If It Can Be Automated, It Will Be Automated


Spencer Cooper | Flickr

Management by algorithm. It’s not just the gig-economy platforms that are using code to apply factory-style productivity principles and redefine the nature of employment. Software to manage shifts and boost sales is fast spreading to the retail and service economies (The Financial Times) and turning the lives of workers there upside down. In one sense, this trend is simply the rebirth of the stopwatch-driven “scientific management” techniques that Frederick Taylor introduced a century ago, when “Taylorism” became synonymous with a kind of dehumanizing focus on productivity metrics. In another, it represents an entirely new way of approaching the relationship between employer and worker: less committed on both sides, more fluid, continuously tweaked. If we manage this change thoughtfully and sensitively, it has the potential to make businesses way more efficient and give employees much more freedom. But if we blow it, we could be in for an era of labor-management strife like we haven’t seen since — well, since the era of Taylorism.

The perfect company, piece by piece. In a new series, Quartz sets out to find companies that have aced specific aspects of their businesses. WordPress maker Automattic, for example, makes a fully distributed organization work by regularly swapping new tools into its communications kit. Japan’s MUJI tackles sustainability through nuts-and-bolts thinking rather than flashy do-gooder campaigns. Online furniture merchant Wayfair rethinks customer service by hiring millennials with a passion for gaming who are good at problem-solving, then giving them the power to authorize returns or take other quick steps to resolve issues. You can’t cut and paste these exceptional parts into any kind of “perfect” whole, of course. But there’s plenty to learn from each patch of the quilt.

How Pittsburgh became ground zero for Uber’s self-driving car. Carnegie Mellon and its robotics expertise drew Uber to Pittsburgh, and then Pittsburgh’s mayor welcomed the company’s efforts to launch a live public test of its autonomous vehicle program — mostly by not getting in the way (The New York Times). Pennsylvania’s existing laws and regulations also make it more hospitable to the experiment. Pittsburgh’s hands-off approach has brought innovation and investment its way: Uber now has 500 employees in Pittsburgh working on the rollout, which is planned for this month (with a human monitor in each car). Critics complain that the city is giving Uber too much leeway; advocates say the transition can’t happen fast enough, given the fatality rate of our present, human-driven system.

Calculating the social benefits of Uber. Pittsburgh may love Uber, but Austin recently drove the company out. How much do people lose when that happens? Five economists ran the numbers on the total “social value” Uber provides in the U.S. — and pegged it at $6.8 billion a year (Bloomberg). That’s based on a calculation that, for every dollar consumers spend on an Uber ride, they’re getting $1.60 in value. (This surplus value consists of differences between what people actually paid and what they would have been willing to pay — lots more details in the paper.) This is certainly a useful exercise: We need to gather more and better data about the impact of services like Uber if we’re going to make good choices about them. But this study’s combination of admittedly “back of the envelope” calculations with the apparatus of academic research leaves lots of questions unanswered.

Apple shakes up its driverless car effort. Apple’s project, code-named Titan, recently laid off dozens of people, and over the summer the company brought a veteran manager named Bob Mansfield out of semi-retirement to restart the effort (The New York Times). It’s always tough to know what’s really going on inside Apple, and the company has never officially acknowledged that its effort even exists. The Times reports that employees were told the recent shakeup constitute a “reboot”; Bloomberg has described it as a shift from hardware to software, one where Apple will concentrate less on producing an entire vehicle and more on building underlying technology systems. That sounds very unlike Apple, which has always prided itself on bottom-to-top software-hardware integration of its products. The company might be trying something new — or faking competitors out.

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