farhad Manjoo

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A follow-up post to the David Graeber video about so-called bullshit jobs, here are excerpts from two articles about modern employment, one from Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times which looks at the Uberization of work and the other by Joshua Krook of New Intrigue which focuses on labor in a highly automated world.


From New Intrigue:

The Robotic (Post-Industrial) Revolution:

There is something very curious about politicians constantly obsessing over people getting jobs in the light of the oncoming Robot Revolution.

Now you might think I’m crazy for believing in such things, but then you will have to call the likes of Stephen Hawking crazy too, which is a much, much more difficult task.

There are already articles on the web asking:What will happen when Robots Take our Jobs? The idea is that an oncoming robotic revolution is coming whether we like it or not.

And with it, the capacity of robots to do the jobs typically reserved for humans – including high-end, white-collar professional work. The latest robotic innovations out of Japan can play ping pong (“and even decide to take it easy on opponents by missing a few hits”), use sign language to “talk” to humans and “mimic simple greetings.” This is only the beginning.

Despite almost every single instinct of intuition in my body saying that robots will make our lives easier, which is what we’ve been taught (using examples like the washing machine in the 1950s) –by freeing up our time and allowing us to work on things that aren’t menial, boring office jobs– we have to look to history here and realise that that seems like an unlikely outcome. History has a few examples where this is true, but on the whole it has gone the other way, and this time round…

It may even go the other way.•


From the New York Times:

Various companies are now trying to emulate Uber’s business model in other fields, from daily chores like grocery shopping and laundry to more upmarket products like legal services and even medicine.

“I do think we are defining a new category of work that isn’t full-time employment but is not running your own business either,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s business school who has studied the rise of the so-called on-demand economy, and who is mainly optimistic about its prospects.

Uberization will have its benefits: Technology could make your work life more flexible, allowing you to fit your job, or perhaps multiple jobs, around your schedule, rather than vice versa. Even during a time of renewed job growth, Americans’ wages are stubbornly stagnant, and the on-demand economy may provide novel streams of income.

“We may end up with a future in which a fraction of the work force would do a portfolio of things to generate an income — you could be an Uber driver, an Instacart shopper, an Airbnb host and a Taskrabbit,” Dr. Sundararajan said.

But the rise of such work could also make your income less predictable and your long-term employment less secure. And it may relegate the idea of establishing a lifelong career to a distant memory.

“I think it’s nonsense, utter nonsense,” said Robert B. Reich, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley who was the secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. “This on-demand economy means a work life that is unpredictable, doesn’t pay very well and is terribly insecure.” After interviewing many workers in the on-demand world, Dr. Reich said he has concluded that “most would much rather have good, well-paying, regular jobs.”•

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Google’s Larry Page, who believes you’ll eventually have a brain implant, tells Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, somewhat defensively, one of the main obstacles of technologists who wish to quantify and mine our lives: 

Farhad Manjoo:

You’re saying the usefulness of the products will change how people feel about them?

Larry Page: 

Yeah, and we know that if we talk about things before people see them, there’s a much more negative reaction. That’s one of the things we learned. It’s really important for people to be able to experience products; otherwise you fear the worst without seeing those benefits.

I’m not trying to minimize the issues. For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite. We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits. I think that’s what’s happened in health care. We’ve decided, through regulation largely, that data is so locked up that it can’t be used to benefit people very well.

Right now we don’t data-mine health care data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year. I’m very worried that the media and governments will try to stoke the people’s fears and we’ll end up in a state where we could benefit a lot of people but we’re not able to do that. That’s the likely outcome.”

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At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo wonders whether Uber, for all the very reasonable doubts about the service, could cause a serious decrease in private car ownership, which would have huge ramifications for not just transportation but also housing and environment. An excerpt:

“It is impossible to say whether Uber is worth the $17 billion its investors believe it to be; like any start-up, it could fail. But for all its flaws, Uber is anything but trivial. It could well transform transportation the way Amazon has altered shopping — by using slick, user-friendly software and mountains of data to completely reshape an existing market, ultimately making many modes of urban transportation cheaper, more flexible and more widely accessible to people across the income spectrum.

Uber could pull this off by accomplishing something that has long been seen as a pipe dream among transportation scholars: It has the potential to decrease private car ownership.

In its long-established markets, like San Francisco, using Uber every day is already arguably cheaper than owning a private car.”


Politicians and organizations that tried to suppress the African-American vote during the 2012 election are angered that some of the targets of the IRS looking for tax-exempt infractions were Tea Party groups. Those who usually support racial profiling are angry that they, in a sense, were stopped and frisked. I’m against all of these investigations based on generalizations but also appalled by the hypocrisy. The opening of “Profiling Is Great…Except When You Do It to Me,” by Farhad Manjoo as Slate:

“Pretend you work at the Internal Revenue Service. Actually, let’s make this exercise even more terrible. Pretend you’re an underpaid, low-level clerk working in the understaffed IRS backwater of Cincinnati. Every day, a big stack of files lands on your desk. Every day, the stack gets a little bigger than the last. Each file represents a new application for a certain tax status—501(c)(4), a tax-exempt designation meant for ‘social welfare’ organizations. Nonprofits with this status aren’t required to disclose the identity of their donors and they’re allowed to lobby legislative officials. The catch is that they must limit their political campaign activity. According to IRS rules, 501(c)(4) groups can participate in elections, but electioneering must not be their ‘primary’ mission.

Got all that? Good—now let’s get to work. It’s your job to decide which 501(c)(4) applications represent legitimate social-welfare organizations, and which ones are from groups trying to hide their campaign activities. What’s more, you’ve got to sort the good from the bad very quickly, as you’re being inundated with applications. In 2010, your office received 1,735 applications for 501(c)(4) status. In 2011, the number jumped 30 percent, to 2,265, and in 2012 there was another 50 percent spike, this time to 3,357 applications.

So what do you do? You look for a shortcut. Someone at your office notices that a lot of the applications for 501(c)(4) status are from groups that claim to be part of the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Aha! When you’re looking for signs of political activity, wouldn’t it make sense to search for criteria related to the largest new political movement of our times? So that’s what you do: Without consulting senior managers, you and your colleagues set up a spreadsheet called ‘Be on the Lookout,’ or BOLO, which spells out specific criteria for flagging potentially politically active groups. The spreadsheet lists keywords like ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriots,’ and ‘9/12 Project.’ It also flags groups whose primary concerns are government spending, debt, and taxes, that criticize how the country is being run, or that advocate policies that seek to ‘make America a better place to live.'”


The early promise of PCs in the 1970s, in the heyday of the Homebrew Computer Club, was that the individual would be master of the technology, not that we would queue up for “improved” iPhones handed down to us by a gigantic corporation every six months. Chris Anderson thinks the spirit of the Homebrew is regaining prominence and will be the future of American manufacturing. From Farhad Manjoo in Slate:

“As Anderson describes it, the new movement is built on three technological and social advances. First, there’s ‘rapid prototyping.’ Today you can design your world-changing widget on a computer, instantly make it real on a 3-D printer, and then go back to the drawing board to refine it. Second, because your designs are all standard CAD files, you can share them with others and borrow other people’s designs, allowing for everyone to improve their widgets through remixing. Finally, when you’ve perfected your widget, you can take advantage of firms like Kickstarter to raise money, then send your designs to commercial manufacturers that will produce your widget in bulk—even if bulk, for you, means you’re making only a few thousand of them.

When I chatted with Anderson recently, I asked him about the timeline of his vision. He thinks the maker movement is around where the PC industry was in the mid-1980s—somewhere between the release of the Apple II and the Mac, between a computer that was popular with hobbyists and one that was meant for everyone. Soon, we’ll have 3-D printers that cost about the same as paper printers, we’ll have 3-D design software that’s as easy to use as iMovie, and making physical things will take on the kind of cultural significance that making digital things did in the first dot-com boom. At that point, we’ll notice the products around us begin to change, Anderson says. A lot of what you’ll buy will still come from large companies that make mass-manufactured goods, but an increasing number of your products will be produced by ‘industrial artisans.’ These artisans will produce goods aimed for niche audiences—perhaps you’re a gardener who needs a specific kind of sprinkler head, or maybe you want computer speakers shaped like Mount Rushmore. Because they’ll be able to sell anywhere, and because their goods will command higher prices that mass-manufactured stuff, artisans will be able to build thriving small businesses from their inventions.”


Homebrew at the Byte Shop in 1978:

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From Farhad Manjoo’s new article about the decline of money–or at least the physical manifestation of it–in Slate:

“It sounds like a prank, right? Money is a confidence game, a mass delusion that only works because we’ve all been had together. That’s why it’s best not to think too much about it. As when Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, the moment we realize what’s really going on with money is usually the moment the whole system comes crashing down.

The psychic gymnastics necessary to accommodate money are the central theme of journalist David Wolman’s provocative new book, The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society. Even Wolman’s title contains a trick—note how it conflates money and cash, two concepts that, to economists, are very different things. Money is any tradable store of value; it can exist in your pocket or on a bank statement, in dollars or Euros or, if you’re in prison, in cigarettes. Cash is only the physical instantiation of money, and, as Wolman points out and as everyone in the Western world knows, it is on its way out. Thanks to technology, trustworthy banking (well, mostly), and our insatiable appetite for convenience, we’re all carrying less and less cash, and soon we’ll probably quit it altogether.”

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I find so many great things online by accident that I’ve never been quite as concerned about Internet filters as some have. In “The End of the Echo Chamber,” Farhad Manjoo of Slate writes about new research–albeit research conducted by the very interested party Facebook–that suggests that the Web is inherently serendipitous (or perhaps we are) no matter how much personalization, targeting or narrowcasting is forced upon us. The opening:

“Today, Facebook is publishing a study that disproves some hoary conventional wisdom about the Web. According to this new research, the online echo chamber doesn’t exist.

This is of particular interest to me. In 2008, I wrote True Enough, a book that argued that digital technology is splitting society into discrete, ideologically like-minded tribes that read, watch, or listen only to news that confirms their own beliefs. I’m not the only one who’s worried about this. Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, argued in his recent book The Filter Bubble that Web personalization algorithms like Facebook’s News Feed force us to consume a dangerously narrow range of news. The echo chamber was also central to Cass Sunstein’s thesis, in his book Republic.com, that the Web may be incompatible with democracy itself. If we’re all just echoing our friends’ ideas about the world, is society doomed to become ever more polarized and solipsistic?

It turns out we’re not doomed. The new Facebook study is one of the largest and most rigorous investigations into how people receive and react to news. It was led by Eytan Bakshy, who began the work in 2010 when he was finishing his Ph.D. in information studies at the University of Michigan. He is now a researcher on Facebook’s data team, which conducts academic-type studies into how users behave on the teeming network.”

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Farhad Manjoo has an excellent new article in Fast Company,The Great Tech War of 2012,which looks at the quartet of dominant American technology companies poised to do battle with one another. An excerpt:

“To state this as clearly as possible: The four American companies that have come to define 21st-century information technology and entertainment are on the verge of war. Over the next two years, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will increasingly collide in the markets for mobile phones and tablets, mobile apps, social networking, and more. This competition will be intense. Each of the four has shown competitive excellence, strategic genius, and superb execution that have left the rest of the world in the dust. HP, for example, tried to take a run at Apple head-on, with its TouchPad, the product of its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm. HP bailed out after an embarrassingly short 49-day run, and it cost CEO Léo Apotheker his job. Microsoft’s every move must be viewed as a reaction to the initiatives of these smarter, nimbler, and now, in the case of Apple, richer companies. When a company like Hulu goes on the block, these four companies are immediately seen as possible acquirers, and why not? They have the best weapons–weapons that will now be turned on one another as they seek more room to grow.”


Majoo on living in the post-fact digital world, 2008:


From the introduction of “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” a series of articles about the increasing IQ of artificial intelligence, by the resolutely excellent Farhad Manjoo at Slate:

“Artificial intelligence machines are getting so good, so quickly, that they’re poised to replace humans across a wide range of industries. In the next decade, we’ll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we’d never suspected possible—they’ll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one. Economic theory holds that as these industries are revolutionized by technology, prices for their services will decline, and society as a whole will benefit. As I conducted my research, I found this argument convincing—robotic lawyers, for instance, will bring cheap legal services to the masses who can’t afford lawyers today. But there’s a dark side, too: Imagine you’ve spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner—and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?”


“Bring it on”: