Saturday Ramblings (31st July 2015)

Trying to condense some of the stuff I’ve read / watched / listened to this week into some semi-coherent thoughts, under some broad themes.

Outsider Startups

The first episode of The Awl podcast is out. Like the rest of The Awl, its very media, very New York. About 25 minutes in, though, there’s a really interesting discussion about a couple of startups using Instagram in interesting ways – celebrity gossip magazines and alternative, POC-centric, travel sites built on top of the base platform.

Possibly (probably) because these are female / POC centred businesses built on a platform that skews heavily female and is generally seen as fair game for mockery (lol white girls #nomakeup #nofilter), these haven’t exactly attracted a lot of attention from the traditional tech media.

Which makes me wonder what else I’m missing. Who else is out there quietly building solutions to problems I’m not even aware of?

Semi-related short bits:

# Other Valleys, a most excellent newsletter by Anjali Ramachandran focusing on tech / media developments outwith the UK / US / EU

# How textiles repeatedly revolutionised technology – not startup focused, but a good example of a whole sector of innovation that tends to be overlooked

Work

Been reading a lot on this, but I’m still not sure I can tie it all together yet, other than “everything is unrelentingly grim and we’re all fucked”.

Highlights:

How many vouchers we obtain and what we have to do to get them is the political question par excellence under neoliberal capitalism. But it’s this growing disconnect between labour as a biological/social requirement versus work as a cultural artefact that has seen it take on a life of its own, spiralling out of control, taking over everything else.

Herein lies the work paradox. At the very moment it is glorified as the highest civic virtue (on both the political left and right) it is drying up at an unprecedented rate.

Like it or not we are moving into a post-work future. According to some estimates, half the eligible global workforce is currently unemployed.

BBC – Viewpoint: Why do people waste so much time at the office?

Indeed Marc Bousquet suggests that managers everywhere want to learn how to emulate higher education “in moving from simple exploitation to the vast harvest of bounty represented by super-exploitation.” In the case of academics, according to Bousquet, this super-exploitation means the donation of quantities of free labor under the auspices of committed professionalism. Think of the adjunct who works endless hours to attempt to maintain a viable professional research profile while teaching hundreds of students for little pay.

Academic Labor, the Aesthetics of Management, and the Promise of Autonomous Work

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 calculated that when one added contract workers , temps, the self-employed and part-time workers , the total percentage of contingent workers in the United States came to almost 30 percent of the workforce.

Women have historically made up about two-thirds of the part time contingent or casual labor force, according to labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris. This gender imbalance remains today: women are almost twice as likely as men to work part-time. With internships, the disproportion is even starker. According to one study by Intern Bridge, a research and consulting firm, more than three in four unpaid interns were women. The industries that rely on internships, such as fashion, media and the arts, are feminized ones.

Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships

Lots of interesting discussion in the third episode of the Gin & Innovation podcast about the automation of farming and the changing nature of agricultural work.

Welcome to the grim meathook future, everybody.

Infrastructure and Shipping

The recent Calais crisis (I think that’s the current preferred title for it) has obviously brought up a lot of discussions around immigration policy and foreign policy. These are super deep, difficult and interesting issues and I’m going to ignore them entirely and talk about the wonderful world of shipping instead.

One thing the crisis has really thrown into relief is the fragility of our supply chains. OK, nobody in the UK is going to starve because of this, but the knock-on effects in terms of lost business are already being felt. Here’s the thing, though – we’re only really seeing the beginning of these. Supply chains are so tight, so incredibly reliant on just-in-time delivery, that we’ll be seeing odd price spikes and shortages for months.

It’s interesting to me that, so long as the system is moving, it remains effectively invisible to us. Only when it stops – and oh boy, has it stopped, with literally thousands of lorries tailed back along the M20 – do we realise the scale of it.

In the infrastructure side of things, I’ve been thinking a bit about startups trying to get into this market and the problem of infrastructural monopolies. BT, for example, still own effectively all the actual physical communications infrastructure in the UK.

The problem here is the immense cost of installing new infrastructure. I recall seeing an estimate from a telecoms engineer in the US that it can cost anywhere up to $500,000 per km to lay new cable in built-up areas.

I had a work trip the other week to visit SSE’s site at Spittal, which will form one end of their new Caithness-Moray subsea link. The sheer scale of this thing is insane – the total project cost is just over £1 billion and they’ve dug out something like 260,000 cubic metres of rock on just one site.

This obviously acts as a major barrier to entry for new companies trying to get into the infrastructure business – most startups just don’t have a spare billion kicking about, unless they’re backed by some kind of eccentric billionaire.

Which brings us rather neatly to Elon Musk and the Tesla Powerwall, which has been making waves recently. Musk basically wants to change the way the electricity market works which is… ambitious, to say the least (let us not forget that Musk is, of course, the founder and, I believe, majority shareholder in SolarCity – he’s not doing this out of the goodness of his heart).

If it were anyone other than Musk, I’d write it off as techbros being techbros (disrupt all the things!), but the guy has serious form, having led the charge on the privatisation of space travel, which is not exactly a cheap or easy market to break into.

This will all take some time to shake out, but there are a couple of immediate problems here. One is that the classic startup model (launch, iterate, fail, pivot, cash out) is not really something you want within a million miles of critical infrastructure. I suspect there are also last-mile issues here – public and regulated utilities generally have a duty to treat customers equally and to ensure that service delivery happens everywhere. Privately owned utility startups, unburdened by similar legislation, have no such duty, and my fear is that we end up with a service gap and a two-tier utilities network (immediately obvious divides being rich-poor and urban-rural).

Short related bits:

# Stowaways and Crimes Aboard a Scofflaw Ship – a really interesting, human-centred look at some of the problems surrounding shipping and international maritime law

# Gin & Innovation 007 covers a lot of the interesting things around Powerwall

# The economic aftermath of the 921 earthquake in Taiwan caused a worldwide tripling in the price of computer memory because of a six-day factory shutdown

Gender & Sexuality

A short one, here, as I am even more laughably unqualified to talk about this than anything that has come before. Nonetheless, a couple of interesting points.

Deb Chachra on Gin & Innovation 002 (I’ve been listening to this rather a lot, can you tell?) mentioned that one of the issues with getting women into STEM is the leaky pipeline problem – if you look at the numbers, women drop out at each stage (high school, uni, etc). The interesting point to me is that, as she pointed out, the way to address this is not to throw more numbers at the problem, but to examine the systemic issues that are causing dropouts in the first place.

Which I guess sounds obvious, but it does seem that too often the proposed solution to issues like this is “get more women into the pipeline”, not “find out why the pipeline is leaking women”.

An interesting interview with Lisa Diamond, a professor of developmental health and health psychology, on sexual fluidity:

It is time to just take the whole idea of sexuality as immutable, the born this way notion, and just come to a consensus as scientists and as legal scholars that we need to put it to rest. It’s unscientific, it’s unnecessary and it’s unjust. It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way. As a scientist, I think it’s one of the most fascinating questions out there and one that I will continue to investigate. As a lesbian and a progressive, I think it’s totally irrelevant and just politics.

Fin

My lovely girlfriend is moving up today and I’m supposed to be tidying, not waffling.

Currently listening: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell, which is surely a sign that my dissolute lifestyle has finally started to dissolve my brainmeat, causing major personality changes.

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