Monday, July 27, 2009

July 2009 Early Indications: Love & Work part II

Taking as our cue Freud's famous dictum that people are defined by
their love and their work, last month's letter looked at online
dating. This time around, the focus turns to work, prompted by both
the current economic situation and a few books on the topic.

What have computers and the digital revolution done to work? Answers
vary considerably. In 1992 Robert Reich (later Bill Clinton's
Secretary of Labor) devised a tripartite schema to classify the
workers of the world, seeing global work forces as already having been
divided into three groups: routine producers (e.g., call center reps
or assembly-line workers), in-person servers (waiters or nurses), and
symbolic analysts who manipulate pure information for large profits
(Wall Street quants). Digitization in the service of high leverage
made the "symbolic analysts" rich, and skewed income distribution.
Seeing the relation of rich to poor less than 20 years later, Reich
may have been onto something crucial, but his tepid solution --
training and education -- has failed to shift the terms of the debate,
partly because school systems change incredibly slowly and require
levels (and types) of investment that are for a number of reasons
politically impossible in the U.S.

A decade later, Richard Florida defined the engine of the new economy
as the "creative class," 38 million of whom comprised 30% of the
workforce. For the winners, digitization empowers flexible work that
gives great meaning:

"In this new world, it is no longer the organizations we work for,
churches, neighborhoods, or even family ties that define us. Instead,
we do this ourselves, defining our identities along the varied
dimensions of our creativity. Other aspects of our lives -- what we
consume, new forms of leisure and recreation, efforts at
community-building -- then organize themselves around this process of
identity creation." (Rise of the Creative Class, pp. 7- 8)

Surely 30% of the workforce can't work at ad agencies or Disney. No,
says Florida, "I define the core of the Creative Class to include
people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education,
arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create
new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content. Around the
core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative
professionals in business and finance, law, health care and related
fields." The core and the donut are linked not by geography or income
or skills but by a value set: "all members of the Creative Class --
whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer
scientists, writers or entrepreneurs -- share a common creative ethos
that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit. For the
members of the Creative Class, every aspect and every manifestation of
creativity -- technological, cultural and economic -- is interlinked
and inseparable." (p. 8)

Whatever its relation to life as most people know it, Florida's book
resonated. It led to a thriving consulting business helping cities
attempt to become more economically competitive. How? Not with tax
incentives for auto plants but by luring more of those 38 million
people with more tolerant attitudes, better mass transit, more
authentic espresso bars, and the other factors that separate Toronto
from Topeka or Minneapolis from Modesto.

In the intervening seven years, however, much has happened to cast
doubt on Florida's vision of the future. What exactly do those
creative people do to help the U.S. balance of trade deficit? Movies,
M&A deals, and Microsoft all contribute to exports, but not to the
degree that farm goods do, and none approaches the aerospace sector's
international impact. What happens when offshore competition
threatens large numbers of those 38 million jobs? Legal research,
programming, equity analysis, and even movie-making and distance
learning are already being produced and delivered from afar in
lower-wage settings -- what will be next?

More fundamentally, just how creative are those 38 million people?
Job titles can be deceiving: a good friend of mine was an architect at
HOK, the sports division of which has given us such modern monuments
as Camden Yards in Baltimore or ATT Park in San Francisco. What was
our young Howard Roark's creative contribution? Bathrooms for the
Hong Kong airport.

Matthew Crawford, in a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft,
raises similar doubts. Beginning with the observation that many high
schools are dropping shop class because it fails to train people to be
symbolic analysts, Crawford challenges the reader to think deeply
about the value of work. Because it often lacks real output, modern
bureaucratic life, defined largely by office automation, can be
unfulfilling. In contrast to the carpenter whose windows can't leak,
or the farmer, who feeds people with tangible crops or livestock, the
office worker (creative or not) lacks physical boundaries to define
the real from the artificial or the possible from the impossible.

As Crawford notes, quoting Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes (now 20
years old), office memos are crafted to be unincriminating no matter
how subsequent events play out. Taking a firm stand is often seen as
career-limiting, so most eventualities remain unforeclosed; every
position is hedged. Along similar lines, after receiving a Ph.D. from
the University of Chicago, Crawford works for a think tank generating
position papers that begin not with the facts but with a position,
reasoning backward to convenient truths. It is intellectual bad faith
of the first order, and he quits. Worse yet, in his circles of
occupational hell, are jobs built on teams with their indeterminate
appropriation of credit and blame, along with the HR-driven
trust-building games that frequently pass the point of self-parody

In contrast, the author points to his work as a motorcycle mechanic.
No symbolic analyst he, Crawford confronts physical limits every day,
and pays a steep price for failure. If he drops a washer into a
crankcase, there are times when he must tear down the engine block to
retrieve it, and cannot in good conscience bill the customer for all
of the hours involved. Mistakes, stupid or otherwise, have concrete
consequences. On the positive side of the ledger, when he fixes a
broken fork, returns a dead bike to life after ten years off the road,
or hears the particular sound of a well-tuned engine, he derives great
satisfaction. He also contends that mechanical work can be more
intellectually engaging than "knowledge work," implicitly challenging
Florida's new world order.

In some measure, we are fighting a new stage of the battle joined by
Descartes, who separated thought from emotion and thereby physicality.
Craft work (fixing or building things) joins the practice of medicine,
certainly, but also full-throated singing as moments where mind and
body unite. Sport constitutes another similar realm, as does cooking,
the recent enthusiasm for which might be seen as a reassertion of the
satisfaction that can only come when head, hands, and palate unite in
a primal act -- that of feeding another person. Compare the gestalt
of today's many cooking shows to the treatment of the modern workplace
in current television programming and the contrast is obvious: Julia
Child, enshrined at the Smithsonian, is a hero while cubicle America's
cultural icon has yet to transcend Dilbert.

Shop Class as Soulcraft also makes the pragmatic point that fixing
things cannot be offshored; one can make a healthy living as an
electrician, for example, or an auto repairman. Last time I was in
for an oil change my mechanic was telling me about one manufacturer's
switch to a fiber-optic system bus -- he knows more computer
networking than I ever will. To service appliances or furnaces today
is to have studied hundreds of hours of digital control and monitoring
technology. High schools, however, generally operate under the
principle that college-bound students will have better careers than
those who work in jobs that require mere training. But what
economists call the education premium can no longer be assured today,
much less in 50 years when today's high-school graduates will almost
certainly still be working.

There's also the matter of permanence. As Crawford notes, many of
today's appliances are built to break and not be repaired. How does
today's work give people the opportunity to build something that will
last beyond their life span? For teachers, this is one of the true
joys of the profession. For most "knowledge workers," the answer is
less clear. True craftsmen raise a red flag. As Michael Ruhlman,
known more for his books on chefs and cooking, reported in a book on
wooden boats,

"I asked Gannon why wooden boats were important to him -- why had he
devoted his life to them? Ross seemed surprised by my apparent
ignorance regarding what to him was plain, and his blazing eyes burned
right through me.

'Do you want to teach your daughter [then 3 years old] that what you
do, what you care about, is disposable?' he asked. 'That you can throw
your work away? It doesn't matter?'"

Whether in passing down the family farm or painting "& Sons" on the
service van, craft work is often connected to future generations that
bureaucracy cannot sustain. This lack of long-term continuity may be
another reason why the modern office lacks heroic images in popular

A final reason for the current deep unease with the prevalent model of
work lies in the fact that we are undergoing several foundational
shifts. Global competition and offshoring are familiar, but the
aftermath of digitization changes so many aspects of life so quickly
that some sense of vertigo becomes unavoidable. As Carlota Perez
asserts in her book Technological Revolutions and Financial
Capital (p. 57), every major technology breakthrough in the western
world since 1750 progresses through two major historical phases,
installation (ending with a bubble popping) and deployment.

Between the two often lies a financial crisis: 1848 for the age of
steam, 1893 for the age of steel, and 1929 for the automobile and
associated industries. Her positioning of 2001 as the start of the
computer age's financial crisis is persuasive, meaning that if the
past is a guide, that deployment of these telecommunications and
computing technologies will bring both financial growth and structural
change. Work will undoubtedly be very different 20 years from now.

Tom Malone of MIT explores that future landscape through the lens of
its institutions. In his 2004 book The Future of Work, he lays out
various scenarios primarily concerned with the coordination and
collaborative facets of organizations. He sees the future as more
decentralized, less hierarchical, and more democratic. If it comes to
pass, Malone's vision foreshadows the demise of "The Office's" Michael
Scott and his kin. Pettiness and incompetence are eternal, however,
so it is worth pondering both what will happen to a Michael in a
Malone-ite world, and what manner of successor will emerge instead.

In the end of any analysis, work cannot be categorized with any
precision. It is both universal and specifically grounded in time,
place, and individual. It offers both rewards and challenges (some of
which may overlap), utilizes groups and solo contributors, and defines
us in multiple ways. The diversity of the perspectives mentioned here
is itself incomplete, missing, for example, the perspective of the
Japanese salaryman, the unionized autoworker, or the classic
professions of law or clergy (both of which themselves are in the
midst of deep change). We have made no mention of wages, which are
retreating in many settings. The appeal of Dan Pink's vision of Free
Agent Nation (2002), for example, has been replaced by the reality of
the less glamorous name for continuous partial employment, "temping."

As to the question, "what have computers done to work?" the answer is
probably less clear than it will be in another 25 years, when the
changes to economies, workplaces, and individual performance will
separate themselves from the end of the oil/automotive/steel age that
wound down in the late 20th century. The exciting news comes in the
realization that the future of work is not yet defined, making it
contingent on the attitudes and actions of many people, professors and
motorcycle mechanics hopefully among them.