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Spinning the hamster wheel

It's funny how the unspoken assumptions of a religion you don't follow mediated through the zeitgeist of a political culture you don't agree with can nevertheless determine your reaction to news.

In this case, I'm taking exception to the conventional wisdom that the devil makes work for idle hands, and that work — any work, dammit — is good for the soul. Some work quite obviously is not good for you. One of my friends is descended from a family of Scottish coal miners; it's an industry that doesn't exist any more. But, as he puts it, it isn't a job you'd wish on anyone you liked — dirty, hard, dangerous work that eventually kills many of the men who worked down a pit (usually from silicosis, emphysema, black lung, or similar nasty respiratory diseases). If a clean, safe alternative was available it would be infinitely preferable to do without that kind of employment.

And there are other jobs that aren't worth having. Not necessarily dangerous ones, but ones that shouldn't be necessary — jobs that exist solely because of an existing human-made cock-up, applying human energy to deal with a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place. Sure digging a hole in a field and filling it in is economic activity if you're paying the guy on the other end of the shovel to do it — but once you get beyond the basic incentive of earning a living and putting food on the table, what's the purpose of the enterprise? People are generally happier if what they are doing is appreciated, at some level, or if they feel they're achieving something. There is a category of jobs that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary — and I don't think adding to them is a good thing.

Of course, the usual analysis of employment trends we get in the press doesn't usually go as deep as to question the need for jobs (that jobs are virtuous is taken for granted) so it shouldn't be any surprise that ZDnet's report that Microsoft Windows Vista could create 50,000 jobs in the EU alone is framed in tones of breathless approval.

Stop and think about it. The PC market is pretty much saturated in the developed world; we are no longer buying our first PC, we're just upgrading regularly for the faster processor/new features. So what does this really mean?

Microsoft are predicting that this ravenous new operating system will demand the sacrifice of 50,000 extra human lifetimes to keep offices across the EU running. That fifty thousand people are going to be sucked into the thankless task of software support and system administration for no functional gain — not to bring the benefits of computing to new users, this is simply to keep the wheels turning. It's money for digging holes in a field and then filling them in again: pointless make-work that should be automated out of existence rather than lauded.

The reason for this weird non-news piece is buried some way down the article: "In recent years, Microsoft has funded a number of studies highlighting the positive side of its near-monopoly in the market for desktop operating systems (it faces significant competition on servers, notably from Linux). The studies have appeared as Microsoft has faced antitrust actions in the US, the EU and elsewhere, with regulator attention most recently beginning to focus on Windows Vista ahead of its scheduled January launch."

One of the dirty little secrets of the computing industry is that staffing ratios are supported by Microsoft. It takes roughly one support person per forty desktops in Windows environments (one person-hour per working week wasted on coaxing balky software into doing its job, is a more accurate way of describing this), while large-scale UNIX desktop installations have staffing ratios between 1:200 and 1:1000. But bureaucratic politics is such that in any organization, an inefficient department with forty employees has far more clout, prestige, and (ultimately) money assigned to it than an efficient department of four ... because most managers are woefully inequipped to judge the relative merit of computing proposals and interpret human activity as productivity, rather than as evidence of inefficiency. We have therefore fallen into a situation where less efficient solutions competing in the marketplace are preferentially selected.

So much for the cult of employment ...

59 Comments

1:

I'm a contractor for the US Dept. of Defense, and I can tell you, as you probably already know, that this problem goes much beyond Microsoft. For example, if an employee earns $50,000 a year, the company probably gets $75,000. So hiring two employees (Or a dozen) to do the work of one makes financial sense. I don't know how accurate those numbers are, I'm just a lowly developer, but that's what I'm told.

The CEO at my old company (Another DoD contractor) used to give a little speech comparing the $30,000 stick of 128K of memory that weighed a few pounds used on Navy submarines to a 128 meg compact flash card that costs basically nothing. No one had much incentive to switch to cheaper memory because that would just mean a budget cut for next year.

Anyway, I don't know what the solution is (I do know it's probably NOT government regulation), but I'm right there with you on the problem.

2:

I've shared this view on work in general for a long time. While I don't think it benefits people to be loafing around watching TV all day, I think it's worse to engage them in pointless jobs for the sake of keeping people working. I look forward to a day when all work is a hobby.

Regarding IT and desktop support, you're right that all of these mainly cosmetic upgrades to OSes and office apps create a lot of otherwise pointless work that would not otherwise be needed. It's no secret that most business would not upgrade unless Microsoft and other companies forced them to. For software where we don't have to worry about support being withdrawn we often go 8-10 years between upgrades or longer.

OSes are an especial problem, because even if we decided to not upgrade, all new computers we purchase would have Vista on them, requiring new support. And due to the way licensing works, we can't just slap a copy of XP or NT or whatever on them.

I think the future holds mixed blessings. Part of the reason so much support staff is needed is that a large percentage of the workforce, inculding most managers and executives, are barely computer literate. It's more cost effective to hire full time support staff than it is to train everyone in an organization up to the level they'd need to support themselves. In the future you'll have more tech-savvy staff who need less support. Most of our staff under 30 have very little need for support, unless there's a serious error with their PC. These are people who've grown up with computers and have used them since being teenagers at least. This trend continues as well, recent graduates have never lived in a world without computers and most have used them since childhood.

The downside of that is that they've spent 15-20 years using a Microsoft operating system in most cases. Retraining them and older employees to use an alternative, even a simple one, would mean a huge time-consuming and expensive training effort. Not to mention resistance from the staff themselves. Perhaps using Linux would be more cost effective for a company, but if their staff like Windows and have used it all their lives, they aren't going to want to spend hours and days learning a new system that they'll only use at work. Most likely it will actually increase support needs as otherwise competent employees request more support for trivial tasks.

3:

This article ties in neatly with a talk given at a UKUUG conference I was at. This was given by a representative of the Cutter Project, an attempt to use open source commercially in schools.

The interesting thing this project found was that the major saving with open source in schools (they used Debian and KDE Kiosk frontend) was not the saving in terms of software licences, but the saving in terms of support costs.

In schools, very often you cannot get skilled support because it costs too much. What you do get, though, are hordes of (l)users who delight in breaking PCs, often just for the cussedness of it and because they can.

Windows PCs are very easy to cripple, break and otherwise vandalise.

KDE Kiosk on Linux, by contrast, is very, very hard to attack (especially by essentially naive children who don't have the patience to learn complex networked attacks) and very easy to set up when generic kit is used. It also runs well on remarkably poor PC hardware.

The net saving with opensource of this sort is in support; when the techie isn't busy fixing maliciously broken boxes all day long they can do other, more interesting and useful things; this makes the job more technical and less monkey-like, which lets you attract and keep a smarter, more motivated individual.

The Cutter Project uses IMB Power servers as a server back-end, which again are mostly open source and have the advantage that they can be remotely managed; they also run without monitors and keyboards attached by default thus limiting the options for attack by cunning but inexperienced attackers.

This sort of approach needs doing a lot more often. If the jobs people are doing are the same and the software works OK, then unless a vulnerability turns up there is no need to patch and change things.

If there is no need to upgrade software, then the load on the machines will stay largely similar; upgrades can then be limited to replacement of old and knackered kit (say a 5-year cycle) with memory upgrades in between that.

A longer upgrade cycle saves money, since the resale value of PC kit is essentially zero. It also saves on disposal costs and can be used to give the company "green" credentials.

Finally, not being at the beck and call of the likes of Microsoft is a tremendous help when bargaining for server software; there's nothing like the knowledge that you, the customer can walk away and choose not to buy something and go opensource instead to really motivate a salesman.

4:

Charles, '. . . most managers are woefully inequipped to judge . . .'

Why spoil a perfect sentence by qualifying it?

Andrew G, '. . .most managers and executives are technically illiterate . . .' I do recall telling a manager of mine who wanted me to enquire of a manframe supplier what operating system they used that maybe he didn't need to know that answer.

What is truly terrifying, however, is the sight of a midlevel manager waving his spreadsheet around and then gasping for an answer when you ask 'Is that mean, median or mode?' He won't know or care, but it will probably cost your job (worthwhile or not)

5:

What is truly terrifying, however, is the sight of a midlevel manager waving his spreadsheet around and then gasping for an answer when you ask 'Is that mean, median or mode?' He won't know or care, but it will probably cost your job (worthwhile or not)

One of our librarians recently suggested in a meeting of upper level managers and librarians that they get some training in statistics after there was a serious discussion about enacting a program based on a survey with a sample size of 20.

There was an deafening silence...

6:

They say that aboput a million people on long-term sickness benefits are going to be "encouraged" to go back to work.

That's a lot of jobs to find. But 5% supporting Windows users will be a start. No heavy lifting, but I wouldn'y recommend it to anyone suffering from hypertension.

What else? Personal servants? I doubt the contract Human Resources people would want my "psychological profile" on their books for that. (And I don't think that choice would be far wrong.)

More people in education, getting more pieces of paper.

Maybe a war? Let the Afghans cut down the unemployed. But what pieces of paper will you need before they employ you as a target. After all, we have to find work for the teachers.

7:

Andrew G . . . before they went ahead anyway.

Dave As one of those 4000 soon to be unemployed employees of Norwich Union, good idea, but no, I don't think so, not this time. Senior management, by all means, but not us poor bloody infantry.

On the other hand, what piece of paper do you need? I'd have thought a degree would do nicely.

8:

I'm in an unusual position, as an OS almost-agnostic ...

By reflex, I'm a Mac guy -- from days in the 80s programming feckin' BASIC on a BBC Micro, the Mac OS was the first system where I stopped feeling the OS fighting against me when I wanted to just do stuff. But I would never Mac-evangelize to anyone who just wanted to access e-mail and internet, maybe word-process a bit and play the odd game ...

But I have to sit up and take notice when a software developer friend of mine tells me that they're running betas of Vista and recommending that their clients don't think of upgrading to Vista for around two years because they believe that the OS won't be truly stable for that long ....

I have this deep, gut feeling that right now we're seeing something that future historians might flag as the end of Microsoft's domination of the OS market[1].

I don't believe for a second that Apple are going to take over the world, but I think that Boot Camp is going to break the them/us OS divide and someone who no-one is currently paying much attention to is going to come up the middle. Precisely who is anyone's guess (cue Linux enthusiast influx here).

Interesting times, I think.

Cheers

Jim

[1] Gut feeling based on the experience (as a design professional) of watching Quark comprehensively fuck their status as unquestioned market leader for a decade with a succession of shitty, over-priced releases and a fundamental arrogance about their own position in the market.

9:

For the last decade or so I've been of the opinion that the prediction that was common in the '50s and '60s in the industry. that a large part of the workforce in the industrialized nations would be automated out of jobs in the second half of the 20th century has come true.


The only reason most people don't recognize that it happened is that large numbers of makework jobs (at lower wages) were created to compensate. It's my belief that almost all low-level managerial and administrative positions are easily done away with, just as the majority of clerical jobs have already gone. A lot of hamburger-flipping type service jobs could also go (they're already starting to, here in the states; for instance they're starting to off-shore the drive-in window order-taker at MacDonald's).


Sometime in the next 25 years I think the Western nations in particular are going to run into the wall, and no longer be able to create enough makework to handle all the newly redundant.
At that point we're going to have to figure out how to let go of the so-called Protestant work-ethic, and find another way for people to feel like a useful part of their society than giving up roughly a quarter of their time to makework.

10:

Bruce: Europe better hope that in the next 25 years most work is redundent -- they're facing a large demographic problem as the workforce shrinks.

So, if things keep the way they do with work being valued for work's sake, then Europe could be feeling some pain, while the US sits pretty. If work becomes obsolete, Europe will be in a good place with a shrinking population and good social programs, while the US will be hurting.

Japan and Korea seem to planning for this, though who knows how successful they'll be. They're investing heavily into automation that could reduce the need for human workers outside of creative professions.

11:

Jim Campbell: One of the prime complaints long-time Novell consultants have sounds a lot like Quark. Arrogance at being a market leader made them not recognize the threat Microsoft represented, and attempts at shoreing up revenue caused them to really cheese off their small business market and thus cut them off from the grass roots. The Linux mea culpa is in progress right now, and we'll see if anything comes of it.

Near as I can follow, Apple is pitching hard to be the computer you use at home and to relegate Windows to the Workplace. It's a common theme in their advertisements, and the fact that 'content professionals' are about the only group that Apple focuses on. This strikes me as similar to how Apple colonized the Education market in the 1980's. People are going to become more and more open to the idea of having more than one OS in their lives. Linux may yet become the 'enterprise desktop for cheapskates.'

The fact that Windows requires so many support resources is one reason why there is a large market for products that minimize the people required to do that. The really large enterprises can afford the Lincoln Escalate versions of this stuff can get away with grealy reduced support ratios that companies in the 200-1000 desktop range can only dream of. But... that's still resources, even if it is an annual maintenance fee rather than salary and benefits for three extra people.

Vista represents SUCH a major change from how Windows has worked in the past that some managers are going to view this as a major Migration Event. Major Migration Events are those events that come once in a while where it becomes obvious that the way things have always been done needs to change. This is the point where Microsoft is hoping that inertia will keep people on their platform. When major ME's occur, options that would otherwise be unthinkable are on the table.

A case from my past. At an old job a complex series of events involving changes to licensing agreements, finance changes, and certain political events forced us to plan a migration off of the Office software we were using. We didn't know what to go to, so we spent serious time checking out the options. OpenOffice was in 1.0 at the time and was billed as the free option. Word Perfect Office was also on the table. MS Office was because it is the 800lbs Gorilla. After doing a lot of studies to figure out which was the least expensive in terms of up front costs and incurred costs to migrate documents to a new standard, we finally came to a conclusion. This was a major migration event for us, even though we ended up staying with the product we had been using; the other options had been well proven to really be much more expensive than we thought.

The Vista migration event will cause some managers to seriously look for the first time at non-Microsoft options, such as Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. They may not find what they're looking for, but they'll look. And that is important.

12:

When trying out the new Vista Beta, I was surprised at how much more Vista depends upon the explorer to get anything done. It is clear that Microsfot envision the explorer as the new interface to the operating system.

Having said that, it is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done. The usage semantics of the applications with explorer are terrible. Mixed messages, inconsistencies, duplications; the list goes on and on. Additionally, since the usage semantics have changed, a lot that was learned to use XP will have to be relearned to use Vista. Having dealt with "I don't want to understand what I'm doing - I just want to know how to do it." mentalities, this is going to be a big issue with Microsoft.

Other vendors are not doing any better. Apple's claim to fame with Tiger was "I just works." Which offered a comfort level to the naive consumer and a promise of some peace to the more sophisticated one. With the latest releases and the Intel move, the motto should now be "It just works...sometimes...until it panics." The value proposition has been marred and it is unlikely that Apple will be able to regain consumer trust on this issue.

Linux desktops, whether Gnome or KDE based, still have no support for the naive user. Once they are fully set up and configured, they run well, but adds, moves and changes still remain a major issue. Heck! Gnome didn't even have a menu editor until the latest release.

While businesses may be able to afford the desktop support required, home users will most likely not want to incur this sort of expense. The battle for the home user is, I think, still very much one to be won.

13:

I'm in game development, and we basically have a choice of Windows, Windows or Windows. Even we're looking carefully at Vista, and while we'll need SOME Vista machines, well, DX9 will run on all platforms and DX10 only on Vista. *Massive* incentive for us to move up there, isn't that. Especially given the PS3 uses OpenGL ES anyway (and thus we need OpenGL coders).

As for Linux, I don't think it's ready for the average user's desktop yet. Things like Open Office, on the other hand...

Personally, I'm very unsure if I EVER want to use Vista. As a secondary install for DX10-only games, MAYBE.

14:

Milton Friedman makes the point very nicely on page 62 of Free To Choose

For example, the supporters of tariffs treat it as self-evident that the creation of jobs is a desirable end, in and of itself, regardless of what the persons employed do. That is clearly wrong. If all we want are jobs, we can create any number - for example, have people dig holes and then fill them up again, or perform other useless tasks. Work is sometimes its own reward. Mostly, however, it is the price we pay to get the things we want. Our real objective is not just jobs but productive jobs - jobs that will mean more goods and services to consume.
The key message is "Work is the price we pay to get the things we want." Translate the slogan "Creating Jobs" to "Raising the price of getting the things we want."

Why do people approve of job creation? My current guess is that people are performing a variant of cost/benefit analysis in which the cost is used as a proxy for a hard-to-estimate benefit.

15:

There's one reason why job creation is a good thing, at least under the current economic model. If you have a big unemployed class without income, you must 1) support them with public money, 2) bear a higher crime rate as they try to get money by illegal means, or 3) bear a highly unstable society in which the unemployed become a revolutionary class. That said, I agree that work by its own sake has no intrinsic value, and all work which can be automated should be, but this means that a way must be found to share the benefits of this productivity rise among the general population in a way that doesn't lead to #1, #2 or #3.

16:

Personally, I'm very unsure if I EVER want to use Vista. As a secondary install for DX10-only games, MAYBE.

While the more tech-savvy might be able to get away with this most people won't. Once Vista is released it will be the only OS that the major PC makers like Dell, HP, Gateway offer.

And given the pricing deals that MS works out, people will find it more expensive to load an old version of Windows, especially after support ends. It probably will only be a year or so after Vista that MS will end support for XP and not let you get security updates anymore.

17:

"Sometime in the next 25 years I think the Western nations in particular are going to run into the wall, and no longer be able to create enough makework to handle all the newly redundant."

No. Just as the majority labor force was shifted from agriculture in the 19th century's last half to industrial by the mid-20th, then increasingly to service in the late 20th, over the next forty years it'll move increasingly to the global medical-industrial complex AKA healthcare. Nearly one dollar in every seven in the US is already spend there and that's without the new genomics-era medical tech and therapies that will only start kicking in around 2010 (Though arguably healthcare work is service work.)

18:

Mark: I strongly doubt it. Because the medical tech that is cost-intensive isn't labour intensive, and vice versa. Unless you expect hordes of low-paid nurses and carers for the elderly, and shitloads of horrifyingly expensive new treatments, it ain't going to happen: and I certainly don't expect a linear extrapolation of the current state of affairs to hold true in 25 years time. It's like extrapolating from the increasing use of horse drawn carriages in Victorian London to assume that by 1930 the largest driver of employment in British industry would be shoveling sit in stables.

19:

"Hordes of low-paid nurses and carers for the elderly, and shitloads of horrifyingly expensive new treatments" is _exactly_ what I expect.

I'm as distrustful as anybody about extrapolations that assume any exponential trend will proceed far over the horizon. Still, while nobody knows the future, I can think of very few things that are likely to forestall the above scenario -- mostly, what might prevent it is if efforts like the Japanese project to deal with their imminent majority-aged society by advancing robotics(by 2025 the majority of Japanese adults will be 65 and older) turn out to be so successful that robots everywhere become cheaper than the cheapest human labor.

20:

Which I doubt.

21:

There's an assumption there in that Japanese figure.

Yes, 65 can be a significant age. People stop working and start collecting their pension. But be careful not to assume they also suddenly need extra medical care.

Today's 80-year-olds come out of a background with far more tolerance of smoking, just to point out one change. Look at the changes there have been in tobacco advertising since 1990. The people retiring in 2025 are likely to have fewer problems from that cause, and they might not need that much medical support until 2040.

The economic problems will bite much sooner.

22:

Counter-proposal: I expect the retirement age to rise.

Back when the state pension in the UK was introduced (1906, wasn't it?) about one worker in 20 reached retirement age (65) and their life expectancy thereafter was about 2 years. If we raise the retirement age to 75 or 80, we'll be back to about the same ratio of pensioners/workers.

Meanwhile, extrapolating from today's pattern, I expect all of today's medical processes to be out of patent cover by 2025 -- in other words, pretty damn cheap. That includes a lot of anti-retrovirals, a whole bunch of chemotherapy techniques, and so on. There'll be newer, expensive treatments, hopefully of greater efficacy (and hence hopefully pushing life expectancy higher). They'll be being deployed on a cohort of retirees who have hopefully been exercising more and eating better than their predecessors (see also the big public health campaigns now brewing up).

Not extrapolating from today's trends, I expect: (a) a serious attempt at reforming the way a vicious collision between intellectual property law and medical safety regulations have driven the price of developing new medical treatments through the roof over the past 20 years, (b) at least one major rapid epidemic of herd-thinning proportions (i.e. not AIDS but something like a pandemic of H5N1 human flu or XDR-TB) followed by some serious new developments in antibiotic, antiviral, and vaccine research, and (c) at least one (and more likely two or three) utterly unprecedented and well-nigh unimaginable breakthroughs.

23:

...utterly unprecedented and well-nigh unimaginable breakthroughs.

Do you mean unimaginable to the world at large, or to people like SciFi fans and writers? Because you've imagined some pretty unimaginable things yourself. :)

But you're right, there's sure to be something that's impact is much larger or different than people thought it would be even if they did predict it. And probably some things we're sure will be big will turn out to go nowhere.

Computers and Space Travel are the two big ones from the 20th century. Almost everyone missed personal computers being such an important part of our world by 1990, while the common wisdom in these circles was that space travel would be common by 2000.

24:

Unimaginable to world+dog, not to us :)

If I were to guess at them ...

1) Cancer. We've learned over the past decade that a lot of seemingly identical cancers have different origins at the genetic level, and vice versa. We're making breakthroughs in understanding oncology that haven't yet fed through into treatments ... but it's clearly happening. One interesting side-effect is that the reduction in numbers of tissue stem cells with age seems to correlate with an anti-cancer pathway. I suspect that understanding oncology will entail understanding the aging mechanism, and give us the prospect of tweaking the balance between the two problems (i.e. accept a higher risk of -- trivially curable -- cancers in return for slowing the aging process).

2) Immunology. Clearly, there's still a lot we don't understand. Equally clearly, it's better to prevent bacterial infections by tweaking our immune systems to work better than by shotgunning bacteria with antibiotics and hoping they don't evolve resistance.

3) Random weird shit. There's some evidence of the existence of common animal and human viruses that cause obesity by modulating metabolism. A breakthrough here could conceivably give us not only a cure for most common cases of obesity, but also technologies for making our agricultural animals more efficient, for allowing us to function on less food (in event of famine, pop pill to survive), and again, possibly for modulating the aging mechanism (see also: calorie restriction diets, insulin-like aging pathways).

Personally, I don't think I'd mind catching cancer every 20 years (curably, modulo finishing the entire prescription) in return for a life expectancy stretching towards 300 years in reasonable health.

25:

Oh, I fully expect the retirement age to get bumped before I get that old. That's one of the more logical ways to help ease the retirement burdon of the public support agencies. There will be screaming and moaning from the group that's just about to get there, but if the change-date is pushed far enough out the political backlash can be mitigated.

26:

This is not what I thought was meant by "the broken Windows fallacy"...

27:

So that's what a job interview is like...

But it sounds as though what the recruitment agency told the job centre is a bit different to what the employer plans, on working hours and stuff.

(Charlie knows who I am, but the recruitment agency don't have the data to make the connection.)

28:

Alan - Milton Freidman, the economist (now there's a value adding profession . . .) who bewitched the mad cow by his utterly simplistic theories about money and managed to entirely ignore the effects on exchange/measurement of value of trading currency like a commodity (he was writing at a time when New York traded daily three times the total amount of currency in issue in the entire world - and then there were the Frankfurt, London and Tokyo exchanges and it has got a lot, lot more active since then).

What he says may seem like common sense, but with his track record (and those of his admirers) wear the heaviest grade gloves when handling any of his bullshit.

29:

I spent about 6 years as a top employee of the Software Engineering Department of the Space Transportation Division of Rockwell International. The department had over 400 employees. We had mostly PCs on our desks, some Macs, HPs, Sparcstations, and terminals for our home-grown VAX-based system ROSES. We did software for the Space Shuttle and many other applications, including purely commercial projects, not all of them in aviation and space. The department earned over $50,000,000 annually.

We had superb management, and many brilliant engineers. Yet we often had trouble with PC support. By what we Americans call Murphy's Law and you Brits call Sod's Law, trouble usualy came at inopportune time, such as when preparing last-minute presentation materials for important meetings.

Our wonderful Director, Ernie L. Freddolino (ELF) had no interest in creating jobs for their own sake. He wanted results. Win contracts, execute contracts, develop useful tools, file patents. I helped to win many contracts for cool stuff, including Artificial Intelligence, Genetic Programming, automatic program translation, robotics, and so forth.

We had some Unix versions, nut this predated Linux and the Open Source movement as such.

More to the point, our department was in constant battle with other departments and divisions, which had a less pragmatic and less-experienced approach to software, databases, and the like. I audited many projects, including some for NASA, USAF, and internal research and development. I'd say that as much as 50% of manhours and dollars were pissed away on badly managed and/or badly engineered work.

I cannot pin all this on Microsoft. But the combination of Microsoft, poor support, and bad management was crushingly expensive. It often put mission critical systems at risk, including the Space Shuttle.

Astronauts began demanding custom software running on laptops that they could bring with them into orbit. These typically did NOT run on any version of Windows.

30:

I don't get what's so attractive about retirement. Yeah, you can work like a dog for evil bastards for forty years (or be an evil bastard), then travel the world or buy a little cottage and paint or whatever. But why not do that stuff first, or simultaneously, and work until you're 75 or 80?

31:

NelC: because it takes time to save up the money. No bank manager in their right mind will offer you a £250,000 loan if your approach is "I want to take a ten year all-expenses-paid vacation, then I'll work it off afterwards", will they?

And most people don't have the energy (after working like a dog for evil bastards) to do anything after work other than do the housework, cook, look after the kids, and slump in front of a TV. It takes imagination and a certain ruthless contempt for your job to make the decision that you work to live, and life comes first, rather than swallowing the belief that you live to work.

32:

My own slant is that economics is related to values. Do you value having a strong currency, many people employed in high value added manufacturing? Then you too want some tariff walls and gvt support.
Or if you want to maximise growth, by all means slash social spending, pass anti-union laws, and open your borders wide.

With regards to work/ life balance, I think a fair number of my generation, (20's) have cottoned on to this fact, and are managing to have more of a work life balance. However loans and an uncertain jobs market dont help.

Also in my opinion, people dont need work, exactly, more a purposeful goal oriented activity. Sure, some people really do just like slumping in front of the tv all day, but many people, like myself, would get fed up after a few days and go and find something more interested instead. It is people like us who run societies (I'm on three committees myself) do public and charitable works, and generally make things more interesting.

My own ideal would be a situation where people wouldn't have to work, defining work as an alienating situation whereby you perform tasks, many of which you are not interested in, for money necessary to live.

Finally, the MIcrosoft situation, I think we can see the effects of insufficient information at work, which combined with politics and personal greed and stupidity means that it is very hard to change anything, and of course the barriers to entry are very high.

33:

AD36, what a great excuse for being a fat knacker I've got now. I'm not a greedy bastard, it's a virus I've caught.

Still, if it is a viral epidemic, how convenient it is only a problem in the Western cultural area where obesity levels have been conveniently set by nutritionists and doctors who receive funding from the weight loss industry.

The medical risks of obesity have also been called into question though I am less likely to believe this, seeing the problems associated with morbid obesity on a weekly basis.

34:

Still, if it is a viral epidemic, how convenient it is only a problem in the Western cultural area where obesity levels have been conveniently set by nutritionists and doctors who receive funding from the weight loss industry.

Well, I'm a fat bastard myself - but I'm also myopic. As I understand it, this is a combination of hereditary and environmental factors - if I was chasing deer around in the European forests, I wouldn't need glasses.

So I have no problems with obesity being viral, herediatry and/or environmental - I may have a bug, but eating crap and sitting on my duff doesn't help.

35:

Tony, as a fellow sufferer, bear in mind certain conditions that can cause obesity (such as insulin intolerance) can also drastically lower your energy levels and make you less likely to *want* to do anything physical. Plus I know many horribly fit people who do exactly the same amount of exercise I do - i.e. none. OK, maybe they're not "fit", but they're certainly trim and in the right clothes can appear "in shape".

I dunno about obesity being viral - I haven't looked at the research. But, for example, here in South Africa where I live, the black culture says that being fat is the same as being healthy, so I might agree with your ideas about obesity being a conveniently defined disease. The black people here truly don't seem to have any issues with it. Of course, we have a health minister who insists that eating garlic and herbs can prevent AIDS, too, so identifying the truth in this country is difficult (and has always been so).

PS. In case anyone here's worried about my PC quotient, I refer to "black" people because that's what all South Africans call black people here (including black people). Calling them "African" is considered rude (a hangover from the apartheid era, and also equally applicable to white or Indian people), and, for those who are incredibly stupid, "African-American" is certainly not going to work.

36:

At that point we're going to have to figure out how to let go of the so-called Protestant work-ethic, and find another way for people to feel like a useful part of their society than giving up roughly a quarter of their time to makework.

Perhaps, as David notes, they can fill their time with attempting to avoid starvation for their families, at least in the States. We have not freed up the masses to enjoy the excess leisure produced by technology; we have squeezed people out of jobs that they need in order to live. Or have you ever considered that perhaps FDR didn't implement those public works projects to alleviate boredom for well-fed unemployed sitting in their comfortable flats listening to the radio? Direct transfers would have been more efficient, but not feasible in a land where "handouts" are anathema. Perhaps the social safety net in western Europe is sufficiently secure to allow people to simply forego work, but the gods of neoclassical economics seem to demand at least the illusion of work in exchange for subsistence. And over here in the US, the safety net has been under relentless attack for years now. Even middle-class families are feeling that their heads are just barely above the waterline. And many of them are in jobs that have no objective value (e.g., overweighted middle management). But I suppose they can just eat cake instead.

Sorry, I'm sure I'm overreacting. But the glibertarians here in the US love going on about productivity, technological progress, and the like, while railing against any redistribution policies that actually share the gains with those who have been thrown under the bus to make the gains possible.

37:

An important thing to remember about the retirement age. It is merely the age at which you become eligible for a government run pension.

Most of the "professional" class invest in their own retirement program. Those of the "unskilled" class do not (or can't afford to).

When the retirement age was set at 65 (by Bismark), it was a recognition that the manual labourer wasn't capable of much more work and probably wouldn't live long anyway.

We do live much longer these days, but there hasn't been as great an increase in physical or mental capability.

My father was a very healthy man, he remained so until he was approaching 70. He explained that he was not as capable after the age of 55 (I didn't really notice it) but from age 70 the deterioration was significant. He is now 75 and incapable of any sustained activity, mental or physical, and his memory is not nearly as good as it was.

Unfortunately most employers are aware of this. People applying for a job over the age of 50 have trouble getting one. Raising the retirement age might force people to need to work. It will not increase their odds of obtaining employment.

The professionals and skilled workers whose skills will not be as adversly effected by age are the ones that business wishes to keep working. Too bad for them these are the ones capable of retiring any time they damn well please.

All raising the retirement age to 75 would do is transfer a lot of people from the retirement roll onto the welfare roll.

38:

Totally off-topic.

Can Chrlie Stross PLEASE e-mail me on:
sarastro@dial.pipex.com
I can't get through to him, as the SPAM-filters seem to be horribly tight, and it is about:
E/M lifters/thrusters operating (re. recent technical publications, and the "singularity" - and "Accelerando"

Oh, and I don't know how to use a PGP key...
Thanks in advance.

GT

39:

There does seem to be a psychological need to do something useful. My brother was once working on a survey that covered this, and they had to be very careful how they phrased some questions. Instead of an increase in unemployment benefits, they had to put it terms of winning the football pools. But how much is work-ethic programming and how much a real need?

The trouble is that state-run social security systems are safer than private investment. Few people have the resources to invest with sufficient diversity, while collective systems, such as pension funds, do fail, or get stolen. Consider Enron and, in the UK, the Maxwell case.

40:

Dave Bell

Which is, of course, why some people are so keen on destroying any state run systems, the easier to get their sticky fingers on still more of our money (having taken out their fees and commissions from our savings at every possible opportunity . . .)

Sorry, rant about the investment 'industry' coming on, so I'll stop there. Life is too short to rehearse the iniquities of that den of thiefs.

Memo to me: First Act as Dictator - shut down the Stock Exchange. There HAS to be a better way.

41:

If your obesity is a viral disease then you must have viruses capable of breaking the law of conservation of energy.

That's really cool.

Unlimited free stuff awaits! The power of Viral Lipopoesis will give us the Solar System, If not the stars!

Is this the beergut that will rule the Sevagram?

42:

Ken: human (indeed, all mammalian) metabolism doesn't work like that -- it's horrendously inefficient at digesting foodstuffs. Also note that becoming excessively fat has other metabolic costs -- energy going into adipocytes rather than muscle tissue, for example.

It's not a free lunch; it's just re-deploying your existing lunch so that it goes to your gut rather than going somewhere more useful.

43:

If your obesity is a viral disease then you must have viruses capable of breaking the law of conservation of energy.

You have no problems with DNA doing the same in causing a blastocyte to grow to a full adult, do you?

44:

About OSses: I'm just in the process of upgrading my personal computer, switching from a Win 98 machine to a machine running Win XP (Home edition), because some newer programmes won't run otherwise. And even if at my workplace I use Win XP for years, I still feel unsure and found most things more logical with Win 98. I don't like it when my computer is guessing what I want to do. My only luck is the "switch back to the look-and-feel of Win 98"-switch in the Win XP preferences.

About work: I'm a big fan of the idea of a "basic income" (I'm not sure if this is discussed outside of the German context). The idea is, if work becomes less secure, less stable and less in numbers, instead of "creating" jobs like the aforementioned software user update helpers, why not pay everybody a basic income (without checking if they *really* need it), enabling unemployed to do other things -- like programming open source software or arts or whatever -- and "buffer" phases between projects etc.

45:

Well, first and foremost, the purpose of work is to earn your food and keep, and to do so for those who depend on you.

_Someone_ has to support you; if it isn't by your own efforts, someone else has to get less for _their_ efforts.

There's an inherent worth and dignity to supporting yourself and your children, no matter how lousy the experience of the work is for you personally. Life ain't easy or fair for most people; never has been, never will be.

An old song in the part of the world my father's family come from puts it this way:

"In a leaking boat off Labrador
Aching hands on a freezing oar;
Hauling nets -- hunting seal
To feed his family..."

It was hard work, bitterly hard and often man-killing, but the men who did it were rightly proud of it, of their courage to face danger and the will that kept them going through hardship.

Note about coal mining: it's generally a fairly high-paying job, as blue-collar shit-jobs go. There were some exceptions (Britain between the wars, frex) but back in 1914 an English coal-miner averaged about 114 pounds per year -- excellent wages for a manual job in those days.

How does that other song go:

"If the fire don't get started
If the tunnel don't fill;
If the whiskey don't kill you
Then the black powder will.
So pray God to spare you
For some time to come;
To put bread on the table
For your little ones."

46:

There's no magic well of money that 'society' can issue to people to meet their necessities. It all has to come from people doing actual work, one way or another. Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't create any new income, it just shifts it around -- usually with high frictional costs.

Which is why "job creation" is a good thing, which would appear fairly obvious.

That's also why so much of the world (and not just the developed world) is facing a demographic nightmare as average ages increase -- more and more dependents and fewer and fewer workers.

What the hell China is going to do in 30 years, when they have Japan's current demographic profile with only a fraction of the wealth, I don't know.

47:

Stirling:
"_Someone_ has to support you; if it isn't by your own efforts, someone else has to get less for _their_ efforts."

I agree with you. The trouble is that for all of recorded history some people have gotten less for their efforts than others. We in the U.S. are ok with the idea that the owner of capital is allowed to make money without or with little effort. We call them leaders or say that they are smarter than the actual workers, or whatever it takes to justify to ourselves that our democracy is actually a plutocracy. However, we hate anyone of the "lower classes" who seems to be getting by without pulling their load.

My personal view is that the lower and middle classes in America see other members of their class as equals and subject to the same rules while they see the rich and powerful as authority figures who must be placated in order to win favour. The "work ethic" is mostly just a way to feel good about an unavoidable situation.

We also have a song here in western Pennsylvania:
http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/classic-country/sixteen-tons---tennessee-ernie-ford-14930.html

"You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store"

If there was just a way to evenly distribute the real work we wouldn't have these problems. Unfortunately, humans aren't wired for Communism so tricking them into working out of greed (i.e. Capitalism) is the best thing we've come up with so far.

48:

Steve, back in the day (any day, pre-1800, I guess) it took 60-95% of the population just farming and fishing to get enough food in for everyone to eat. These days in a developed country it's down to 0.5% - 2% in the agricultural/fisheries sector. Again, coal mining: the USA runs on coal (50% of its energy budget is coal-fired), but you don't have 10% of the population involved in mining it. These are dirty, hard, unpleasant jobs that can and should be automated to the fullest extent possible.

My beef, to the extent that I've got one, is with nonsense make-work that doesn't actually do anything remotely useful. I draw the line somewhere between system administration (configuring computers so that they work) and cleaning out viruses, spyware, and crap, or mopping up after badly written applications that -- if trading standards laws were enforced -- would get their commercial vendors sued into a smoking hole in the ground.

You're right about work being something that a lot of people define their sense of worth by. But there are an awful lot of jobs out there that don't deliver a sense of self-worth, don't deliver a working wage either, and aren't even useful or productive.

49:

Charlie,

I may have not been as clear as I wished. While it is true that I believe that many people define their sense of worth by the work that they do, I didn't mean to imply that that is a good thing. I am in total agreement with you that:

"...there are an awful lot of jobs out there that don't deliver a sense of self-worth, don't deliver a working wage either, and aren't even useful or productive"

I also agree with your assessment of the percentage of population required for food production. Actually, I have a very hard time understanding how the U.S. keeps going considering how little we actually produce. I think we must be living on interest and the proceeds of intellectual property.

The problem is that there is no (to my knowledge) system that allows for a decrease in the need for labor. We still work a minimum 40 hour work week even though we are told year after year how much more efficient we are.

My beef is, I suppose, your beef extended to include stock brokers, middle management, service industries, and any other field where people work at tasks that do not improve their lives or the lives of those around them, simply because our rules require employment.

I don't know if you like (or indeed can stomach) Piers Anthony, but I am reminded of the society he creates for the book Blue Adept wherein the planet Proton is ruled by a few idle rich and a larger class of immigrant workers who are immediately expelled if they lose their employment.

I don't really have an answer, but it's really frustrating to contemplate all of the effort that goes into maintaining a cargo cult economy that mistakes growth and effort for stability and efficiency.

P.S. Just want to say again how much I enjoy your site and appreciate the opportunity to converse with the caliber of people it attracts.

50:

Andrew G, and I'd point out that sales to the high street by companies like PC World have slumped recently.

If Microsoft deliberately ends support, then I'll shift anyone who asks me for support and dosn't run windows-only programs (and frankly, that's mostly certain game these days) to Linux.


Charlie, if I was to expect a breakthrough, I'd expect it to come from phages. There are firms which are allready taking them far further than the Russians ever did.

Of course, there are lots of people investigating telomeres and the like, and one dosn't know what they might come up with.

Of course, I'm not sure most biologists are really looking where we're going either. I certainly didn't at 18 when I went to university to study it. (It didn't work out. I make computer games these days)

51:

Mr. Stirling, I agree with you about the basic problem; it's about creating enough wealth to support everyone, and distributing it without "high frictional costs".

I'm not going to deny the friction of a socialised system. But how much friction is there in the USA?

52:

Steven: "The trouble is that for all of recorded history some people have gotten less for their efforts than others."

-- well, welcome to real life, where it's like that 24/7. Don't hold your breath if you're expecting a change.

"We in the U.S. are ok with the idea that the owner of capital is allowed to make money without or with little effort."

-- I suggest you study alternative means of capital allocation. Cf: "Gosplan", also Churchill's comment on democracy.

53:

Charlie: "But there are an awful lot of jobs out there that don't deliver a sense of self-worth"

-- when did they ever? You work because you have to. Work hurts. Most jobs are shit-jobs and always have been.

If work wasn't like that, they wouldn't have to pay you to do it. I'd write even if I had to fit it into intervals between earning my bread some other way -- which is precisely what I did for 10 years or so.

Finding work that you actually like is like winning a lottery; it's an undeserved gift of fortune and by the nature of things can be true for only a tiny minority.

"don't deliver a working wage either, and aren't even useful or productive."

-- Charlie, there's only one way to determine if a job is useful or productive.

It's simple: _will someone voluntarily pay you for it_.

And that's IT. There's no other way of settling those questions that makes any sense whatsoever.

If people will pay you to paint yourself green with yellow spots and hop about going "ribbit", then it's a useful and productive job.

54:

Stephen A. Russell: "Actually, I have a very hard time understanding how the U.S. keeps going considering how little we actually produce."

-- we produce more than ever. It just doesn't take as many people to do any particular part of it; hence we can produce things that people couldn't afford in the past.

Eg., some of my relatives farm 16,000 acres north of Saskatoon with the labor of two families (and my brothers, occasionally). They produce far more wheat and canola that that area did 60 years ago, when 40 families farmed that land.

They work just as hard as their grandparents did, mind you -- try it if you don't believe me -- but the labor produces a lot more.

"My beef is, I suppose, your beef extended to include stock brokers, middle management, service industries, and any other field where people work at tasks that do not improve their lives or the lives of those around them, simply because our rules require employment."

-- no offense, but this statement betrays a depth of economic ignorance so vast that one simply doesn't know where to begin.

Try doing without service workers for a while and see how you like it.

Or stockbrokers, for that matter. You can get an idea of what that's like by going to that theme park in... was it Poland or Lithuania?

It's called "Stalinland", and you get to experience "real existing socialism" for a day; standing in line to buy mouldy bread and so forth.

55:

Soviet Communism failed not because it was a planned economy, but because lacking a feedback mechanism it malinvested its way to collapse.

56:

Mr. Stirling,

You state:
"It's simple: _will someone voluntarily pay you for it_.

And that's IT. There's no other way of settling those questions that makes any sense whatsoever."

I think that we are reasoning along different lines. We control what we will voluntarily pay for. You believe that I don't understand economics because I am not speaking in terms of economics. I would assert that current economics is based on mostly uninformed decisions made by individuals in an adolescent culture (or cultures).

Isn't it our job as SF writers (readers, fans, etc.) to consider not only the way things currently stand, but where we might consciously direct them?

You say, "well, welcome to real life, where it's like that 24/7. Don't hold your breath if you're expecting a change."

I may not expect a change, but I very much hope for one. I choose to believe that the human race has the potential to eventually grow beyond the need for systems based on individual profit. Charlie sometimes seems to almost take that for a given. He often speaks in terms of what makes sense for society and shows little natural tendancy to consider his own gain. He is atypical, but I think we should strive for a future where that kind of thinking prevails.

I appreciate your responses. I just think we have been reasoning in two different contexts.

57:

Mr. Stirling wrote:
If people will pay you to paint yourself green with yellow spots and hop about going "ribbit", then it's a useful and productive job.

Well, no. There's a vast difference between something people are willing to exchange value for, and something people are happy to have exchanged value for. I have to say that I'd be very happy to pay you (and I suspect I could get volunteers to chip in to help pay you) to stand in front of the stock exchange, painted green with yellow spots, and hop about going ribbit :)

It'd be useful in producing my entertainment.

Do I expect that it'd be useful in producing anything beyond a value proposition to you? Not really.

I suspect the link between "useful and productive" and "self-worth and enjoyment" is what's missing with our yellow-spotted friend. For me, at least, "useful and productive" doesn't mean "getting paid" (hell - ask most OSS authors, or other volunteers. "useful and productive" and "money" often fail to be close to an overlapping set).

58:

Looking at it from a worker's perspective, I've always felt that the prevailing corporate attitude that employees live for work, and have (or should have) as little life outside work as possible, so as not to interfere, was one that required a certain ruthless contempt for your people.

59:

Which is more likely?

Without stockbrokers your country becomes Stalinist Poland.

or

Without stockbrokers people more people own more shares as there is no (or considerably smaller) percentage fee paid on transactions, leaving more money to invest.

Specials

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 15, 2006 10:59 AM.

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