13 facts about work in the age of automation

Posted by on November 1, 2016

In the 21st century human labor and, as a consequence, the foundation of the society will be changing dramatically due to the rapid progress of information technology. The shift will likely be similarly wide-reaching as the industrialization. Unfortunately, debates about the opportunities, threats and necessary steps often turn into arguments about ideology and world views, instead of objectively acknowledging the facts and proposing constructive, unbiased actions.

But what are those objective facts by the way, that apply no matter one’s view of the world and of the economic system? I’ll try to collect a few of them which, from my point of view, should represent the basis for a consensus.

  • Dozens of millions of jobs will disappear within the next years and decades due to automation and the progress in what commonly is referred to as “artificial intelligence”. Unlike in the past when only repetitive and low-skill jobs were replaced by computers, going forward, all skill-levels will be affected.
  • Especially the automation of degrading job types (such as doing the same monotonous task for 8-10 hours straight with only few breaks) is, from an objective perspective, a very good thing. After all, they are nowadays considered unworthy of a human being.
  • The majority of jobs is made up and not essential to the day-to-day survival of humanity (“bullshit jobs”). That’s ok but too often ignored. People have always been excellent at inventing new kinds of jobs that no one before would have guessed were needed, and they’ll keep doing that.
  • The amount of human labor directly required for the survival of humanity will keep shrinking thanks to automation.
  • What’s in the interest of the national economy is not necessarily best for the society and the well-being of the individual. From a national economic perspective, a call center sales agent who scams old people into purchasing highly overpriced services employing deliberate deception is considered a better and more productive citizen than someone who writes music at home all day long and occasionally plays at a local pub in exchange for a few free drinks and some tip. The latter person would be labeled as “lazy” since he/she does not contribute to the GDP and might even receive welfare benefits from the state.
  • The general criteria for what is being considering a “job” (in contrast to hobbies, side projects or leisure activities) is whether the individual receives a direct monetary remuneration for the task. That however makes the term more fluid than what’s often recognized, since every leisure activity can be turned into a job if someone would finance it. You probably are aware that some online gamers have managed to create and monetize huge audiences that watch their live-streamed gaming sessions. This is how “lazy” suddenly becomes “productive”.
  • People’s performance is generally best if they put their time and energy into something which they are passionate about or at least enjoy doing. Those who are stuck in a job which they despise or find entirely non-stimulating usually don’t give 100 percent.
  • In a fictive scenario, if you would offer all salaried employees to switch to an occupation of their choice while keeping their pay, many, and possibly even the majority, would choose a different job than their current one.
  • Generally, self-employed people work more than salaried workers, but on average they are more satisfied with what they are doing.
  • Humans who face existential fears and who have to put all their mental and physical energy into finding ways to pay their bills and put food on the table might become creative in that endeavor, but don’t have any capacity left to come up with long-term career strategies and ideas. That is one of the reasons why people keep working in jobs they are unhappy with: They cannot or don’t want to afford major, strategic risk taking due to the constant lack of cash.
  • The opposite type exists as well: An individual who thrives when the pressure to succeed and the negative consequences of failure are becoming intense. I claim that most people are not operating that way.
  • The trend of so called “on-demand jobs” which connects non-employed free agents to customers through online platforms such as Uber or Lyft means that an increasing number of people lose the benefits and social security of permanent jobs, exposing them to bigger risks. At the same time, their autonomy and independence from the duties of a traditional job increases as well.
  • If you put all ideology and moral judgements aside and just look at what’s technologically and economically feasible, then it is a fact that today’s wealthy countries could, in theory, afford to satisfy every person’s very basic needs at very low collective costs. Thanks to automation and economies of scale, digitization and innovative technology for low-bureaucracy, highly efficient administration (such as the Blockchain), welfare costs could be reduced significantly while having a much better impact. Unlike 100 or even 50 years ago, rich countries could theoretically ensure that no individual needs to face the fear of going hungry or having to live on the streets.

Whether the automation becomes an opportunity or a threat fully depends on which conclusions modern societies draw from this status quo.

Originally published on meshedsociety.com.

Capitalism is great. Capitalism is flawed. Both is true.

Posted by on July 20, 2016

Capitalism has been one of human civilization’s biggest success stories. Over a comparatively short amount of time, this economic system has improved the living conditions and opportunities of billions, created wealth for hundreds of millions, fostered stable democratic societies all over the world, and eventually (and likely not coincidentally) overlapped with a comparatively extraordinary period of peace (in historical context), dubbed “The Long Peace” by author Steven Pinker.

Capitalism also is causing humanity and the planet a fair share of headache. Growing inequality which leads to a shrinking middle class, to polarization and the dismantling of public services and the public good (recommended longread), the increasing influence of corporate interests on politics, massive tax evasion, the externalization of costs, the destruction of the environment as well as the often culturally insensitive export of Western (capitalist) values to and short-sighted exploitation of other countries (with various undesired consequences) are some of the issues that nowadays are hard to ignore.

These two paragraphs are not contradicting each other. They are both true. However, most debates about the state and future of Capitalism suffer from people’s tendency to pick one narrative and ignore the other. Often when people discuss the topic, the exchange quickly turns black or white.

On the one side you have unswerving pro-market optimists who can be recognized by their frequent references to little charts and graphs showing how on average, everyone’s life has gotten better (which is true). Their mistake is to see everything as a math problem and to only consider economic statistics, not the human condition and emotion. On the other side you have the critics who blame all the bad things in the world on capitalism, but who somehow manage to miss how everything described in the first paragraph also is a direct consequence or at least related to the rise of Capitalism.

Fixing the flaws of Capitalism is necessary. Many of the current political and geopolitical events and developments do not fit to Capitalism’s promise and previous track record of constant growth and steady improvement for everyone, which is supposed to turn people into optimists who expect a better future and act accordingly. At least in the Western world, pessimists abound, with already now concerning outcomes and noticeable stress being put on existing political and civil systems. That’s a clear sign that the Capitalist system needs an upgrade.

Unfortunately, thanks to the widespread inability to handle and accept two narratives about Capitalism simultaneously, removing the flaws of Capitalism and performing that upgrade is difficult. The believers want to protect their ideology of choice from any significant adjustments, and the anti-capitalists are longing for something entirely different, rejecting the basic principles of globalized market economics and profit seeking.

Therefore we are not really moving. Capitalism remains in its flawed state, the cracks in the wall keep growing, and debaters and policymakers are mostly occupied with dealing with the effects of all of this. And of course with defending their ideology.

But moving forward is possible. It initially only requires one thing: Accepting both that Capitalism is great, and that it needs to change in order to be fit for the 21st century. As everyone might have understood by now, this century doesn’t look to become a sedate one. Navigating through it with an economical system that is optimized to reduce polarization, tensions and conflicts as much as possible should be a first priority, shouldn’t it?

This post on Medium.com.

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When discussing wealth inequality, your historical statistics won’t help

Posted by on January 27, 2016

Whenever the discussion comes to the topic of wealth inequality, some people are quick to pull out statistics showing the overall increase in average wealth and well-being over the past 100 years. “Here”, they suggest, “over time, things have been getting better and better for billions, so why do you complain?! Is it a problem that for some, the gains have been bigger than for others?” I am quite tired of this line of argumentation. Because it disregards human nature.

How often do you catch yourself thinking how glad you are that your life is so much better and comfortable than your grandmother’s or grandfather’s life? You might occasionally express this in words, but how often do you truly feel that way? Now, how often do you catch yourself envying the wealth (or the things bought with that wealth) of another person? Maybe someone you know personally, or a public figure.

I think you see my point: Historical improvements to global wealth and average life-quality matter for statistics, but they don’t matter for what people feel. People don’t compare themselves with previous generations and keep praising their ability to watch TV and drink Coca Cola. People compare themselves to other people of their times. And THAT is why a rise inequality and the tension that follows has to be considered a threat to societies.

Should people be more thankful for what they have today in comparison to what their ancestors had in regards to quality of life? Some might think so, and pointing to statistics is their way to make their case. Factually and morally, that seems to be the most accurate perspective. But that’s just not how humans work. They feel short moments of thankfulness for what they have and enduring periods of dissatisfaction about what they don’t have.

That’s why there is no point in trying to argue inequality away with pointing out how much better things have become for the majority of people. This is like telling people they should stop downloading pirated content from the Internet. Yes, maybe they should. But if they won’t, it does not matter how much you think they are morally obliged to do so. You still have a problem.

The developed world is in a crisis of beliefs

Posted by on October 24, 2015

The urge to believe in something is part of human nature. No one can live a long life without having a belief in something. At least, I am not aware of anyone who has managed. Many people choose religion as their core belief, because it comes with a handy predefined set of rules and some kind of historic “credibility”. Others believe in materialistic things and the pleasure resulting from these, in political/philosophical ideologies, in space travel, singularity, immortality, animal rights, a better world, equality, freedom, democracy and so on. While most people combine multiple beliefs (often with one umbrella belief that dominates and influences all other sub-beliefs), everyone has chosen or being introduced to at least something to believe in at each moment of his/her existence.

Unfortunately, in the democratic and developed countries, I currently notice a crisis of beliefs. People struggle with finding something to believe in. There is a widespread disappointment in many of the modern “mainstream” beliefs. The era of constant economic growth has ended or at least taken a long pause. World peace looks as distant as it always has. The trust in the governing organizations and the democracy itself is eroding in many countries. The disruptive consequences of the digital revolution, of globalization, of climate change and the current migration wave cause a lot of people to worry about their personal well-being and standard of living. With the possible exception of climate change, these concerns often are either irrational/exaggerated or at least destructive and not very pragmatic. But they are persistent and hard to erase from people’s minds.

Many of the beliefs linked to mainstream ideologies have taken a lot of damage, thereby causing at least some people to turn to beliefs featuring intolerance, discrimination, extremism and fundamentalism. I see the rise of right-wing populism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism that can be witnessed in Europe as well as the U.S. as a direct consequence. If people do not see any benefit anymore in believing in mainstream ideologies that promise constant improvements for everyone, the seemingly logical response for some is to adopt a belief that exclusively promises constant improvements to their specific group (ethnical, cultural, religious etc), often through discrimination of other groups.

Assuming that having something to believe in is indeed part of human nature (I am not aware of facts indicating the opposite), the populist, racist, fascist, fundamentalist and reactionary beliefs that currently are on the rise can only be pushed back if a persuasive alternative belief is being provided.

Here is see the biggest failure of today’s political leaders in the Western world, and their biggest task: They need to give citizens something new to believe in. The old mainstream beliefs of the last century have lost a lot of their clout. That’s why new, inclusive, unifying and convincing beliefs are required (The thing about effective beliefs is that while they always come with uncertainty about their validity and realizability, they are good enough to actually being adopted by people).

As long as political and civil leaders do not create and present new kinds of beliefs that convincingly give the outlook of prosperity, common well-being and a better life for everyone, racist, fascist, fundamentalist and populist beliefs will remain and likely even spread even more.

That by the way is one of the main reasons why I want to see experiments with and implementations of an unconditional basic income. While it is unclear if it actually can work, it is a fresh, new kind of idea which in the best scenario would actually mean a huge step forward for humanity. It is a belief good enough to pursue, for now.

Don’t be offended

Posted by on January 12, 2015

A couple of years ago I started to inform myself about basic psychological processes and how they influence our actions and thinking. Since then I have gained much better insights into my own and other people’s emotions and way of handling different kinds of situations. One of the main aspects I have been focusing on is the feeling of being offended or hurt. I have come to realize how poisonous and toxic this specific thought mechanism is: Somebody else says or does something which upsets our ego and leads to a host of possible destructive responses. Nobody benefits, everybody gets miserable.

Today I believe that being offended is one of the worst, least desirable reactions to other people’s communication. Those who easily get offended make their own happiness dependent on other people – even total strangers. It’s a recipe for disaster, dispute and negativity.

The issue of people getting offended obviously is especially relevant these days. The terror attack against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hedbo would most likely not have happened if the attackers would not have seen the charicatures published by Charlie Hedbo as offensive.

When it comes to religion, people are especially likely to become offended, and this is nothing exclusive to Islam. There is very little tolerance for satire or jokes about religious sacred people or religions in general among religious people. That becomes a big problem when the consequence is a requirement that even people not belonging to a specific religion should respect the rules written in this specific religion’s holy book. 22 % of the world’s countries and territories still have anti-blasphemy laws, which means that there actually is a right not to be offended, which is valued much higher than freedom of expression.

I think this is wrong, and it does not have to be that way, if people would realize that giving in to the urge to be offended is a choice. We are capable of resisting this urge. In most scenarios, people should resist. And I am not only talking about religion. In general, if humans would stop going the easy way of being offended whenever they hear something their ego does not like, the world would be a better, more peaceful place.

There are certainly situations when it is fully justified to be offended. When the spouse, partner or a very good friend for no reason says provocative, hurtful things, then he or she probably deserves to get negative feedback. We usually hold people who are close to us or who we love to a higher standard than strangers on the street. And naturally, as a good human being, one does good in not purposefully hurt or offend others.

But in regards to other people that one has no close emotional connection with, or even strangers, we all would benefit from learning to control our reflex to be offended. Getting to the point where one can let go of whatever provocation or unpleasant comment one has been confronted with takes a while. It requires patience, training and the search for happiness that comes from within (meditation is a good practice to achieve that, because it teaches to observe your own thoughts and to let them go). But it pays off big time with increased happiness, less irritation and less time and energy wasted for unnecessary conflicts that in the worst case scenario might end very ugly or tragic.

Also, in a globalized, interconnected and multicultural world where people from many different backgrounds, cultures and religions mix and interact with each other, it is definitely not practical anymore to expect from all members of a society to follow and respect particular rules of certain ideologies and thought concepts, just to avoid offending others.

So my message is: Let’s learn to stop being offended, because it is a choice.

My home is where my suitcase is

Posted by on January 5, 2015

The past year has been my most intense in regards to travel. The digital nomadism lifestyle that I first tried in 2010 and that I immediately fell in love with is like an addiction – fortunately one with far more positive side-effects than negative ones.

One of the many great insights that come during a lifestyle that includes moving from one place to another, usually within a period of some weeks or months, is the realization of how little stuff one actually needs in order to function. While needs vary a lot from individual to individual, for me the optimal amount of physical things that I have to have access to has turned out to be what fits into one average travel suitcase. At first, this obviously was not a choice but simply a necessarily for flexible travel. Because carrying more than one suitcase of about 20 kilo when traveling the world for a longer period comes with additional costs and lots of hassle.

However, after some years of digital nomadism (including some occasional breaks of a couple of months in between at my homebase in Stockholm) I can state that there hardly ever was a situation when I was critically in need of something that I didn’t have in my suitcase. And in a real emergency situation, almost any issue can be solved and item purchased as long as one has Internet and a computer or mobile device.

What I also learned is that having access to even less stuff than what my suitcase includes can only be a solution for a couple of days, and it sabotages any attempt to feel “home” anywhere. Recently I went for a shorter trip from Stockholm with only hand luggage. When I came back to my place, for logistical reasons, my suitcase with its content was at a friend’s place. It took me some more days to pick it up. During that period I felt handicapped, despite staying at my apartment with all the other stuff stored that I never take anywhere. I still didn’t feel “home”. First when I had my suitcase and the things inside back, I was completed and fully functional.

I am aware that whether one likes the kind of life I am describing or not is highly dependent on individual preferences. The majority of people I know seem to prefer a less minimalistic, more settled way of living. Some others are even more nomadic and crazy for travel than me. Also, as soon as there are kids involved, the general conditions change completely, I assume.

Anyway, for the moment, my home is where my suitcase is. This feels so extremely liberating, I can barely find words to describe it.


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10 articles that I enjoyed reading this week

Posted by on December 30, 2014

Usually I publish this link list before or during the weekend. But due to the holidays the regular schedule is being paused. Instead, here is a Tuesday-edition.

If you are looking for a fresh link list with technology-only content, head over to meshedsociety.com.


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Books I read in 2014

Posted by on December 27, 2014

Publishing a list of the books that I read during a year is a tradition I started 2 years ago. The 2013 edition can be found here. This year, I have read more online content than ever before. Also I was quite busy traveling the world. However, I still managed to read some books that I really enjoyed. Here are this year’s favorites of mine:

You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (by David McRaney)

The Zero Marginal Cost Society (by Jeremy Rifkin)

Present Shock (by Douglas Rushkoff)

Everything is Bullshit (by Priceonomics)

Zero to One (by Peter Thiel)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (by Thomas Piketty)
Note: I tried hard but I could not finish until the end (like most people who started reading this exceptional work).

Das neue Spiel (by Michael Seemann, German only)

Die Paten des Internets (by Joel Kaczmarek, German only)


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Europe’s reactionary movement and the illusion that time can be turned back

Posted by on December 18, 2014

As a native German who moved to Sweden some years ago, I am trying to follow the public debate in both countries. Interestingly, right now both Germany and Sweden experience a wave of right-wing populism. Other European countries are seeing similar things happening. In Germany this trend is mainly represented by the advances of the new protest party AFD in some federal states as well as by the recent anti-islamization demonstrations (which, as it turns out, are less about well informed criticism of institutional religious extremism but about sheer xenophobia). Meanwhile in Sweden the right-wing populist party Sweden Democrats scored almost 13 percent in the recent parliamentary election. That result eventually led to a government crisis and the announcement of new elections planned for March 2015. In the public debate, members and supporters of the party, whose major goals are to strictly limit immigration to Sweden and to promote patriotism, have more confidence than ever before.

Much has been written about the reasons for the rise of (right-wing) populism in Europe. What is happening in Germany and Sweden right now is part of a major trend. I would describe it as the desire for simple solutions as well as for turning back the time to the “good old days”. The time when everything worked, when there were enough jobs, when most of the population had the same ethnical and cultural background, when the world order was seemingly easy to understand even for less politically interested people.

The public comments made by supporters of the neo-reactionary European movement reveal a host of perceived issues with the modern societes: Mass immigration is seen as a problem (oddly enough especially in those areas where only small numbers of immigrants live), as are feminism, the alleged manipulation through the media and the decrease in national autonomy due to the increased power of the European Union. There also is high regard for all kinds of conspiracy theories.

Essentially, sympathizers of this movement have lost their trust into the overall functioning and integrity of the society’s “operative system”. Instead they have created their own realities and “truths”. Ironically they are as convinced about their “truths” as their big enemy, the jihadist, is convinced about his beliefs. The similarities are astonishing.

The major cause that I see for this situation is the illusion that the clock can be turned back; that a complicated world characterized by highly interconnected interests, conflicts and power dynamics as well as by inequality, mass job-cuts due to automation, by religious tension, climate change and ongoing economic crises, can be fixed and brought back to balance with the recipes of the past. Or actually with one recipe of the past: Not letting too many foreigners moving in.

Those who spend a bit more time trying to understand today’s world without adding too much personal emotions and who consider different disciplines and dimensions, will necessarily come to the conclusion that there is no way back. Things will never be again the way there were. Genie is out of the bottle. For better or worse.

That’s the kind of fact that needs to be accepted by the reactionary movements’ supporters. This acceptance does not mean giving up on the idea of a better, more fair, more peaceful world. On the contrary: The world never was good, fair or peaceful (our memory is playing lots of tricks on us). But with all the new possibilities, technologies and scientific advancements, it could become – if people do not keep working against each other as much, and if they realize that holding on to the past won’t work because the world around their country’s borders won’t stop moving forward.

Politicians, society leaders and intellectual influencers have failed massively to create confidence into the future; they have failed to create a positive narrative that unifies people through an ambitious common goal, and to make sure that everybody has understood that there is no way of moving back anymore. Once that broad consensus has been reached, future discussions would be less poisonous, less tensioned and less destructive.


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9 articles that I enjoyed reading this week

Posted by on December 13, 2014

Some reading tips for the weekend. If you do not want to miss future posts, subscribe via FacebookRSS or E-Mail.

» I launched a new blog: meshedsociety.com. For a dedicated selection of links focusing on the tech world, head to the weekly link post from Thursday.

» Rise of the Machines: Downfall of the Economy?
Outstanding piece explaining the far-reaching changes to the economy caused by the rise of the Internet and IT. We have just seen the start of it.

» In the Golden Age of News Media
Publishing is changing rapidly. Some are pessimistic about it, others call it a golden age.

» My Computer Language is Better than Yours
The fact that IT giants like Google and Apple develop their own programming languages might be a reason for concern.

» The Guardian view on the freedom of the internet: it’s under attack around the world
With an increasing number of governments seeing the free Internet as a thread to the ruling class, censorship and destructive regulation increases everywhere.

» The case against human rights
Out of the box thinking: Since the quest for exporting (Western) human rights to the rest of the world has turned out to work rather unsatisfactory, this piece suggests that a different strategy should be applied.

» What are the risks of overtreating the many to help the few?
Is it worth to undertake preventive health measures with side effects on the individual and collective level when the risks are reduced on a very low level? Aeon Magazine tries to find an answer.

» Unhanded Camera & weaving a very visual web
Some good reflections by Om Malik about the future of photos in the digital age. He asks for filters to surface specific shots from our growing pile of photos.

» 10 Types of Odd Friendships You’re Part Of
I promise that everybody recognizes at least some patterns. Very entertaining and thought-provoking list.


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