Newsletter 2


Still working to secure a logo, over here. This week’s image was sent by a friend–if you’ve got a photo to share that says something about today’s economy, please email it to kati (at) hacktheunion (dot) org.

The singularity approaches

The White House held a Google Hangout to discuss the potential of robots to increase US economic activity by $100 billion over the next ten years. Roboticists* from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Texas A & M, and the amazing YA novelist John Green participated. Spoiler alert: the industrial accident that befalls Max in Elysium won’t actually be a problem in the future, because MIT will have figured out how to roboticize all the steps of production. Sadly, all those Task Rabbits who are cobbling together a living by assembling Ikea furniture soon will just be handing tools to a ‘bot. (Somehow, robot scientists seem to believe that they themselves are irreplaceable, while simultaneously developing robots that can made out of $10 worth of parts.) BTW–be careful. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics aren’t actually the law yet. Robots can hurt you.

This one’s not new–just new to me (and probably you)–Brian Arthur, an economist at PARC, writes about the ways that digitization is forming an invisible, second economy in a way that will certainly make you think differently about your next plane trip. In a week when every other tweet by Market Watch was about how you should delete all investing apps from your smartphone lest you accidentally do something stupid, it gave me pause.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

In The Rise of the Naked Economy, co-authors Ryan Coonerty & Jeremy Neuner compare the challenges of the digital economy to the changes wrought by the Agricultural & Industrial Revolutions. In this interview, Neuner talks about the social policy changes that need to be made in response to today’s changes. Here’s the money quote:

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 9.17.22 AM

Gallup this week put out their biennial survey “State of the American Workplace,” surveying the attitudes of US workers for the benefit of US employers. Major takeaway? Employee disengagement is costing the US roughly half a trillion dollars per year, so “Let’s get rid of managers from hell…” Yes, let’s.

A Canadian group, the Wagemark Foundation, has created a new standard to certify socially responsible businesses based on how much the company does to promote income equality through their own pay structures. Participating companies cannot have more than an 8:1 ratio between their highest- and lowest-paid earners. Pretty sure that Jamie Dimon won’t be applying for this one.

The Economist, of all places, talked about how the disaggregation of the workforce makes it harder for workers to organize to improve their livelihoods.

Geeking Out

If you’ve been wondering, since last week, just what you will print when your town library gets that 3D printer? Wonder no more. It’s time for your jaw implant.

Final thoughts

“America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Over the course of the twentieth century alone, real income per capita (adjusted for inflation) increased roughly sevenfold in the United States. As we have seen, so wealthy is our nation that were income divided equally today, all families of four would receive almsot $200,000. (Alternatively, of course, the workweek could be cut in half, with family income reduced on average to $100,000–roughly two times current median family income.” Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?

*BTW, kudos to the White House geeks for making sure that the panel of participants was gender balanced, and for highlighting a viewer-question to the women scientists–now time to work on the racial balance.

Newsletter #1

to the inaugural edition of the Hack the Union newsletter. If you’re receiving this email, you either asked me to keep you updated on my work, or you subscribed on the website. In the not-too-distant future, this site will have a real logo–until then, consider it a work-in-progress (well, probably after that too).

The intent here is not to recreate the many excellent lists that already do “news of the day” roundups, but to send out interesting or provocative articles that spark conversation or a new way of looking at things.

So let’s go:
In a break-through for advocates of the sharing economy, this week the CA Public Utilities Commission essentially green-lighted the continued operation of ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft & Sidecar. Everything becomes more real, when it’s subject to regulation, right?

If you’re not really clear on the benefits of the sharing economy, you might want to read this excellent primer of what’s in it for communities that expand access (to wit: “for every 15,000 cars a city could take off the ownership rolls, it could keep $127 million in the local economy annually (80% of car spending goes out of the local economy).”).

Meanwhile, back in the not-so-shared economy, did you know that in Australia, McDonald’s already pays a $15/hour minimum wage? The downside is that Aussie fast food managers seem to be speeding up the race to replace cashiers with computers to take your order of large fries and a coke. Plus side? In the future, those of us who have jobs that let us telecommute may NEVER need to leave the house!

Corporate campaigners, read this piece about Hyatt’s aggressive monitoring of social media–and why it led them to abandon a new marketing campaign, despite the fact that they had been working on it for months.

If you’re looking for a longer read
in the last days of summer, you might want to check out this in-depth look at a woman who survived a suicide attempt while working at Foxconn, and the working conditions that led her to make  the decision to take her own life.

For the organizers among us, you should really check out Rick Falvinge’s new bookSwarmwise, about how he built the Swedish Pirate Party from not existing to a point where they could win seats in Parliament in less than four years. Still think online organizing is a fad?

I’ll close by linking to two pieces that are linked, at least in my mind–the first is Irene Ros’ warning to her fellow developers to realize whether they are trying to solve the right “problem” in inventing new apps or products, and the second is our very first blog post here, which asks the question “So You Wanna Be a Disruptor?”

So You Wanna Be a Disruptor?

One of the major trends the tech community is promoting lately is a vision of a shared economy–where anyone with a car might become a taxi driver, and anyone with a guest bedroom can become a b & b owner. At its heart, the sharing economy has values that appeal to many of us–more cooperation between humans is a thing we’d like to see. Plus, it’s just geeky and cool—who doesn’t want a ride in a car that sports a pink mustache, or to stay in a treehouse in Hawaii?

The benefit of the sharing economy also releases us, to some degree, from the increasing need to own every possible device or tool we might occasionally have to use. The sharing economy works every time a group of neighbors band together to buy a snow blower, in a place where major snows happen only once or twice per year. One neighbor agrees to maintain the snow blower in exchange for a reduced financial outlay–nobody on the block has to shell out the whole chunk of money–and voila, a shared resource is born! Scale this up to a town-wide system for sharing a 3D printer, and members of your community can save some real money. The library, after all, is one of the original elements of the sharing economy, largely promoted in this country by a captain of industry.

I wonder, though, what people in the tech industry are doing today to understand the interests of those they are putting out of work with the innovations they design, other than bemoaning the idea that non-tech workers are resistant to change?

What are they doing to help us find solutions to the real problems of our economy–things like high unemployment, income inequality, or a political system that seems rigged to favor the rich? I can certainly understand the impulse to focus on things that seem fixable–like not being able to get a taxi late at night. But if you really want to disrupt the way the economy works, why not start trying to figure out why increased productivity hasn’t led to an increase in the quality of life for most people?

It was Henry Ford, after all (hardly a pro-worker guy) who understood that, in addition to making advances in technology, he also had to pay workers a decent wage if he wanted a market for his products. How are you going to get to build the next billion-user app or device, if the US standard of living continues to sink? Does it make sense to base a business plan on the idea that people will continue to pour thousands of dollars a year into data plans to enable them to do “jobs” that don’t allow them to feed themselves or their children?

There has been some recent interest in the idea that the tech industry, in particular—and big business, in general—has some role to play in helping to overcome inequality, and invest in a shared public good. What if there was a conversation inside the industry about how to advance public policy that allowed people to work fewer hours, and still be able to afford things? To advance the idea that maybe if we’re all going to work more contract jobs, we should design a social safety net including healthcare and retirement security that welcomes people moving fluidly between work and unemployment, instead of discouraging fluidity? If the industry is destroying jobs faster than it’s creating new ones, what is it doing to convene a conversation about how to protect the out-sourced or underskilled, besides just saying, “tough luck”?

I consider myself to be an amateur geek. I’m an early adopter, an itinerant gamer, a tech fan. Like many geeks, I came to my love of technology through science fiction, and it taught me one important thing:

We’ve always got choices to make, when we adopt new technologies-are we embracing a future where technology serves to advance the interest of all humanity? Or are we embracing a future where technology serves the interests of the few—the tech-savvy, the smartest, the rich?

We need tech-savvy people to join the fight for economic justice. Because at the end of the day, the disruption that we can cause there has more potential for creating public good than any one company can ever hope to achieve. A friend of mine starts every day with the tweet, “A Better World is Possible.” Let’s make that true, together.