WFD | Questioning the Unquestionable
| Zygmunt Bauman | Pay Algorithms | Fair AI | Mad World, Broken System | Nine Lies |
Beacon NY | 2019–11–08 | The title is drawn from Zygmunt Bauman, featured as the quote of the day.
We’ve fallen off the cliff of autumn into real winter all at once. Below freezing most of the day, and snow forecast. Winter’s here, and nobody asked me.
Quote of the Day
Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.
| Zygmunt Bauman
Delivery drivers for Instacart, Postmates and others say algorithms are destabilizing their pay | Abha Bhattarai digs into the vagaries of the food delivery services, where precarity is built into the pay schemes. There is no certainty in what a worker’s pay will be, and the companies keep changing the deal [emphasis mine]:
Filling and delivering grocery orders is labor-intensive and costly, and drivers for many third-party platforms say they are being wrung out in ways that ultimately result in lower pay and less transparency about how their wages are calculated. Their pay is typically structured on an automated maze of moving parts — including order size, driver availability and driving distance. But with one tweak of an algorithm, companies can effectively change wages for hundreds of thousands of contract workers, who are not guaranteed an hourly minimum or other employee protections.
“These companies got established, they got good workers, and now they’re following a classic business playbook: squeezing workers as a first-line approach to making profits,” said Erin Hatton, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo who studies labor issues. “This technology — which could easily be used to increase transparency — is actually being used to do the opposite.”
Experts who study the gig economy say they expect pay rates to inch lower in coming months, as companies such as DoorDash and Instacart take steps to go public. And, experts say, they fear that any pullback in consumer spending could also have an outsize effect on their pay — grocery delivery and takeout orders are, after all, relatively easy targets if costs need to be reined in.
“These workers are very much on their own,” said Alexandrea Ravenelle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy.” “All of the power in the gig economy is held by the platforms. Workers are constantly being rated and ranked, and are competing against each other for pay.”
That “game-ification” of gig work — offering sporadic bonuses for delivering a certain number of orders, for example — allows companies to keep workers on their toes without committing to higher pay long-term, she said. And the opaque nature of algorithm-heavy platforms, she said, means companies can make incremental changes without raising red flags. “It’s not even like they have to change an hourly rate across the board,” Ravenelle said. “There is no hourly rate.”
The piece goes on for pages with stories from workers who can’t predict their cash flow or estimate taxes.
Are Your Algorithms Upholding Your Standards of Fairness? | Michael Li demonstrates that using profitability to roll out new services can lead to profoundly unfair results, as in the case when Amazon rolled out same-day delivery areas based on the prevalence of Prime members in those zip codes:
Given historical patterns of racial inequality, profitability-focused metrics can exhibit a stark bias against minorities. In fact, the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars recipients of federal funding from using “facially neutral” practices that have unjustified negative impact on members of a protected class. Even if the law isn’t directly applicable for many companies that don’t receive federal funds, it still provides a good guide to societal expectations.
The World Has Gone Mad and the System Is Broken | Ray Dalio has looked into the crystal ball:
At the same time as money is essentially free for those who have money and creditworthiness, it is essentially unavailable to those who don’t have money and creditworthiness, which contributes to the rising wealth, opportunity, and political gaps. Also contributing to these gaps are the technological advances that investors and the entrepreneurs that I previously mentioned are excited by in the ways I described, and that also replace workers with machines. Because the “trickle-down” process of having money at the top trickle down to workers and others by improving their earnings and creditworthiness is not working, the system of making capitalism work well for most people is broken.
This set of circumstances is unsustainable and certainly can no longer be pushed as it has been pushed since 2008. That is why I believe that the world is approaching a big paradigm shift.
or as Choire Sicha once wrote:
Capitalism is like a vat of boiling oil. Sure, you’d rather not be in the vat at all. But there’s nothing worse than being halfway submerged.
Theodore Kinni reviews his choices for the best three management books in Best Business Books 2019: Management, and picks Nine Lies About Work, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall as the best of the year, characterizing it as ‘a stealth attack on the whole discipline of management’ [emphasis mine]:
“As you read, you’ll realize that these Nine Lies have taken hold because each satisfies the organization’s need for control,” write authors Marcus Buckingham, whose previous books were instrumental in extending strengths-based practice to business, and Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco. “This is why you are told that your organization’s culture is monolithic, that the plan must be adhered to, that work must be aligned through cascaded goals, that humans must be molded into well-roundedness and given constant feedback until they become so, and that each one of us must rate the others so as to conform most closely to the prescribed models of leadership, performance, and potential.”
What’s the problem with control? Nothing, in small doses. But taken to extremes, control quashes individuality, and all the energy and creativity that accompanies it. Excessive control turns people into automatons — which brings to mind a connection to the ongoing debate involving technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning: With machines becoming capable of imitating humans, why would any company need or want humans to imitate machines?
Managers won’t be surprised by some of the nine lies that Buckingham and Goodall seek to expose. Consider Lie #6: “People can reliably rate other people.” After several pages describing the ubiquitous, increasingly complex systems designed to rank employee performance and potential, they drop the bomb: “It is going to bother you to learn, then, that in the real world none of this works. None of the mechanisms and meetings — not the models, not the consensus sessions, not the exhaustive competencies, not the carefully calibrated rating scales.…”
I’m adding Nine Lies to my reading list. I’ve discussed it before, back in May, which was inspired in part by Buckingham and Ashley’s HBR article, The Feedback Fallacy. At the time I wrote Some Feedback About Feedback, in which I said,
The only area where we can rely on a person as a source of truth is about their own feelings, not about others’ capabilities.
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