The designers and the mechanics

By | November 16, 2017

I am quite interested in issues of automation and the issues that face us when tasks in for workforce are replaced with robots or A.I. In a way, I kind of think that as a society, we’ve messed up when this is a problem. There are two big themes in much of the writing around automisation that really intrigue me. The first is that automation of tasks by machines makes humans more mechanical. The second is automisation creates a divide between ‘designers’ and the mechanical.

Both of these themes revolve around the same argument, and while I’m still reading lots of interesting and conflicting opinions on the subject, Varoufakois in his letters to his daughter, seems to nail it down to a few steps:

  1. A huge technical change occurs that allows expensive humans to be moved out of the production line, without having to pay them the cost of production comes down.
  2. This technology propagates, and the competition becomes ruthless. Profits per item hit a bare minimum, sometimes organisations take a loss – perhaps a company invested in new technologies ‘too early’ when the technology was a high price and now have to deal with later adopters under cutting. Perhaps those who didn’t invest in the new technology can’t make their products as cheap.
  3. The modern technology that replaced the human workers doesn’t take home a wage like the humans did. They don’t spend money like the workers did, there is a slump in the economy, companies collapse.
  4. The old employees that were replaced by machines need a roof, clothes and some food. They are sell their labour much cheaper than before, making them more appealing as an alternative to the machines.

In the final step we see why workers become mechanical like machines. When humans replace ‘the machines that replaced the humans’ something is lost.

In the video above Charlie Chaplin is in the classic film Modern Times, in this film we see Charlie is forced to keep up like a machines – working faster and faster until the variety is too much and it falls apart. Charlie is mechanised so that he works like the machines that could replace him (or may have replaced him previously), but something is lost as this level of work become machine-like. Charlie gets told off by the boss whenever he is caught giving in to his human needs. This pattern of mechanising workers is seen all around us, we get a very clear image when we think of places such as sweat shops.

Unless the machines can design machines – ‘designers’ are at the top of the hierarchy, they design what the machines or mechanised workers do. We see the designer of the factory in Charlie’s world keeping a constant eye on him, making sure he is more profitable than a machine. The inequality between the designer and Charlie is clear in the film and resembles the gap between those who assemble your iPhone in China and those who design it in California, or the designers at Uber taking advantage of the drivers – while at the same time striving to replace them with self-driving cars.

I have been thinking about the themes of mechanical workers and of the designers because I see similarities in the higher education instructions I belong to.

Recently, in the back of meeting I don’t really need to be at (perhaps in an attempt to stay human and not nodding mechanically?) I have been playing with the creation of a E-Learning headline generation bot. It scans the headings of blogs I read, compares the headlines and generates a new one that it automatically posts on my Twitter. To be honest – I’m not really sure why I am doing this. I started the code  around the same time I thinking about what it means to be told to be open, the technology I use, and how this technology feels like it is against my rather than with me. With the code I wrote I’ve been trying to squeeze out as much human effort in generating e-learning news as necessary – to see how much I could do to create an automated version of an ‘open elearning practitioner’. I spent about an hour on the code and I’ve found is that there is lots of things I can automagically do really easily. It generates clickbait headlines, post it to social media, auto generate thumbnails. Of course, what it generates is nonsense, and I have to go in as a human and edit what it says. But it did make me think about how much of what I tried to achieve by being open was just so ‘robotic’, is this a case of us trying to copy the machines and losing what is making me human?

In one of the meetings that really pushed me to write this code there was a discussion about the evils of management. “Management are rubbish in this institution because they design things without consulting me!”. Everyone in the institution wants to be the designer in California and desperately wants to avoid being in the sweatshop, why wouldn’t they? I see VC’s become dictatorships because the more they think they can design the safer they feel and this trickles down the hierarchy, everyone defending the tools and approaches that they know well = that can give them the power to be a designer.  A common problem with HE IT systems seems to be those in power saying “we must implement the system that I know works really well”, this leads to the implementation of systems that don’t benefit the institution – but do add to the how secure the managers feel as designers. ‘The e-portfolio systems doesn’t really need an API because that might give the workers something to use and think about, let me do the designing and keep them pressing the generate report button’.



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