Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Internal divides cloud tech industry's antitrust defense

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Steven OverlyIn July, the head of a leading tech lobbying group published a warning against overly broad antitrust investigations that “could jeopardize American companies’ leadership” — a message that came amid rising regulatory heat on the group’s members Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

But it soon became clear that some in the Information Technology Industry Council didn’t want to risk being seen as defending the four embattled tech giants.

During a conference call days later, members of ITI’s executive committee reminded CEO Jason Oxman that the group’s members don’t all share the same views on the brewing antitrust battle in Washington, two people familiar with the conversation said. They urged the association’s leadership not to go beyond the talking points of Oxman’s blog post.

The brushback highlights a byproduct of the tech backlash in Washington: Even as some of the industry’s biggest names confront mounting questions about their size and power, they can’t always rely on backup from the trade groups they’ve showered with money over the years.

The result has been only a muted response from ITI, whose executive committee includes companies like IBM, Oracle and Salesforce that aren’t facing antitrust scrutiny — and, in some cases, have had major beefs against their bigger rivals.

ITI’s leaders are “responding to what I’m sure is enormous pressure from four companies in particular” to defend them, one of the people who described the call said,while balancing a “desire of the other companies to not get in the middle of someone else’s antitrust debate.”

The Internet Association, the industry’s most prominent trade group in Washington, has stayed even quieter on the antitrust issue in the face of discord among its members, which include Google and its antagonists Yelp and TripAdvisor, as well as Amazon and rival eBay. Yelp has lodged complaints with competition regulators in the U.S. and Europe for years arguing that Google prioritizes its own products in search results.

“IA operates on consensus, which enables us to speak in a unified voice on a wide range of policies that are critical to the future of the internet,” including online liability and privacy issues, said the group’s spokesperson Noah Theran. “Because of this, IA does not engage on competition policy.”

But another industry official said tech could use some solidarity. The growing antitrust talk in Washington has “taken on an anti-tech tone in general” that affects the entire industry, the person said, and large trade groups are justified in “raising those questions” about whether the antitrust reviews are going too far.

The issue is playing out as the tech giants rack up a growing list of investigations by Congress, the Trump administration and the states. The House antitrust panel, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and a number of state attorneys general are looking into whether the companies are using their size to unfairly compete in their respective markets. The issue has also loomed large on the Democratic campaign trail, as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pledge antitrust enforcers in their prospective administrations would break up the nation’s tech behemoths into smaller companies.

ITI has waded gingerly into the antitrust debate, trying to avoid picking sides in a fight that some members view as a threat to the entire tech sector and others see as aimed at four specific companies. In public statements and in private meetings with lawmakers, the group has stuck to arguing that antitrust reviews should be narrowly focused rather than demonizing big companies simply for their size or attacking the tech industry as a whole.

“Because antitrust law is such an important body of law, particularly for large companies who we happen to represent, it’s important to us to play that education role without getting involved in any disputes that our member companies may have,” Oxman said in an interview.

Such disputes have multiplied in recent years.

Oracle has fought high-profile battles against both Google, which it sued over alleged patent violations in the search giant’s Android operating system, and Amazon, which it accused of benefiting from a tainted bidding process for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract. All three companies are members of ITI.

And top executives don’t always hide the tensions. In a recent Recode interview, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman gleefully welcomed government scrutiny of his fellow IA members and competitors Google and Facebook.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the tech sector’s divisions are not uncommon among industries with a growing presence in Washington, as lobbying on a wider range of policy matters reveals issues where companies’ desires are not identical.

“In those instances, the industry association may have to choose between taking sides — and risk creating rifts within their membership — or sitting on the sidelines of an intra-industry debate,” she said. “It’s bound to frustrate companies that pay money to an entity to represent their interests when that entity can’t or won’t go to bat for them.”

Tech companies have shelled out big money to myriad trade associations in Washington, D.C., that frequently serve as their first defenders when lawmakers and regulators come hollering. The groups are deeply engaged in fending off or shaping potential regulation, including data privacy legislation and proposals to amend the critical law that shields websites from liability over user-generated content. They’ve also, at times, backed lawsuits on issues like net neutrality where their members are more aligned.

“The associations are useful on issues where the industry is more united,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America and author of “The Business of America is Lobbying.” “There’s a strategic value in maintaining a broad association because lawmakers generally are more likely to respond when the industry is united than when it is divided.”

But the groups’ silence on antitrust is all the more striking given the recent pileup of investigations and lawmaker complaints. The DOJ said last month its antitrust review is focusing on dominant companies in online search, social media and e-commerce — a not-so-veiled reference to Google, Facebook and Amazon, respectively.

The FTC is also conducting an antitrust probe into “social networking or social media services, digital advertising, and/or mobile or online applications” at Facebook, the social media behemoth disclosed in a recent regulatory filing. The agency has also subpoenaed sales data from third parties who sell goods on Amazon as part of a potential probe of the e-commerce juggernaut, trade publication MLex reported last month.

Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are not without resources, even as some of their associations keep a low profile. The four firms shelled out $25 million in the first six months of the year on nearly 300 in-house and outside lobbyists to shape policy on Capitol Hill and within regulatory agencies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They also spread money around Washington think tanks and advocacy groups that often amplify their policy positions. Some of those organizations, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, are coming to the companies’ defense.

As the antitrust heat rises, the small, right-leaning trade association NetChoice, which counts Facebook and Google as members, has emerged as one of the tech industry’s most vocal defenders. Carl Szabo, the vice president and general counsel of the three-person operation, said antitrust falls well within the group’s mission to “keep the internet open for free expression and free enterprise.”

After the DOJ announced its review, NetChoice called on the department to “resist the siren song of populism and only investigate actual evidence of consumer harm.” It also slammed House Democrats as “hypocritical” for complaining about the power of tech companies while seeking an antitrust exemption for big news publishers to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook over ad sales.

Industry trade groups shouldn’t shy away from the fight, Szabo said.

“I would hope that all associations and all business would oppose a movement away from objective, data-based analysis of antitrust and all associations and businesses would oppose the weaponization of antitrust,” Szabo said. “While such actions may help them today, it can definitely be used against them tomorrow.”

The head of the Consumer Technology Association, Gary Shapiro, has also defended the big tech companies, as has the Computer and Communications Industry Association. Both groups represent Facebook, Google and Amazon, among others. A CCIA representative testified at a House hearing that any antitrust review should consider the industry’s benefits to consumers and the economy.

CCIA President Ed Black said his group has made competition issues a focus for 47 years and at times lost members that disagreed with its stances on pending mergers or antitrust lawsuits.

“It’s one of the reasons most trade associations have not gone into antitrust issues,” Black said. “We’ve had somewhat of the field to ourselves because we’re willing to take the risk to defend innovation.”

This article was originally published at Politico on August 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Overly covers technology policy and politics for POLITICO with a special focus on the industry’s effort to influence decisions in Washington. He previously spent seven years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. Steven holds a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree from Columbia University, where he studied as a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economics and Business Journalism. A native of the Washington metro region, Steven currently resides in the District.

From Whole Foods to Amazon, Invasive Technology Controlling Workers Is More Dystopian Than You Think

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

thor bensonYou’ve been fired. According to your employer’s data, your facial expressions showed you were insubordinate and not trustworthy. You also move your hands at a rate that is considered substandard. Other companies you may want to work for could receive this data, making it difficult for you to find other work in this field.

That may sound like a scenario straight out of a George Orwell novel, but it’s the future many American workers could soon be facing.

In early February, media outlets reported that Amazon had received a patent for ultrasonic wristbands that could track the movement of warehouse workers’ hands during their shifts. If workers’ hands began moving in the wrong direction, the wristband would buzz, issuing an electronic corrective. If employed, this technology could easily be used to further surveil employees who already work under intense supervision.

Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, recently instituted a complex and punitive inventory system where employees are graded based on everything from how quickly and effectively they stock shelves to how they report theft. The system is so harsh it reportedly causes employees enough stress to bring them to tears on a regular basis.

UPS drivers, who often operate individually on the road, are now becoming increasingly surveilled. Sensors in every UPS truck track when drivers’ seatbelts are put on, when doors open and close and when the engines start in order to monitor employee productivity at all times.

The technology company Steelcase has experimented with monitoring employees’ faces to judge their expressions. The company claims that this innovation, which monitors and analyzes workers’ facial movements throughout the work day, is being used for research and to inform best practices on the job. Other companies are also taking interest in this kind of mood-observing technology, from Bank of America to Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.

These developments are part of a larger trend of workers being watched and judged—often at jobs that offer low pay and demand long hours. Beyond simply tracking worker performance, it is becoming more common for companies to monitor the emails and phone calls their employees make, analyzing personal traits along with output.

Some companies are now using monitoring techniques—referred to as “people analytics”—to learn as much as they can about you, from your communication patterns to what types of websites you visit to how often you use the bathroom. This type of privacy invasion can cause employees immense stress, as they work with the constant knowledge that their boss is aware of their every behavior—and able to use that against them as they see fit.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute at Cornell University, tells In These Times that the level of surveillance workers are facing is increasing exponentially.

“If you look at what some people call ‘people analytics,’ it’s positively frightening,” Maltby says. “People analytics devices get how often you talk, the tone of your voice, where you are every single second you’re at work, your body language, your facial expressions and something called ‘patterns of interaction.’” He explains that some of these devices even record what employees say at work.

According to some experts, this high level of employee surveillance may actually harm the companies that use these techniques.

“In general, people experience more stress when they feel that someone is looking over their shoulder, real or virtual,” Michael Childers, director at the School for Workers, tells In These Times. “There is a large body of research documenting that stressful workplaces can potentially lead to many problems that reduce company profits, including increased turnover, more sick days used, higher workplace compensation costs, and ironically, even lower productivity.”

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, tells In These Times that this type of surveillance “deepens the antagonism, mutual suspicion, and hostility of employer relative to employee. It degrades worker morale and will probably fail—leading employers to conclude not that such surveillance is a bad idea, but rather than they need to automate to get rid of workers altogether.”

While this level of worker surveillance may be alarming, it has so far gone largely unchecked. Congress has never passed a law to regulate employee surveillance, Maltby says, and he doesn’t think it will any time soon. However, he says that either Congress or the Supreme Court could finally decide that employers have gone too far when they start tracking employee movement during a worker’s time off.

“The fight we’re gearing up for is [tracking] behavior off duty,” Maltby says. “Every cell phone in America has GPS capabilities baked into it,” along with cameras and microphones. Maltby worries that employers could soon begin using this technology to track the behavior of their employees outside of work. If this were to happen, Maltby believes U.S. lawmakers could be compelled to step in.

One the of the fears that labor and privacy advocates hold is that, over time, workers could get used to these types of invasions, and begin accepting them as a normal part of the job.

“The first time people hear about the newest privacy invasion, they get extremely angry, but eventually they just get used to it,” Maltby says. For example, at many jobs drug tests are now seen as standard, despite the fact that they invade employees’ private lives by monitoring their behaviors outside of work.

At a time of soaring inequality, low-wage workers are bearing the brunt of efforts to increase productivity and profits. The rise of these new tracking techniques show that companies are moving toward increasing their control over the lives of their employees.

While workers at the bottom of the wage scale may be the first to face such dystopian working conditions, other industries could soon embrace them. If we don’t want to live and work under the constant supervision of a far-away boss, now is the time to speak up and push back.

This article was originally published in In These Times on June 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Thor Benson is a traveling writer, currently located in Los Angeles, Calif. Benson was born in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. His journalism has been featured in: The Atlantic, Wired, Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, MTV News, Slate, Salon, Vice, ATTN:, Mic, In These Times, Paste, The New Republic, The Verge, Fast Company, Truthdig and elsewhere. He has been interviewed on The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Ring of Fire, HuffPost Live, The Lip, The Young Turks, in upcoming documentaries and elsewhere. 

The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Facebook’s gender bias goes so deep it’s in the code

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

A hurricane has been brewing at Facebook.

After years of suspicion, a veteran female Facebook engineer decided to evaluate what if any gaps there were in how female and male engineers’ work was treated.

She did it “so that we can have an insight into how the review process impacts people in various groups,” the Wall Street Journal learned exclusively.

Her analysis, conducted in September, found that female engineers’ work was rejected 35 percent more than their male counterparts based on five years of open code-review data. Women also waited 3.9 percent longer to have their code accepted and got 8.2 percent more questions and comments about their work.

Only 13 percent of Facebook’s engineers are women, 17 percent across all tech roles.

The identity of the engineer is unknown, but her findings sparked a whirlwind discussion of gender bias inside the social network after it was released last year. A group of senior Facebook officials led by Facebook’s head of infrastructure, Jay Parikh, conducted their own review of the engineer’s analysis and concluded that the rejection gap was because of the engineer’s rank rather than gender.

Facebook confirmed Parikh’s findings, calling the engineer’s data incomplete, the Wall Street Journal reported. Parikh said in an internal report revealing his analysis that while the gender component wasn’t “statistically significant” it was “still observable and felt by many of you,” and urged employees to take the company’s voluntary implicit bias training.

The report is the latest incidence of the tech industry’s rampant diversity and inclusion problem. In recent years, tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have tried to tackle this by releasing annual diversity reports, which have shown marginal improvements in racial and gender disparities.

But Silicon Valley’s gender problem goes beyond the numbers. Facebook is the second major tech company this year to have potentially damning evidence of gender bias exposed by an employee. Earlier this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler detailed her experiences with sexual harassment and stalled career path at the company. Fowler’s story ballooned into a media firestorm, one that Uber still hasn’t recovered from.

Neither of Facebook’s analyses and methodologies have been independently verified, but the preliminary results and Facebook’s response fall in line with how companies have previously dealt with allegations of sexism. Past surveys and studies have found that men in tech often don’t think there’s a gender problem in the industry. And when women report incidents of sexual harassment as culturally pervasive, men have said they were unaware.

Hopefully, Facebook’s voluntary bias training, which stresses bias’ impact and how to get rid of it, will become mandatory.

This post appeared originally in Think Progress on May 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Lauren C. Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.

Will Artificial Intelligence Mean Massive Job Loss?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bioIn the late 1970s, my early years at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), the Department of Economics had two secretaries. When I retired, in 2008, the number of faculty members and students in the department had increased, but there was only one secretary. All the faculty members had their own computers, with which they did much of the work that secretaries had previously done.

I would guess that over those thirty years, the number of departmental secretaries and other secretaries in the university declined by as many as 100, replaced by information technology—what has now become the foundation of artificial intelligence. As I started writing this column, however, I looked on the university’s web site and counted about 100 people with jobs in various parts of the Information Technology Department. Neither this department nor those jobs existed in my early years at UMB. The advance in technology that eliminated so many secretaries also created as many jobs as it eliminated—perhaps more.

My little example parallels the larger and more widely cited changes on U.S. farms in the 20th century—a century when the diesel engine, artificial fertilizers, and other products of industry reduced the percentage of the labor force working on farms from 40% to 2%. No massive unemployment resulted (though a lot of horses, mules, and oxen did lose their jobs). The great expansion of urban industrial production along with the growth of the service sector created employment that balanced the displacement of workers on the farms.

Other cases are cited in debates over the impact of artificial intelligence, examples ranging from handloom weavers’ resistance to new machinery in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to a widespread concern about “automation” in the 1960s. Generally, however, the new technologies, while displacing workers in some realms of production, also raised productivity and economic growth. There has, as a result, been increased demand for old products and demand for new products, creating more and different jobs.

Historically, it seems, each time prophecies foretold massive unemployment resulting from major technological innovations, they turned out to be wrong. Indeed, often the same forces that threatened existing jobs created new jobs. The transitions were traumatic and harmful for the people losing their jobs, but massive unemployment was not the consequence.

Is This Time Different?

Today, as we move further into the 21st century, many people are arguing that artificial intelligence—sophisticated robotics—is different from past technological shifts, will replace human labor of virtually all types, and could generate massive unemployment. Are things really different this time? Just because someone, once again, walks around with a sign saying, “The world is about end,” doesn’t mean the world really isn’t about to end!

In much of modern history, the substitution of machines for people has involved physical labor. That was the case with handloom weavers in the early 19th century and is a phenomenon we all take for granted when we observe heavy machinery, instead of hand labor, on construction sites. Even as robotics entered industry, as on automobile assembly lines, the robots were doing tasks that had previously been done with human physical labor.

“Robotics” today, however, involves much more than the operation of traditional robots, the machines that simulate human physical labor. Robots now are rapidly approaching the ability, if they do not already have it, to learn from experience, respond to changes in situations, compare, compute, read, hear, smell, and make extremely rapid adjustments (“decisions”) in their actions—which can include everything from moving boxes to parsing data. In part, these capabilities are results of the extreme progress in the speed and memory capacity of computers.

They are also the result of the emergence of “Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning.” In Cloud Robotics, each robot gathers information and experiences from other robots via “the cloud” and thus learns more and does so more quickly. Deep Learning involves a set of software that is designed to simulate the human neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking takes place. The software (also often cloud-based) recognizes patterns—sounds, images, and other data—and, in effect, learns.

While individual robots—like traditional machines—are often designed for special tasks, the basic robot capabilities are applicable to a broad variety of activities. Thus, as they are developed to the point of practical application, they can be brought into a wide variety of activities during the same period. Moreover, according to those who believe “this time is different,” that period of transition is close at hand and could be very short. The disruption of human labor across the economy would happen virtually all at once, so adjustments would be difficult—thus, the specter of massive unemployment.

Skepticism

People under thirty may take much of what is happening with information technology (including artificial intelligence) for granted, but those of us who are older find the changes awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, I am persuaded by historical experience and remain skeptical about the likelihood of massive unemployment. Moreover, although big changes are coming rapidly in the laboratories, their practical applications across multiple industries will take time.

While the adoption of artificial technology may not take place as rapidly and widely as the doomsday forecasters tell us, I expect that over the next few decades many, many jobs will be replaced. But as with historical experience, the expansion of productivity and the increase of average income will tend to generate rising demand, which will be met with both new products and more of the old ones; new jobs will open up and absorb the labor force. (But hang on to that phrase “average income.”)

Real Problems

Even if my skepticism is warranted, the advent of the era of artificial intelligence will create real problems, perhaps worse than in earlier eras. Most obvious, even when society in general (on average) gains, there are always losers from economic change. Workers who get replaced by robots may not be the ones who find jobs in new or expanding activity elsewhere. And, as has been the case for workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, those who succeed in finding new jobs often do so only with lower wages.

Beyond the wage issue, the introduction of new machinery—traditional machines or robots—often affects the nature and, importantly, the speed of work. The mechanized assembly line is the classic example, but computers—and, we can assume, robotics more generally—allow for more thorough monitoring and control of the activity of human workers. The handloom weavers who opposed the introduction of machines in the early 19th century were resisting the speed-up brought by the machines as well as the elimination of jobs. (The Luddite movement of Northwest England, while derided for incidents of smashing machines, was a reaction to real threats to their lives.)

More broadly, there is the question of how artificial intelligence will affect the distribution of income. However intelligent robots may be, they are still machines which, like slaves, have owners (whether owners of physical hardware, patents on the machines, or copyrights on the software). Will the owners be able to reap the lion’s share of the gains that come with the rising productivity of this major innovation? In the context of the extremely high degree of inequality that now exists as artificial intelligence is coming online, there is good reason for concern.

As has been the case with the information technology innovations that have already taken place—Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook leap to mind—highly educated or specially skilled (or just lucky) workers are likely to share some of the gains from artificial intelligence. But with the great inequalities that exist in the U.S. educational system, the gains of a small group of elite workers would be unlikely to dampen the trend toward greater income inequality.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing for the past 40 years, and labor’s share of total income has fallen since the middle of the last century—from 72% in 1947 to 63% in 2014. The rise of artificial intelligence, as it is now taking place, is likely to contribute to the continuation of these trends. This has broad implications for people’s well-being, but also for the continuation of economic growth. Even as average income is rising, if it is increasingly concentrated among a small group at the top, aggregate demand may be insufficient to absorb the rising output. The result would be slow growth at best and possibly severe crisis. (See “Are We Stuck in an Extended Period of Economic Stagnation?” D&S, July/August 2016.)

Over the long run, technological improvements that generate greater productivity have yielded some widely shared benefits. In the United States and other high-income countries, workers’ real incomes have risen substantially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, a significant part of the gains for workers has come in the form of an increase in leisure time. Rising productivity from artificial intelligence holds out the possibility, in spite of the trends of recent decades, for a shift away from consumerism towards a resumption of the long-term trend toward more leisure—and, I would venture, more pleasant lives.

Yet, even as economic growth over the past 200 years has meant absolute gains for working people, some groups have fared much better than others. Moreover, even with absolute gains, relative gains have been limited. With some periods of exception, great inequalities have persisted, and those inequalities weigh heavily against the absolute rises in real wages and leisure. (And in some parts of the last two centuries—the last few decades in particular—gains for working people have not followed from rising productivity and economic growth.)

So even though I’m skeptical that artificial intelligence will generate massive unemployment, I fear that it may reinforce, and perhaps increase, economic inequality.

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on September 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

Unemployment: Why Won’t Congress Talk About It!?

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Change to WinAn interesting look at the unemployment rate. “What is currently a temporary long-term unemployment problem runs the risk of morphing into a permanent and costly increase in the unemployment rate” unless Congress takes action to create jobs. 

Why the Unemployment Rate Is So High – New York Times

Unemployment claims have increased slightly. “The Labor Department says applications rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 371,000, the most in five weeks.”

Unemployment claims rise slightly in latest week – USA Today

“We need to avoid a lost generation of young people who will be playing economic catch-up their whole lives. We cannot stop pressing our leaders to help struggling poor and middle-class Americans.”

Crowdsourcing our economic recovery – CNN 

Even though the economy is improving, we need to do more to ensure the long term unemployed get back on their feet. Long term unemployment makes it harder and harder to provide for one’s family, and causes dramatic increases in mental illness. It’s time Washington gets busy putting people back to work. 

Long-Term Unemployed Winning Jobs Or Giving Up? – Huffington Post

This article was originally posted by ChangeToWin on January 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Change to Win is an organization created by over 5.5 million workers – if corporations can join together to hire an army of lobbyists, working and middle class Americans must also band together and restore balance by making sure we have a strong voice and a seat at the table again.

(Colleen Gartner is an intern at Workplace Fairness.)

Workers Cheer Living Wage Victory in Austin

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Barbara DohertyConstruction workers and others in the Austin, Texas, area are celebrating a coalition victory this week after Travis County commissioners approved a first-ever economic development policy that includes a living wage requirement.

The policy requires contractors asking for tax incentives to move into the county to pay all employees at least $11 per hour. It’s a significant improvement over the prevailing construction hourly wage of $7.50.

On the same day the county provision passed, a subcommittee of the Austin City Council passed a similar policy, which will come to the full council in the coming months. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, both the city and county have been criticized about generous tax incentives offered in recent years to major companies such as Apple and Marriott.

Along with faith-based and student organizations, the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, the Laborers (LIUNA), the Electrical Workers (IBEW), AFSCME Local 1624, Education Austin (AFT) and Texas State Employees Union (TSEU)/CWA Local 6186 participated in the yearlong campaign spearheaded by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP). The 1,000-member WDP has worked for 10 years on wage theft and other workers’ rights issues.

Austin Interfaith and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) were among others that supported the campaign.

“Really, what this means is construction workers are starting to have a say in their working conditions and their pay,” WDP organizer Greg Casar told a celebratory crowd after the county commissioners voted.

This post was originally posted on November 30, 2012 at AFL-CIO NOW. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Barbara Doherty: My dad drove a laundry delivery truck in San Francisco and I came to appreciate unions sitting in the waiting room at the Teamsters vision center there. More than 30 years ago, I joined the international SEIU publications staff (under the union’s legendary, feisty president, George Hardy). Living in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., over the years, I have contributed countless news and feature articles, as well as editing, to the publications and websites of unions in the public and private sectors and the construction trades.

CES

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Image: Bob RosnerSince technology today is mostly synonymous with business, your intrepid blogger decided to journey to the bleeding edge of technology, the annual Consumer Electronics  Show (a.k.a. CES), in Las Vegas. It’s a rough job, somebody has got to do it.

I’ve read a lot of articles on this year’s conference. Most talk up tablet computers and 3D everything. And yes, both were here in abundance. But to discuss CES and spend most of your time discussing two types of technology is like obsessing how many cup holders are in a car you’re thinking about buying. Factually correct, but mostly missing the point.

CES is wretched excess in a place that invented the term, Las Vegas. Vegas is one of the few places today that allows people to smoke anywhere and then charges you for a hit of oxygen.

It feels like the amount of floor spaced dedicated to the world’s leading technology trade show is somewhere between the size of the State of Iowa and New Jersey. But it felt more like the size of Texas to my poor feet.

Sure there are 3D TVs, amazingly small devices of all types, cars with more technology than the average office building and more languages being spoken than the United Nations. Along with high-technology cigarettes, “iGrill” an application that gets your iPhone and iPad involved in grilling your steaks and a variety of hi-tech bidets.

But that is barely scratching the surface. There are entire hotel ballrooms filled with switches, cable and plugs of all sorts. Think of it as everything related to all the technology that most of us devour at work on a regular basis.

Which all got me thinking about the famous line from the movie Spinal Tap. “There is a thin line between clever and stupid.” I’ve never been in a place where that line is more porous than CES. The brilliant is right next to the craziest thing you’ve ever seen. The only problem is that you don’t always know which side of the line YOU are on.

Let’s face it, we’ve all made fun of technology that we quickly find essential, stuff that we made fun of only weeks earlier (yes iPad, I’m talking to you). CES is interesting for it’s glimpse of new technology, but it’s even better as your own personal Rochard test, about who we are and where we’re all going.

But the best part of being in Las Vegas for CES is what else is going on in town. No, I’m not talking about Elvis impersonators, the ubiquitous leafletors on the Strip, seeing if Cirque du Soleil has hit double digits on the number of shows it has in Vegas or the buffets (my favorite is the $39.99 all day pass at eight different buffets, turning gluttony into a science here).

No, my favorite is how Vegas manages to pair people like Guy Kawasaki and Ron Jeremy, both spoke in Vegas this weekend. Kawasaki is the former evangelist with Apple Computer and he spoke at CES on his big ideas about the future of technology. Jeremy also has had the word big tossed his way a time or two, and he spoke at the annual Adult conference, also in Vegas this same weekend.

Nerds, porn stars and Vegas. Okay, it may sound to you like the end of civilization at you know it, but it makes for a very entertaining weekend. Back to CES…

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Tech’s New Frontier

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerFlash mob. I was faintly aware of the concept. Mostly it had to do with pillow fights and Michael Jackson tributes. Then on Saturday I stumbled upon one. It left me remarkably hopefully. Really. And there is even a business point here, but first more on the mob.

My daughter Frankie and I were walking across the Seattle Center grounds. We suddenly noticed that there were hundreds of people milling about. You just got the sense that something was in the air. So we wandered over. The energy was palpable.

There seemed to be a focal point, at one end of the park. We decided to check it out. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gymnast started doing cartwheels and forward rolls across the field. It was incredibly dramatic.

Then approximately thirty dancers started dancing to the song “Don’t Stop Believing.” Clearly there were two star-crossed lovers. When the woman leaped into the man’s arms the crowd exploded in joy.

Now is when the really freaky part starts. Hundreds of people started dancing to the music. It felt like every aerobics class that I’ve ever seen, that everyone else was privy to dance routines and that I hadn’t gotten the memo.

Remember, I had no idea what was going on. It was like a Broadway show suddenly burst upon us. Amazing, intoxicating, but most of all very fun.

Later I learned that this was called Flash Mob Seattle. That there were videos online that taught the dance moves and that the core group of dancers that started off the festivities had gone to a rehearsal. But that didn’t diminish the remarkable energy from the young kids, old people and everyone in between.

What does this have to do with work? I saw the power of our technology not to isolate people, but to bring them together. In a remarkable way.

Tools are tools. But I felt a sense of community in that gathering that I’ve hardly ever felt in my life.

Here is a link to another gathering that happened on the same day. Unfortunately you miss the initial gymnast, but you’ll get the rest of the performance (there is an ad at the beginning of it, but it’s for the local paper not me). http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/flatpages/video/mediacenterbc3.html?bctid=77243206001

Community, the amazing thing, once you get a taste of it you just want more and more. At least I do. It got me thinking about all the ways that people have to communicate, to collaborate and to create community. Here’s to an amazing new set of possibilities.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Sharing Information or Cheating, You Decide

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerI read an article about a school in Washington State that allows students to search the Internet during tests.

Yes, you read that correctly. Students at Mill Creek Middle School can go online during tests to search for information. But some schools don’t stop there; they even allow students to beam or IM information to other students during a test.

Beyond wishing that we had such tools when we were in middle school, this raises a great question about the essence of education. Is the goal to cram information in our heads, or should the goal be the know how to get the information that you need?

Let’s not forget that a student can burn a lot of time searching for information on the web. Or information that is beamed to them by a fellow student could be wrong. Rather than seeing this sharing of information as cheating, I believe that it is creating a generation of students who are more discerning about information—where to get it, how to evaluate it and how to use it.

What does this have to do with business? Plenty.

As more of us find our interactions with coworkers limited to three sentence emails, we are rapidly moving from organizations with many brains to constellations of individuals who are increasingly flying by the seat of their pants as they go through their work day.

Think about it. When was the last time that you brainstormed with a colleague over coffee or lunch? When was the last time that you networked or checked in with a colleague that you hadn’t seen in a while? Heck, when was the last time you didn’t eat lunch at your desk?

Technology was supposed to bring us all together. Yet, the connections between people are at an all time low.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a 40 hour a week coffee klatch. But I do believe that each one of us should all institute a policy where we follow up ten emails with a phone call and twenty with an actual face-to-face conversation. (Remember those?)

Organizations talk a great deal about team work. That people are the greatest asset. Yet, when it comes to paying people, recognition and priorities, it’s all about individual effort.

Great teamwork isn’t cheating. But to achieve it organizations need to do a much better job of cultivating it, rewarding it and encouraging it. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our organizations truly became the sum of their parts?

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog