Postcard from the Edge
It's hard to soar like an eagle if we keep company with turkeys
A number of things got tangled up in my attention over the weekend.
The first was the ongoing saga of the Post Office and the energy put into it by a well-made drama. The core issue of shareholders wanting one thing and those delivering the service wanting another is ubiquitous. It could as easily be the NHS, just about any major Bank, or HMRC. The commonality is culture; the difference is timing and the random nature of spotlights.
The second was a report produced for discussion at the WEF this week produced by the IMF on the impact of AI on jobs. Unsurprisingly, it highlights the ongoing “Matthew Effect” in that the well-resourced will benefit most at the expense of the least, both within established economies and between competing global economies.
The third was the increasing popularity of “therapy bots” and other associated offerings to be found on Character.ai, which appears to be attracting significant interest, particularly amongst the young. Having experimented with it, it is interesting - a long way from therapy, but at least it listens, which can be a novelty in many workplaces.
All of us have a job description. If we work for others, it will have been given to us; if we work for ourselves, it will be in our heads or in a plan for the more organised. In both cases, it captures the minimum we need to do to survive in the role and earn a living.
What we actually do, of course, is far more driven by a combination of competition, commitment and mimetic behaviour. If we work for others, the benefit of that surplus effort goes to our employer, maybe minus a little for bonuses if we’re lucky. If we’re self-employed, it accrues to us, even if we cannot quantify it.
Turkeys get fed for a purpose. They do not get a bonus for getting fatter, faster, they just end up on the table more quickly. For many of us, AI will do the same, improving productivity and efficiency to the point where we can be replaced either by cheaper labour or technology itself. That’s the way it works; it is neither right nor wrong.
If, on the other hand, we take out our job description and look at what it asks of us, most of what it states is replicable, governed and measured by process. The extra we put in is not.
So far, so very Marx.
What has changed, though, is the nature of the economy. Labour is easy to replicate and replace; humanity is not, and no matter what we do with technology, it is relationships that lubricate commerce.
We have relationships at our local post office, not with the remote corporate entity. We can use technology, including AI, on our own account if we do the work and choose to, and we can make sense of what is going on through conversations with others, far more than with a bot.
The small part of us that goes to work is increasingly easily replicated and replaced, but on its own, it is about as useful as gears on a walking stick when it comes to building the relationships on which commerce is built.
We don’t know what comes next, but today’s proceeding at the Post Office inquiry confirms the turkey strategy will not help.
Growing the part of ourselves that work doesn’t value and connecting it to where it is seems a far better option.