Startups are going to save us, relax everybody

In typical Silicon Valley Breathlessness Forbes published an article by Victor W. Hwang arguing the fact the Startup movement isn’t about startups. He argues that it’s actually a movement to free people from the chains of our current economic system. I definitely don’t buy this. Most people start a company for one of two reasons, they find a problem that they have a better solution for than anything provided (or a novel solution) or to make money. Typically it’s a combination of the two. No company in existence is out there not to make money. Companies that aren’t profitable cannot stay in business for long unless you’re lucky and funded by people that thing you will eventually make them a lot of money.

An opinion piece in the NY Times from 1/2/2014 pretty much sums this fact up. You’re replaceable at a startup and likely even more so than any time in the ¬†future of the company. It’s really easy to fire people when you have no money, especially if you are open and honest about how you go about letting people go.

Furthermore, if the startup movement was in fact about bettering the plight of people we wouldn’t be seeing the social stratification that we’re seeing in cities like San Francisco, ground zero for the startup movement. In SF some of the neo-techno-libertarian-elite are upset that they even see the poor people on their streets rather than out of the way like in cities like NYC (he issued an apology not unlike Tiger Wood’s for being a sex addict). Not only are these the people that are involved in the startup movement, but they are funding it. Yes, I know that this is only one person and on the other side you can point to Alexis Ohanian of Reddit fame, which really is doing a lot of social good.

In some ways the startup movement has made it easier for people to be cogs in the wheel. They work long hard hours, large companies like Facebook and Google push and push to get more for less. In many cases this can cause depression and the exact opposite of what the Startup movement is striving for. In fact, the goal of the Lean Startup is to make it extremely easy to ramp up new employees and ensure full coverage if something goes wrong. These companies and products are designed around the idea of building in quality rather than testing or patching it in. Of course, there’s a benefit to the employee in these cases too – they’re free to really explore new problems and create new things without needing to worry about reoccurring problems.

I do believe there are many startup founders are genuinely trying to change our society for the better, but it hasn’t been a frictionless process and will likely only get worse as we move forward. The Sharing Economy, for example, has come under fire from traditional companies, neighbors, politicians, and even members of the sharing economy. While in other cases, such as Zynga, we see companies that are essentially parasites that thrive through creating addicting games and clogging a platform with their notifications (those notifications stopped and Zynga basically died).

It’s important to be skeptical of statements that glorify any portion of our culture. The article that spurred me to write this has a similar tone as many of Thomas Freeman’s, of the NYTimes, articles, fully optimistic, but missing a broader portion of the population and the long term impact. We should be wary of these articles because we’ll end up believing that it’s more complicated to calculate a median value than an average. The startup movement is to help people start companies, some founders are dreamers, some truly try to change how work is done, but they most aren’t truly changing the world in amazing ways. We’ll be fine if reddit, AirBnB, or some other services vanishes. We were when Digg, Google Reader, Palm and any other influential company vanished.

Future of Employment II

Yesterday I talked a little bit about the future of employment. Apparently this isn’t the most interesting topic. However, it’s important. The Slate series ends with some startling research that shows even scientists could eventually be replaced. I think we are a long way from those things happening. In my opinion the first things that  machines will do in R&D is replace humans in the creation of incremental innovations. In fact, to some extent computers already do replace humans in some of these things. Computers do a great deal of CPU, DRAM and Flash designing. Typically, these are incremental innovations. They are building on a current technology and making improvements. Humans are required for the radical innovations, such as a new chip set, calculation methodology or what have you.

Even some advanced R&D work could easily be improved by computers. Researchers have to read a great deal of papers to keep up with the state of the art in research. As the slate series points out, this is a form of data mining and lawyers are currently using automated programs to find specific words. There’s actually a branch of Science and Technology Studies that focuses on word analysis. They use similar programs and dump a few papers into it and figure out what verbal connections between the papers exist. This is a way of creating maps of knowledge. You are able to see through citations and similar word usage that a specific theory is prevalent or not. How would this apply to R&D? You could put in the materials that you’re using the problems you’re seeing and a bunch of papers that might be related and see what comes out. It could give you new materials new designs things of this nature. For this to work though, it’s a ways away.

What does mean in the long run? That no position is safe. I don’t think this will happen in our life time though. People are much too conservative to leave everything to computers. They just simply won’t be accepted. Even by our generation there’s too much distrust. It’s going to take one or two more generations for there to be enough trust in computing and technology to allow more control to shift to them. Sure some companies will be on the cutting edge with accepting these changes, others will be laggers.

If computers can do everything why do we need any jobs, isn’t the guy from CNN is right? I disagree. People will always want to work. People need to work. I’m not saying this because I’m hoping there won’t be a robotic take over or anything, but because people will not allow it to happen. In general people like to feel in control. Even if you aren’t the bus driver, knowing that it’s a person that you can relate to makes you feel like your more in control. Leaving everything to computers requires a level of surrender. Many people will simply refuse to give up that level of control. We won’t have fancy automatically driving cars for this very reason. People love to feel in control of where they go. It doesn’t matter if they would be safer, save money and get places faster. They would rail against the change because they loose control.

Would we leave the future of our economy in the hands of machines? You could argue that some companies already have. For instance take the May flash crash on Wall street. This has been attributed to high frequency trading following logical algorithms, it wiped about $1 trillion in wealth, most of it was restored.

In much of my research on academic spin-offs and technology incubators there is an important component related to tacit knowledge. Know how of the inventor of a technology. This is something that we’d lose if all of our work was robotized. There’s no difference in that than outsourcing. In developmental economics and innovation theories the ability to create copycat technologies is a precursor to developing their own technologies in that field. I think this is something we must keep in mind when discussing the reality of full automation. Without tacit knowledge and hands on experience with the devices and machines building the product it’s very difficult to develop improvements on either.

I think that we’ll have many legacy jobs hanging around for a long time. Simply because we need them to continue growing economically. Otherwise, we’ll stagnate and keep producing the same technologies.

The future of employment

I posted this Slate series a little bit ago on my facebook and twitter feeds. It’s an interesting read about the future of robotics in the work place. Most people think of robots only in the automobile industry. However, they are in nearly every major industry now. All new semiconductor fabs can be run with only a handful of people over seeing the production of the product. The author notes that robots are making headway into pharmacies and other professions with menial tasks being a large component. In pharmacy computers also help ensure patients aren’t on conflicting medicines, with medical records in the computer it can easily flag potential issues. You could argue that this isn’t robotics it’s automation, personally I don’t see much of a difference. You use a machine to make a task faster and automated, it doesn’t matter if there are moving parts or not.

This isn’t the only recent discussion on the longevity of jobs. CNN had an opinion piece about 3 weeks ago discussing if jobs were obsolete. Which if this is the case we will have to take a serious look at our current capitalistic system. As an evolutionary economist (or at least having some training in it) I can see that this perspective is somewhat accurate. Between these two articles it really indicates that in the near future we’ll have a great deal of mechanized labor through robotics and computer programs. We will need dramatically less and less people employed in the western societies. This will even eventually trickle down into the developing societies.

My roommate argued that we should stop creating pointless jobs. That we should create a system that supports these people that continually fall out of the labor pool through job type elimination. This would take a complete reworking of our society to make this sort of change happen. Also, for a huge amount of people this freeloading kills them. We hear anecdotal evidence about some old fart at a company that is forced to retire and then within the year is dead. Whether we want to admit it or not, for the vast majority of people employment is tied to self worth. There’s increases in suicide rates when people aren’t able to work and cannot support their families. Depression is also higher among the unemployed.

There are further problems with this future. The CNN article discusses how we should be ok with just a white collar work force. I completely disagree. When I worked at Samsung some great ideas came from the technicians fixing our tools. The greater the variety of knowledge sets the higher the number of ideas. Sure a great deal of them may be really crappy, but the ones that end up surviving through the competition end up being better ideas. Make the workforce more homogeneous would reduce this affect.

I don’t have an answer to this. We need to be realistic and try to understand the fundamental changes that our economy is going through. If we see that jobs are in fact going the way of the dodo we basically have to throw out all free-market economics. Why? Because there’s no one to buy anything except an elite few and they just do not have the buying power to keep an economy of this size going. We will have to evaluate our morals, ethics and goals in life. It will not be easy.