Scratch Any Innovation, You’ll Find Human Labor


Andy Armstrong | Flickr

Barefoot miners clamber down tunnels so we can have cheap batteries. Apple, like everyone who else who makes devices that depend on rechargeable batteries, needs cobalt. 60 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo — from places like Kolwezi, in southern Congo, which features in an in-depth (and beautifully designed) Washington Post report on the cobalt supply chain. Cobalt here is mined by hand, almost always by impoverished people working in inhuman conditions — an “informal army” of barefoot “artisanal miners,” a euphemistic label for the subsistence-level work. Children wash the raw cobalt (in the same water their communities use to bathe and water their crops) and then it’s shipped off to China, where it gets put into lithium-ion batteries. Those batteries power phones, laptops, and now electric autos. The supply chain is complex and involves lots of handoffs from one company to another, which makes accountability hard. Many of the companies the Post contacted acknowledge that they need to set and enforce higher standards. The tough part is insuring that such demands actually translate to better conditions for the Congo miners at the other end of the chain.

Blue Apron’s warehouse woes. Like many startups, Blue Apron, the meal-kit delivery service, has scaled up fast, building warehouses and hiring workers to meet demand. Along the way, it also faced fines for an unusually large number of health and safety violations. That’s according to an investigation in Buzzfeed that focuses on Blue Apron’s facility in Richmond, Calif. Blue Apron created a lot of jobs in Richmond, and the hardscrabble city badly needed them. But the company “was unprepared to properly manage and care for those workers,” and the “chaotic, stressful environment” in its refrigerated warehouse made work an ordeal. The problems peaked one day in Aug. 2015 with two separate threats of violence and the conclusion of a tough review by workplace safety regulators. Since then, things have improved to some degree. But for Blue Apron, as for so many other companies seeking to transfer the efficiencies of the digital realm into the physical world, the Facebook mantra of “move fast and break things” turns out to be lousy advice. Food prep is difficult and potentially dangerous work. Blue Apron and its peers owe it to their workers and customers to find a better balance between scale and humanity.

Melinda Gates wants to make more room for women in tech. When Gates graduated from Duke with a computer science degree in 1987 and took a job at Microsoft, a third of such degrees earned in the U.S. went to women. Today, it’s less than a fifth. Now she has announced a plan to turn some of the Gates Foundation’s formidable resources to tackle this issue (Backchannel). We don’t know the root of this problem: Could it be that games, computing’s starter drug, have become too male-oriented and turn young girls off? Or that the “leaky pipeline” of the educational system places one hurdle after another in the way of interested young women and drives out all but the most stubborn? Whatever the cause, it’s a disturbing and unacceptable situation for an industry that has a longstanding gender problem. Gates says she’s going to take some time to collect good data, then make some investments.

An old law makes it hard to monitor new discrimination. “Pair testing” is how legal and regulatory watchdogs gather real-world evidence of hiring discrimination: You submit two otherwise identical fictional resumes, one for a male applicant and one for a female, and see who gets hired. But as more and more hiring gets done online, there’s a problem: Such testing is effectively illegal (The New Yorker). That’s thanks to the Reagan-era Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, whose expansive terms allow companies to enforce all kinds of restrictive terms-of-service rules. Those rules make it nearly impossible for researchers to gather the kind of evidence they need to make discrimination claims stand up in court. The ACLU has mounted a challenge to such rules, and legislators have proposed modifying the law to put some limits on all-powerful terms-of-service claims. (It’s known as “Aaron’s Law,” after the late information-rights activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself while under CFAA indictment.) Change here would be welcome — along with some industry support.

When is a financial bubble not a bubble? Exuberance can be rational or irrational — it just depends on when you stop the clock. “It’s only a bubble if return prospects don’t improve after prices fall,” writes Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund). By this principle, the dot-com stocks of the 1990s were indeed a bubble — but the internet industry itself was certainly not, if you could wait out the 2001–3 downturn. Like so much else in life, distinguishing between dangerous bubbles and normal cycles requires “humility and patience.”

Featured in NewCo Shift: The Morality of Surge Pricing (Part II). Uber’s surge pricing is less about making a quick buck than devising a flexible pricing system that actually shares information efficiently through the traffic system, writes Russ Roberts. Also: Douglas Rushkoff is assembling all the innovative people and ideas he discovered as people reacted to his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and putting them in a new podcast called Team Human.

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