Re-humanizing work

Machines do many things better than humans –except at being human.

image: This Caring Home

Advances in technology have always generated anxiety. Workers during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century thought they would go “the way of the horse.” Steam-powered tractors had replaced horses and they feared, with spinning frames and power looms, that they were next.

The fear of job-loss due to automation is unavoidable. However, humans are better at “empathy jobs” and that’s where the future of work is heading.

A recent report from Canada’s Brookfield Institute studied Canada’s labour market and found that 42 per cent of Canadian occupations are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years (Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s Social Policy in the New Age of Work from the Mowat Centre.)

The jobs most at risk are in the trades, transportation, equipment operation, natural resources, agriculture, sales and service, manufacturing, utilities, administration, and office support.

Some of these jobs in the trades, often done by men, are mind-numbing and dangerous –in locations isolated from families that lead to alcoholism, self-medication of drugs, and death from drug overdoses (the trades are over-represented in  fentanyl deaths in B.C.). Other than good wages, these are jobs that won’t be missed.

Jobs at the least risk are in arts, culture, recreation, sports, management; professional positions in law, education, health and nursing. We won’t see robots playing hockey or robot actors on the stage any time soon. Humans are still the best at jobs where the human touch is necessary like health care, child care, and care for the growing number of seniors.

However, not all empathy jobs pay equally. While some jobs are well-paid because they are unionized -such as teachers and health care workers- others like private child-care facilities are not. Some work, usually done by women, such as a daughter caring for her aging parents or a grandmother caring for grandchildren, is not paid at all.

Another source of job-growth is the hybridization of machines and humans. In the gig economy of piecemeal work, technology directs workers. Some workers like these hybrid jobs because they offer flexibility. Employers like them because workers are “contractors” not employees. As such, companies don’t have to pay benefits.

Britain is making changes to the working conditions of workers in the gig economy by ensuring that “vulnerable workers,” as defined by low wages, have access to basic holiday and sick pay.

Workers in low-paid empathy jobs and workers in the gig economy are in the same predicament –low wages with few benefits. That’s where the Canadian government could help with programs like employment insurance, sick leave and universal Pharmacare.

Investments in childcare and home care for seniors would not only employ more empathy workers but improve the conditions of all low-wage workers including those in the gig economy.

Governments stepped in during the Industrial Revolution to implement labour laws. Governments must step in now to strengthen programs to ease the transition into the digital economy.

Surely the things we value, like human interaction, can pay as well dangerous works like resource extraction. Surely workers the gig economy can have both flexibility and security.



The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”

Immigrant women’s STEM skills untapped

If it makes sense for girls to enter programs in science, technology, engineering and math, then it makes even more sense to employ immigrant women who already have these skills.

    image: CIVIC York

Girls should to be encouraged to enter STEM fields. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops is holding a camp for girls at Harper Mountain this summer. The program will provide positive female role models and build confidence in STEM studies.

It’s not just a question of gender equity but one of necessity. Canada faces a skills shortage. Jobs are waiting to be filled. TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar says:

“The top item on the innovation minister’s national agenda is ‘the need to secure the right people—including women, immigrants, and training for the next generation—who can help us close the gap between the number of jobs posted and the number of workers available to fill them (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2017).’”

In the field of information and communications technology alone, there will be a shortage of 182,000 workers by 2019.

What’s missing from this equation is the fact that immigrant women have these skills and that talent is being wasted.

Immigrant women aged 25 to 34 are twice as likely to have a STEM degree as Canadian women of that age (23 versus 13 per cent).  Not just women but all immigrants, on average, are highly trained says Muzaffar:

“Almost nine out of 10 newcomers with credentials above a high school diploma had a university degree at the time of landing in Canada. Among these, 82% held degrees in fields of study ranging from engineering to agriculture, biology, physics, mathematics and health sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences. Two-thirds held professional jobs before immigrating to Canada; in management and business administration, natural sciences, health and education.”

Here are the factors that discourage talented immigrant women from being employed:

Immigrant families arrive with a lot of talent but little money. The husband finds work wherever he can, usually in a low-paying job like driving a taxi. Since the cost of child care is prohibitively expensive, the wife stays at home with the kids. The longer she is out of a job that employs her skills, the less likely she will ever be employed. Each passing year removes her connection to the workforce.

Even if immigrant families find daycare with friends or grandparents, they face the problem of having their education and work experience recognized. Accreditation can be a frustrating and expensive process. B.C. and Alberta are the worst when it comes to accreditation.

Immigrants who represent visible minorities face discrimination.

If an immigrant woman finds work in her field of expertise, it is likely to be in a temporary job with relatively low wages. There is an economic incentive for employers to keep immigrants and all women marginalized.

If we are serious about putting talented immigrant women to work, the solutions are obvious: affordable day care, simple and cheap accreditation, consolidation of part-time positions to full-time, acknowledge that we discriminate and correct our colour vision.

The future of smart radios

I imagine that the future of radio will combine traditional fm with the technology of smart phones.

I’m not talking about the distant future: the fm broadcast protocols already exist and most cell phones already have an fm radio chip, although you’d never know it. Chris Burns wonders why. In his article for and he explains how you can find out if your phone has the chip:

“A whole bunch of smartphones out on the market today have FM radio capabilities – but their owners don’t know it. There’s no real good reason for this lack of knowledge save the lack of advertising on the part of phone makers. . . Today we’re listing the whole lot of phone devices that can run FM Radio right out the box.”

I first heard about the fm chip in cell phones last year on CBC Radio’s Spark. Barry Rooke explained how useful they could be. They could be used where no cell service exists and in an emergency when cell towers are down as in the wildfires of Fort McMurray in 2015.

Rooke is the executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association and he’s formed a consortium of broadcasters, including CBC, and radio listeners who would like to see the FM radio chip activated.

It doesn’t even have to be a smartphone to receive fm. A friend bought a simple cell phone in Mexico with the fm chip activated for $22 dollars, and that included free calls for eight days -no contract (it galls me how much more Canadians pay for cell phones, but that’s another column). You can hardly buy an fm radio alone for that amount.

The innovation that I imagine would be the use of graphics in smartphones. Some of the fm audio spectrum would be partitioned off for text and lo-res graphics. The text could include lyrics of the song being played and a picture of the artist, news, weather, sports, traffic, stock reports. In poor countries where the phone is more common than radios, it could include voting information, crop and commodity reports. Text and graphics could be saved for future reference.

The graphics would be stacked on the original signal with a subcarrier much in the way that left and right channels are now carried on regular fm as described in Wikipedia. The protocol already exists for car radios and would need to be adjusted for smartphones.

The best system would be a digital overhaul of the fm modulation signal. But that won’t happen because radio stations must be received by regular receivers as well as the new smart radios.

Broadcasters would never transmit a signal that can only be received by relatively few. That’s what happened when stereo radio was introduced. The new stereo signal had to be received by old mono radios as well as the new until the new technology was adopted.

The push for smart radios won’t come from cell phone service providers –they would prefer that you pay for data. It must come from broadcasters and listeners.

Clash of law, politics, treaty rights, and technology at Site C dam

Protests continue at the Site C dam location on the Peace River despite a court that allows building.  The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled in September that attempts by the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations to quash an environmental certificate issued by the government were invalid.

site c

“I am satisfied that the petitioners [first nations] were provided a meaningful opportunity to participate in the environmental assessment process,” Justice Robert Sewell wrote.

That didn’t stop Arthur Hadland from blocking construction. The long-time politician and area farmer was charged with mischief after being arrested earlier this month. “I don’t want to be a hero,” Hadland told CBC News. “Someone has to speak for the river.” He’s a Peace River Regional District director and ran as an independent in the last provincial election. Pat Pimm, who won the riding for the B.C. Liberals, is in favour of the dam.

Helen Knott of the Prophet River First Nation is occupying an historic trading post site in protest of the construction. Knott and her group are committed to defending treaty rights, even if it means being arrested.

“It’s not necessarily anybody goes into it with that idea, like, yeah, we’re going to be arrested, right? It’s that, yeah, we’re committed to saving this tract of land and to, you know, actively use our treaty rights here,” she told CBC News.

Knott’s view epitomizes a clash of cultures in B.C. This province is unique in Canada in that only two historical treaties were signed with indigenous people. As a result the question of land ownership remained unsettled for much of B.C. until the Tsilhqot’in decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. It ruled that, yes, B.C. natives had aboriginal title to a 1,750 square kilometres region.

The implications of the Supreme Court ruling are unclear. Globe and Mail reporter Jeffrey Simpson says: “The court’s ruling was complicated, which might explain the variety of interpretations. It did say that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation had aboriginal title over a portion of the land it had claimed, but by no means all of it.”

B.C.’s aboriginal leaders have a different interpretation. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and representatives of the First Nations Summit and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations argue that the ruling gives title to aboriginals over all of British Columbia, not just pieces where the courts decide title exists.

In a press release last June, First Nations affirmed that in one of four principles: “1) Acknowledgement that all our relationships are based on recognition and implementation of the existence of indigenous peoples inherent title and rights, and pre-confederation, historic and modern treaties, throughout British Columbia.”

In their view, in light of the ruling, nothing has changed from before European settlers came here.

From a technical viewpoint, there’s disagreement about the need for this dam. I argued a year ago that, while dams are an excellent complement to solar and wind, Site C will produce power that we don’t need now; especially not now that the scaled-down LNG plants won’t need the electricity. While the technology is sound, the location at site C isn’t at this time.



Refugee crisis triggers basic human impulses

The impulse to bring Syrian refugees into Canada is a fundamental human characteristic. So is the suspicion that they are going to harm us.

Our human species, Homo sapiens, successfully populated the entire planet because of, not in spite of, these seemingly contrary drives says Professor Marean of the University of Arizona.

Homo Sapiens

At first, our ancestors remained contained in the mother continent, Africa. Shortly after we emerged, a global cooling trend that lasted from 195,000 to 125,000 years ago significantly reduced our numbers. But the next time a glacial cooling trend came along, we had changed.

“The emergence of the strange brew of killer and cooperator may well explain why, when glacial conditions returned between 74,000 and 60,000 years ago, once again rendering large swathes of Africa inhospitable, modern humans did not contract as before.”

What happened the first to second glacial ages was a genetic change that made us more cooperative. At the same time we acquired new weapons technology.

The genetic change that selects for cooperation happens when a food source is rich and concentrated. Under those circumstances, tribes find it beneficial to collectively defend those resources so that unrelated people, who may even speak a different language, cooperate to protect the resource. Professor Marean figures that one likely location where this change took place was Pinnacle Point on the coast of what’s now South Africa. The concentrated resource was rich shellfish beds.

Where food resources are thinly spread, it’s pointless to try to collectively defend them. “If the food cannot be defended or it is too costly to patrol, then aggressive behaviour is counterproductive.

“This principle still holds today: ethnic groups and nation-states fight viciously over dense, predictable and valuable resources such as oil, water and productive agricultural land.”

Add technology to the genetic trait and you have a powerful mix. Throwing spears, especially a leverage-assisted spear called the atlatl, allowed hunters to strike at a distance. The initial strike would not kill large prey but once the animal is run to its knees through exhaustion and blood loss, the final slaughter could be finished from a distance, perhaps with the aid of a poison-tipped spear.

Without spears, evidence indicates that Neanderthal hunters suffered serious wounds as the fallen animal lunged forward.

The first foray out of the mother continent, 100,000 years ago, went badly and expansion into Europe failed. The next time would be different. Equipped with the genetic disposition of cooperation and the technology of spears, Neanderthals and other human species could not compete.

And even when we made love, not war, with other human species we would out-compete them for resources. And make love we did. Humans outside of Africa sill carry genes from other species.

“When resources and land get sparse, we designate those who do not look or speak like us as “the others,” and then we use those differences to justify exterminating or expelling them to eliminate competition.”

Whether the impulse of inclusion or expulsion arises when dealing with Syrian refugees depends on how we view them. One inclination is to welcome them as cooperators in developing a rich resource. The other is to treat them as dangerous competitors for the resources of Canada.

Get the message out call your kid “Bud Light”

I naively thought that my FaceBook posts appeared in the order sent. Not so. Look closely and you’ll notice that some posts hang around forever and others you don’t see at all.

It’s because an algorithm controls them, tailored to you; your “likes” and postings you respond to.


When you think about it, it’s bizarre communication system. “It seems like a science fiction dystopia,” in which Big Brother controls our perception warns Christian Sandvig on CBC radio’s Spark.

Yet many FaceBook users aren’t even aware of the algorithms. They wonder why some friends never post anything, oblivious of the machinations.

Others know how to “game” the system by using key words that boost their postings; words such as “congratulations” even when it’s inappropriate. For example: “Congratulations, Canada is at war in Iraq.”

Or they use brand names to punch through the happy filter says Sandvig. “Isn’t my baby, Bud Light, cute,” jokes the professor of Communications at the University of Michigan.

Zeynep Tufekci has a similar concerns. While Twitter lit up with postings over the racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri, when a young black man was shot by a white police officer, FaceBook was strangely silent. It wasn’t lack of interest.  Tufekci found out that FaceBook friends were very active with postings about the explosive atmosphere.

Tufekci realized that FaceBook was deciding what should be of interest to her. “There was this disquieting moment because I really don’t want a world in which FaceBook decides which of my friends’ postings I am going to see.”

Algorithms are not necessarily bad. But in the happy FaceBook world of congratulations, wedding announcements, and baby pictures, algorithms are crafted with a certain motive in mind. After all, FaceBook is a commercial enterprise. They are selling your eyeballs to advertisers. While their algorithms are not transparent, their motives are. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if FaceBook algorithms are designed around likes and purchase behaviour.”

Social media have a moral obligation to users, not just  commercial obligations to advertisers. “They are not just selling shoes. We made them successful through use of our friends.”

We need to know things that may not be delightful. “What if a friend is contemplating suicide, and FaceBook decides I don’t want gloomy thoughts.”

Not only does FaceBook have a moral obligation to users as a clear channel of communication, it risks financial decline by being boring. In comparison, the drama of the unfiltered world of Twitter makes interesting.

However, even Twitter is thinking of tweaking their chronological stream though algorithms to stem the torrent.

Well designed algorithms are a useful thing. Google does a good job of anticipating what I’m looking for. Apparently, so does Netflix. My braking algorithm does a better job of stopping my car than I could under difficult conditions.

FaceBook should give us more access to our algorithm so that we can customize it. The tweaking allowed now is laughable. You can adjust the news feed from “top stories” to “most recent” but as my niece tells me, FaceBook switched her back three times in the last few weeks. Choice is a temporary option, it seems.

Hectic lifestyle catching up with Canadians’ health 

“Technology has been a rapid heartbeat, compressing housework, travel, entertainment, squeezing more and more into the allotted span,” says social historian Theodore Zeldin.

No one expected that the result of technology would be the feeling that life moves to fast.  Technology was supposed to reduce work and give more leisure time.

The effect has been just the opposite.   Technology takes more time from us than it saves.  The faster technology operates, the less time we have.

The pace of life has accelerated.  We have sped up in an attempt match our lifestyles to the to speed of technology.  “The DOOR CLOSE button in elevators, so often a placebo, with no function but to distract for a moment those riders to whom ten seconds is an eternity,” says James Gleick in his book FSTR (he has removed the vowels to convey the idea that we are in a frenzied hurry to save time).

Stress from too little time is taking it’s toll, says Statistics Canada.  They followed more than 10,000 people over 6 years and found that Canadians are getting sick because they are trying to do too many things at once.

The high level of stress in men and women has led to health problems such as arthritis and rheumatism, back problems, chronic bronchitis and stomach or intestinal ulcers.  Men tend to get heart disease while women get asthma and migraines.

The use of TV remote controls has increased the speed of commercials and news coverage.  If  a commercial doesn’t grab you in a few seconds,  you’re off to another channel.  In 1968, politicians could expect 40 seconds to answer questions about complex issues.  Now it’s less than 10 seconds.  Only the superficial and glib survive.

Everyday conversations have become compacted.  If someone can’t make their point in a minute, we find our remote control fingers twitching.

Leisure is not a lifestyle, it’s a business.  Corporations have created the leisure industry -the term itself an oxymoron.  As things speed up, we have less time to relax and the solution is to pack more intense pleasures into less time.  Maximize the precious little time we have.

Now you can buy a boat or snowmobile, holiday vacation or ski weekend that packs maximum enjoyment into those moments.  The speed of leisure time exceeds that of work.  We want to get back to work just so that we can relax.

There is opportunity in haste.   Fast food restaurants cater to our need to have food now.   Marketers anticipate our frenzy with microwave ovens, quick video playback, and fast credit.  A medication is marketed for women who don’t have time for a yeast infection.  “As though slackers might have time for that,” says Gleick.

What are we doing with all that spare time that labour-saving devices provide?  For one thing, we’re sitting in cars, especially in big cities.  Cars are slowing at the same rate that waistlines are increasing.  More cars on the same old highways means that everyone is going nowhere fast.

There is a solution.  Urban planners could design communities where citizens could walk to work, shopping, and schools.  But oil companies would protest. They prefer that we sit in our cars with engines running, regardless of whether we are going anywhere.

We have less time for sleep.  The National Sleep Foundation estimates that average sleep has dropped buy 20 per cent in the last century.   The result is general fatigue and exhaustion the affects productivity and health.  Driver’s loss of attention results in more accidents.   “Eventually, if the sleep debt becomes large enough, we become slow, clumsy, stupid and, possibly, dead,” says Canadian psychologist Stanley Coren.

We like sex but we aren’t getting much.  One of the most comprehensive  surveys on the subject was done in 1994 by the University of Chicago.  They found that the average time devoted to sex is 4 minutes a day.  You, of course, get more but remember that these are averages. This includes not only intercourse but sex-related activities such as fantasizing over sexy billboards as we sit in our traffic-jammed cars.

“Time is a gentle deity,” said Greek philosopher Sophocles.  For him, maybe.  These days it just cracks the whip.