Worth thinking about: Seven social sins (not about social media) | via M. Gandhi

No, I’m not talking about social media. This is about real life. And I think that Gandhi summed up a lot of what the #Occupy movement is on about in his note on the Seven social sins.

Politics without principles
Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Knowledge without character
Commerce without morality
Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice

Naturally, the friend does not want the readers to know these things merely through the intellect but to know them through the heart so as to avoid them.”

Source: Young India, 22-10-1925, p.135 (opens pdf)

For those interested in protest and the #Occupy movement it is really worth reading the writings of Gandhi. He grappled with many similar problems with regards to protest and resistance to civil authority.

This is worth thinking about given the situation we find ourselves in today in the world. At this festive season for many of us it is an interesting question to consider how can we shift away from these seven social sins?

A tech revolution that changes the way we organize work & the danger of digital serfdom

The old style company, that is the company circa 1880-2000, had firm boundaries and fixed hierarchies in order to function efficiently. But with the advent of digital technology and the consumer social computing revolution there is a seismic shift in how technology is used within companies. There are also significant changes in worker expectations and, as a corollary, companies are changing their demands upon workers. Huge power shifts are underway and it is important that we start analyzing them now.

The Past

The technology that enabled communication and control of large and dispersed groups of workers was inefficient and required supplementation by human resources in the form a supervisory and managerial hierarchy. Computer resources were initially tightly held by a few individuals within an organisation due to their high capital cost to acquire. And companies had access to much better technology resources than the average individual could ever hope to acquire.

For example, in 1956 a 5MB hard drive from IBM cost US$50,000, and in 1981 a 5MB Apple hard drive cost US$3,500. At prices like these the average person had little opportunity to acquire such technology.

It was this technology asymmetry that also contributed to the non-porous boundaries of the firm. Information stayed inside the firm and was not easy to share. Instead companies were in charge of their information and shared it only on their own terms. And usually that sharing of information occurred through bought or earned media and through ‘official’ news media channels.

The Present and Near Future

Today companies are grappling with the huge shifts in communications. Newspapers and other news media no longer hold the preeminent position they once held. Corporate communications are no longer about faxing out a press release.  Companies are developing their owned media resources and learning to use the diverse earned media opportunities available now via the internet.

Increasingly companies are requiring workers to develop their own social media and social networking personas on behalf of the company.   Also workers are being required to manage corporate social media channels as part of their jobs.  One challenge with this shift in work to social media channels is that they often need tending 24×7. Thus other workers are beginning to feel the operational demands of 24x7x365 operations that those of us in the IT department have felt for many years now.

Another shift is the control over technology within an organisation. In the past centralized control of technology resources was easy due to high cost and complexity to implement. But now with cloud computing as a commoditized service we see the real risk that other departments can go around centralized procurement and IT to implement whatever takes their fancy.

Gartner has just released their vision for 2012 and note that in 2012 we can expect more cloud and consumerization, less IT control.

Increasingly we are seeing workers bringing their own technology into the workplace – smart phones, tablets, and social computing. And articles directed at CIOs are saying: IT’s future: Bring your own PC-tablet-phone to work.

Thus we are at the beginning of a technology revolution in the office that will see the centralized control that was necessary to achieve economies of scale in the last century wane.

Instead we will see the growth of decentralization driven by cost and user demand pressures.  We will also see increased attempts to control behaviour through data and  monitoring due to the growth in the panopticon as I’ve discussed previously.

The Dangers of Digital Serfdom

My buddy Ray Wang posted recently on the right to be offline. We are facing a world of hyperconnectedness in which we can evolve into digital serfs tethered by our digital devices and an un-free as a slave in ancient times.

The risk is that the boundaries between work and personal time become so blurred that they cease to exist. The risk is that employers consider that, with a wage, they have bought our time as and when they choose to consume it any time of the day or night.

The moves to remove penalty rates for IT workers and others also support this trend. Once the unit cost of a worker is standardized an employer does not care what time of day or night they work.

I cannot articulate the concern we should have for retaining this right to be offline any better than Ray:

“There is one thing that I am very worried about actually, is I think it is of the uttermost importance that we preserve the right to be offline. If we don’t preserve that we’ll loose all our freedoms. It starts with ability to be able to escape … of being offline. And so we can be punished for not being offline. For not being online we cannot be punished. It’s happening right now. We are recreating Skynet, we are recreating Matrix, we are recreating all the things that we would fear on our own. And if we can’t protect that basic right of being able to be offline, and being able to conduct a life offline, we’re in trouble. We are in big trouble.”

I commend Ray’s thoughts to you, check out his video:

Friction, hypereconomics, and social intercourse

Friction is one of the more important concepts in the world. Many things are either made possible or impeded by friction.

Strike a match and the friction creates a flame. Yet that same kind of friction stops other things from flowing smoothly.

Perhaps the best description of the challenges that arise from friction is from the well known military strategist, Clausewitz:

“Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen War . . . in War, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.”

From: Clausewitz, On War, Book I, Ch. VII

Recently Mark Pesce asked “What happens after we’re all connected?“, and he came up with the answer: “hypereconomics”.

Economics, fuelled by hyperconnectivity and enabled by the removal of friction in processes between people, equals hypereconomics.

And it is this removal of friction in processes, enabled by the internet and mobile technology, that creates the next frontier of opportunities for business.

The combination of mobile accessible applications and peer-to-peer social networks offers an astonishing array of new business opportunities.

In the Arab Spring and Occupy movements we have already begun to see the social and political shifts that are enabled when citizens can communicate and organize effectively through use of mobile technology coupled with social media.

The impact of these political and social movements will necessarily flow on to economic structures. This will create a gap for development of new business models based on removing friction and leveraging peer-to-peer capabilities offered by mobile devices.

Also people are getting used to helping themselves and each other, and the technology is enabling them to act collectively without a great deal of effort. This is the big shift.

We can now collaborate and act collectively even though separated geographically. No longer do we need to meet face-to-face to act. Collective action is enabled and made more efficient with mobile technology in so many hands. And it even facilitates better face-to-face meetings and action (viz. Occupy and the Arab Spring).

I am expecting to see a lot of disintermediation – shifts in the supply chain that that remove some existing intermediary players.

One of the first areas I expect to see this in is new mobile and online peer-to-peer payment models. Another area is aggregation of service providers and potential customers. Up until now aggregating those types of services required large capital investment, but now it just needs a peer-to-peer smart phone application.

If you are an existing economic or financial intermediary it’s time to start planning for this new reality. If you don’t then the dispersed peer-to-peer linked mob might just eat your lunch.

When robots rule the world – the future of jobs in a hyperconnected world

Steve Hopkins was telling me recently about an interesting law firm he’d come across in San Francisco – it’s called Robot. Where lawyer and junior partner Tim Hwang and his senior partners, Apollo Cluster and “Daria” XR-1029, work to merge legal and technical systems.

It was this law firm, and an interesting conversation Steve had with Tim Hwang, that sparked the idea for Steve’s session at last Saturday’s Social Innovation Unconference at Barangaroo.

We discussed the time in the future when robots run everything. And it got me thinking just how much robots already do for us. For most people the robots that run things are unknown and operating below their level of consciousness.

But let’s consider some of the work that robots already do for our society:

  • manufacturing – e.g. assembly lines for things like cars and packaging, quality control, building electronics components such as circuit boards
  • call centres – e.g. automated voice response systems
  • financial services – e.g. business decision support systems, straight-through-processing trading systems
  • the internet – e.g. search engine bots or those annoying Twitter bots
  • military – e.g. unmanned combat air vehicles (aka drones)
  • home and industrial cleaning – e.g. vacuum cleaners

I’ve been personally involved in developing and implementing intelligent business systems for a long time. Starting in the early days of voice automation and straight-through processing of financial transactions in the 1990s, through to the present day.

A large part of my work during the late 1990s and early 2000s was automating business processes and removing human beings from business processes. It was a huge shift in labour from human beings to robots. Those were mainly clerical jobs where a computer with a decision engine could easily replicate the work done by people.

Consider the productivity savings achieved by many of those projects; for example one project halved the number of call centre operators through the use of automation. That saving was achieved by addressing throughput constraints in both the inbound and outbound queues.

Firstly savings were achieved through the use of automated outbound calling technology – not waiting for the humans to dial a number but rather having the system start making the new outbound call while the earlier call was finishing. It also improved throughput by automatically bringing up the data entry screens for the call centre staff.

Secondly savings were achieved by adding customer self help options at the start of the inbound call process and by providing support to move customers to online self service. Instead of a human being tied up on the phone for 2-5 minutes with a customer trying to ascertain their needs the IVR and the customer did that work thus freeing up the operators to take more calls.

Arguably these improvements through increased automation were not as good for customers as they were for the bottom line of the companies, nor were they very good for the call centre staff that became redundant. And many would argue (as do I) that shifting the business processing efforts to consumers does not always make for excellent customer experiences. But cost and process optimization is a fundamental business practice.

It’s interesting to consider what other jobs will be removed from people via the next rounds of automation. The jobs that will go next are most likely to be middle class and white collar jobs.

The jobs that could go include: journalists, lawyers, managers and supervisors, warehouse personnel, sales staff (if the sales are all online how many do you need in a store?). Fundamentally, if your job or substantial parts of your job,  can be defined by means of a decision tree then your job is at risk of a robot taking over.

Welcome to the brave new world of work. What’s your plan to survive when robots rule the world?

Note: I’ve left out the entire area of robots for health since I don’t know much about it – but I reckon that will be huge too.

Welcome to the panopticon

Tonia Ries has just published an article titled Privacy Fail: Klout Has Gone Too Far, which outlines how Klout is indexing social networks and creating/measuring user profiles, even if they have never registered with Klout.

About the same time Facebook was accused of creating ‘shadow profiles’ on users and nonusers.

As I said recently, welcome to the panopticon.

When Jeremy Bentham originally came up with the idea of a panopticon he introduced it saying:

“Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

Source: Bentham, Jeremy The Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran Bozovic (London: Verso, 1995). p. 29-95

And thus it is, that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have (well most of us) willingly and freely chosen to become part of an electronic panopticon.

Privacy is now only possible by a steadfast refusal to participate in digital society in any way – by becoming like the Unabomber and moving to a shack in the woods. And even then, if others who participate in the electronic society mention your name or activities online, you are still caught up in the net.

Global surveillance has been made easy, simple, and ubiquitous. The very devices – laptops, tablets, mobile phones – we all carry enable this constant geophysical tracking via the SIM cards and wifi connections.

However, as we are seeing with the various #Occupy movements around the world, these same technologies that enable surveillance of us by the authorities, also enable sousveillance of the authorities by us.

This is one of the interesting things about living in an electronic panopticon. Unlike Bentham’s inmates we are not physically constrained to cells. We can move about freely (for the most part).

And we can also co-opt the same technology to create our own networks. Those networks can become peer-to-peer and frictionless. They can enable us to organise into groups very easily and to share information and ideas in ways that used to be hard.

The panopticon is here, it’s time to turn it to our own ends.

Robert Kiyosaki drops in to visit @ValerieKhoo & shares some insights

It always delights me when friends get to meet interesting people. Thus I was pleased to see that Valerie Khoo, founder of the Sydney Writers’ Centre, recently had a visit from Robert Kiyosaki.

It is worth watching the entire video as Kiyosaki shares his thoughts on business, the economy, and some possible responses (and he does talk about his new book, Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich – And Why Most Don’t).

Labour, forced labour, and capital – is the ground shifting?

Free people offering their labour in exchange for monetary reward has been fundamental concept for western society. Since the mid-nineteenth century we have not really used forced labour for production.  But two examples in recent times make me wonder if that assumption still holds true:

  1. Prisoners painted room for former UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith
  2. Wisconsin Union Workers Replaced With Prison Labor Under Scott Walker’s Collective Bargaining Law [HT: @umairh and @johnrobb for this link]

We’ve blithely assumed that we will always be able to sell our labour on the free market and that there will be some (more or less depending upon the economic situation) buyers of our labour – hence much xenophobia on the part of many.

We’ve also assumed that our only competitors for selling our labour on the free market are other free people – either native to our lands or foreigners.

Forced labour used to be an important component of the labour market in Australia, after all we were founded as a penal colony for the UK. However, for the most part, in the west we have not had indentured labour since the nineteenth century.

There also appears to be a growing idea that we should also apply ‘user pays’ principles to people who receive support from society. This means that there is a growing notion that prisoners (and the unemployed) owe society something in return for the support that they receive from society.

I wonder how long until western industry works out how they can use the nexus of this ‘user pays’ ideology, the the need to reduce costs, and the adoption of forced labour? It’s interesting to consider this idea given the continued drive to reduce costs and while the prison population is not in a good position to protest their treatment.

UPDATE: And now I see that the redoubtable Douglas Rushkoff is asking Are jobs obsolete? it seems that I’m not the only one with questions about the shifting relationship between labour and capital. Also it appears that in the US the Unemployed face tough competition: underemployed.

What kind of zombies have we created?

I was reading Bill Bonner’s recent post Zombies Born of Government Spending where he posits the notion of zombies in our economy. As Bill defines it:

“In economic terms, a zombie is a parasite. He contributes less to the economy than he takes from it. He lives at the expense of others.”

His argument is that social welfare programs as practised by most of the developed world only work during good times. As he argues:

“It’s relatively easy to turn people into zombies. And it’s fairly easy to support them when an economy is healthy and expanding. But when an economy goes into a contraction, you can no longer afford to give the zombies their meat. Then what?”

This is an interesting question. Western societies have created a group of people with few skills and no means by which they might generate value to exchange.  Nor do many in this group appear to have bonds to the society within which they exist and they exhibit few loyalties to ideas or ideals outside of mere existence and consumption.

But the real issue is how we create a new economy, one that is founded on creation of real value and its exchange, and not ephemeral things (like hybrid securities and CDOs). One that sustains and nurtures community rather than destroying it through extreme competition and crazy ideas like the priority of shareholder value above all other things.

This raises some important questions:

  • If the government can no longer sustain them (or us) then what happens?
  • How do we create ways of connecting people with skills to share with those who want to learn?
  • By what mechanism can we develop shared values that support the creation of valuable skills?
  • How do we create communities of people that choose to contribute and collaborate for the common good?

We don’t have to let what’s happening in other places happen here. We have the choice. We can create communities where real value is exchanged between real people. Not what passes for value in the some places – faux celebrity, immediate gratification, and continuous consumption – but sustainable and sustaining value.

There used to exist such things as commons in the past – commonly held land and other resources. But we have few of these remaining to us nowadays.  It might be times to create some new common resources to share in a fair and equitable manner?  We have already seen the rise of new forms of sharing and common ownership through Creative Commons on the internet. It makes me wonder what other things for which this approach will work. I suspect that Mark Pesce’s work on his Plexus innovation is a beginning in this quest.

It is worth considering how we can each begin to nurture collaborative behaviour and thinking in our local spheres to work against the zombie world view.

How do we create and share value in a jobless economy?

Jeff Jarvis sparked my thinking on this recently with his post on The Jobless Future. As Jeff so bluntly stated:

“We’re not going to have a jobless recovery. We’re going to have a jobless future.

Holding out blind hope for the magical appearance of new jobs and the reappearance of growth in the economy is a fool’s faith.”

If that is the case in the US, and we have riots on the streets in the UK, Spain, Greece, north Africa and the middle east, then things are not looking good in large portions of the world. There will likely be flow on economic and social effects around the world, especially since Richard Florida is pondering if riots could come to Canada too.

Nouriel Roubini may be right in his assertion that “Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can destroy itself.”

The inherent instability of markets in the US and Europe mean that jobs are going to be harder to come by, especially for the less educated and the less skilled.

All of this got me thinking about what skills are really useful in this new world that is developing before our eyes? What kinds of businesses and communities will be more resilient in the face of changing economic verities? How do we need to recast our expectations and aspirations for this new world that is unfolding?

That kind of thinking led me over to John Robb’s blog and one of his recent posts, Entrepreneurs and Open Source Hardware. Perhaps we are all about to become open source entrepreneurs?

The kind of economic environment that is emerging is one where sustainable and ethical business models can come into their own. Not large scale, top-down, industrial operations. Rather there is an opportunity to develop peer-to-peer and networked organisations. Social innovation, social enterprise and ideas like collaborative consumption become significant, and a return to older ways of organising businesses – like co-operatives and mutual associations – become critical.

We also need to find ways to create and exchange value in an environment where traditional mechanisms might no longer be available to us. This means creation of new means of value exchange, or even new kinds of currencies. Reverting to gold is not really feasible, after all it’s rather heavy to tote around. Thus virtual currencies might even come to replace some of the existing ones

If you consider it unbelievable that major currencies can fail then it’s time to go read some history. Just to put it in perspective there’s a great visual post by Jeff Clark over at The Daily Reckoning that illustrates the risk rather neatly: A Thousand Pictures Is Worth One Word.