. Yet 3 out of 10 students dropped out of high school as recently as 2006, and less than a third of young people have finished college. Many economists attribute the sluggish wage growth in the U.S. to educational stagnation, which is one reason politicians of every stripe call for doubling or tripling the number of college graduates.

But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something? As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won’t exist, we’re on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.

Go read the whole thing, and see Reihan Salam predict the rise of roll-your-own web-based homeschooling, resilient sub-communities based on the exchange of labour rather than money, backyard farming and permaculture, mend-and-make-do and hardware hacker attitudes, and a complete volte-face away from institutional politics.

Exaggerated for controversy and effect? Almost certainly… but grown from more than a single grain of truth, I think, and just as likely to happen over here in the Eurobloc, though maybe not so soon or so hard. [image by emseearr]


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