Fuck Paperwork – Part 2: Embrace Your Frustration

I fucking hate paperwork. I apologize for the profanity, but there is nothing in my life that more strongly elicits that visceral reaction: “It’s 2013 – why do I still have to do this?”. In this second of a two part post, I will deal with the real sin of paperwork – the banality of it.

Am I the only one who feels a small piece of my soul sucked from my body with each bureaucratic form that needs to be filled and signed. All this so I may simply continue living in the warm embrace of my paper trail. In the magical world of tomorrow, why do I still need to perform the menial task of filling out so much paperwork, be it in paper or electronic form? Maybe I have been spoiled by an unrealistic expectation of convenience in the modern world, but I can’t help feeling deep seeded resentment for this type of menial mental labour.

So much of our modern lives are spent in the banal manipulation of information. Is it not ironic that a proficiency in navigating paperwork is such a necessary and desirable competency in the modern age? I argue that the drudgery of paperwork forces us to become more robotic; it demeans the human condition to employ so many in repetitious and robotic manipulation of paperwork, demanding nothing of nobler human abilities like creativity or abstract thinking.

The age of paperwork probably began somewhere around turn of the 20th century. The industrial revolution was gloriously freeing people from raw physical labour  But as mechanization replaced back braking physical toil, mental toil rose to fill the void. We created new types of jobs involving the menial manipulation and transmission of information. Even now, how many jobs today could probably be accomplished by well designed software?

Today, we are swimming in a sea of paperwork, but we also stand in the midst of a computer revolution. Could we not be further along in implementing more efficient and less frustrating ways of getting things done?

Let us take the filing of taxes for instance. Why are we required to endure the frustrating task of filling out a form with information, most of which the government already knows.

I was shocked (yet unsurprised) by this story last week. The article exposes how Intuit (the makers of TurboTax) have been waging a concerted campaign of lobbying the federal government to block the adoption of something known as “return-free-filing”, wherein the IRS would send out a pre-filled tax form.  If you choose you would be able to look over the form, make a few changes to and send it back for your return. Just like that – no fuss, no muss. But in this case, inefficiency is just too profitable, and the powers that be are not going to let it slip away.

This story provides a perfect example the friction that exists between the new and the old ways of doing things. Make no mistake, it is also a story echoed in every piece of paperwork. Is there not a better way to fill out these stupid time sheets? Should we not be trying to find a simpler means of accessing the legal system? Is there not a better way to file this application? etc…

The answer to these endless questions is always, of course, yes. But even if solutions already exist, the current system is not necessarily ready for things to change. Inefficient bureaucracy is the armour of the established system; it allows the old to dominate the new.

The established power structure has a tendency towards inertia if no strong impetus for change exists. Nonetheless, the established power structure can only swim against the current so long. People increasingly have their eyes open to the possibilities of technology. They can see how easy these things could really be, if some of these artificial inefficiencies were dissolves. They see the potential, and their frustration is growing. 

We are in the midst of a profound change from physical to digital storage of information. The physical storage of information may have once necessitated an army of human labour to process data; filling out endless forms and shuttling them from one place to another, but in the paradigm of digital information these tasks become trivial.

Most people today simply surrender themselves to filling and filing of paper as just a necessary part of modern life. They suppress their natural frustration, out of a good natured spirit of getting things done (and getting a pay check). Well I say, we should be frustrated. If necessity is the mother of invention then maybe frustration is the father. If we want to one day set aside mental toil as we did with physical toil, we will need energy to drive this change. We need to expect better if we want better.

Economic Reaction

Harnessing our collective frustration with mindless drudgery will be necessary to provide the energy to overcome the economic inertia which holds us back.

So embrace your frustration, it might just be what sets you free. 

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Fuck Paperwork – Part 1: Fuck Paper

I fucking hate paperwork. I apologize for the profanity, but there is nothing in my life that more strongly elicits that visceral reaction: “It’s 2013 – why do I still have to do this?”. In this first of a two part post, I will deal with the physical sin of paperwork – the paper itself.

Why is any information still being sent to me in the form of scratchings on flattened plant fibre? I watched this ad about the future of paper this week, it’s a comedic ad and does well to point out a couple of niche areas where paper is unlikely to be replaced any time soon. Nonetheless, the ad has spurned me to think more critically about the role of paper in our society, and I have come to the following scientific conclusion: fuck paper.

Paper has been a key tool, and a convenient technology for the transmission of information, but it’s time has come and gone. Let’s enumerate the advantages of electronic documents over physical ones:

  1. Electronic documents are searchable – In 2013 if I have something that is not indexed and searchable, then it doesn’t exist. The amount of time I need to spend performing the nightmarish task of sifting through documents in meatspace is rapidly heading to 0. Yes, I am spending more time combing my email history for documents I need, but in this context 30 seconds spent searching my email feels like an arduous task. There is simply no comparison between electronic and physical documentation in this respect. 
  2. No physical clutter – It’s ridiculous to think about how much physical space is filled with documents that nobody will ever read. Even the modest amount of paper which I am obliged to keep on file feels like a lead anchor on my clean modern existence. 
  3. Less (wasted) human labour – So you are saying that they used to pay people just to fold paper and put it into envelopes?
  4. Vanishingly small likelihood of losing an electronic document – If you are taking appropriate steps to back up your documents online, there is really next to no chance of losing your files. To the less technologically savvy (of which I am sure, few read this blog) this is really as easy as emailing a document to yourself. Doom-sayers might worry about what will happen if electronic communication breaks down, but if the modern world were to experience such a catastrophe I am confident we would have much more important things to worry about then where we put our latest phone bill.
  5. Document security – Ok, this one might be arguable, but again, if you take appropriate measures to protect your electronic repositories then they should be less accessible to nefarious sorts then a physical document. You realize of course, that there is no inherent security built into a piece of paper; we must take steps to prevent people from accessing our physical documents. Doing so electronically, can be equally as effective.

Given all this, why does my electrical company insist on taking an electronic document, turning it into a physical one, then paying someone to deliver it across space and time to me? In my case, this is promptly followed by turning it back into an electronic document and destroying the physical one! What mode of insanity is this? I will admit that most billers are rapidly moving to a paperless system, but in my opinion, this can’t happen fast enough. The sin of physical paperwork gets more egregious with every passing day.

And even though billing might thankfully be going the way of the dinosaur, what is with the scraps of paper that get handed to me every time I buy a coffee? Why has no company figured this out yet? Yes, we would like to track our purchases, but paper is so utterly useless in this regard. Why do I have a wallet full of receipts for things that I might like to return?

Let me spell this out: why hasn’t an enterprising banking or credit card company created a means to automatically email electronic receipts? This could be relegated to a specialized account so as not to clog up your normal inbox. This solves both the problem of tracking expenses as well as keeping a proof of purchase on file. This is such an easy win for everyone: retailers use less paper, customers are happier, and we waste less paper. I am dumbfounded why it hasn’t happened yet.

But, but, what about my books!? Well, you can have your books. The use of paper for books really represents a minuscule amount of paper in the grand scheme. I am comfortable with my e-reader at this point, and the convenience of being able to download books outweighs any cons in my opinion. But, there is no need to rush to a complete eradication of all uses of paper, let’s just concentrate on the pointless and wasteful uses of paper.

Paper is an inefficient and archaic means of delivering information and should be cast out of our modern lives forever. The efficiency gap between paper and electronic documents is at least as wide as the gap between stone tablets and paper. Even disregarding the environmental cost of paper, the efficiency cost is enough to get upset about.  So next time you receive some stupid document printed on stupid paper, let yourself feel the anger; after all, it is 2013.

The Irony of Digital Immortality

How much of yourself do you leave on the internet? An incredible amount of information is collected as you float around the web – sending email, leaving comments, upvoting and downvoting, posting pictures, creating and watching videos, and generally sharing yourself around. You are leaving a trail of digital crumbs, each a tiny clue about who you are. These crumbs capture simple things like what you look or sound like, but also more ephemeral things like how you think. By the very nature interaction with the internet, you cannot help but leave some of yourself behind.

Even more significant than the data you consciously leave behind, is the vast amount of data that companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are also collecting about you. These companies remember every search query, every purchase, every click and even your cursor movements. Every digital action is fair game for big data. Companies feed all of this information into growing character profiles that they then use to predict what and how to sell to you. They are building a model with which they can predict your decisions…. essentially, they are trying to emulate you.

But what would it take to truly recreate you? At this point nobody knows, but we can speculate on the ingredients such a being would require.

The first thing needed is a set of general memories from which to reconstruct your past. While we are more comfortable thinking of our memories as an infallible record of the past, the reality seems to be quite different. In fact, our memory seems to be better thought of as a retrospective and continually adapting narrative of who you are. Many people on the internet have already populated their personal timelines with the type of information that might be necessary to generate such a narrative. While an emulation might not generate a past exactly as it transpired in reality, maybe such a narrative wouldn’t really be any less plausible than the one that you think you lived.

The second ingredient would be a more general construction of how you think. There is a fascinating range of ways which people can view the world. In order to be a convincing emulation, it would have to have to have knowledge of your political leanings, personal beliefs, modes of reasoning, etc… Luckily, all of the discussions, in which you internet denizens are apt to participate generate a great deal of information about how you see the world.

A stew of geo-tagged date, vast archives of historical documents, and the day to day minutia captured by tweets, emails, messages and status updates might be just the digital stock needed to recreate your thought patternsCombine this with the staggering volume of similar information collected from billions of users around the world and I think a computer could one day be able to accurately assess that special mix of personality traits which makes you.

But even a perfect model of how you think would not be enough to breathe life into your emulation. The final and most vital ingredient needed will be the hardware necessary to run your emulation. This hardware would need to be a powerful general artificial intelligence. Only a computer which can consistently pass a Turing test as a general intelligence could be adapted to convincingly emulate the specific character traits of a specific person. But, once we can convincingly replicate one human mind, it will quickly become possible to replicate any human mind.

So, if in 20, 30 or 50 years time we finally create a computer which can faithfully replicate  human thinking patters, would we be able to recreate you? And I am not just saying you, of 20 years down the road, with the impossible to imagine amounts of information you will add to your profile in the intervening years, I am saying you – right now – the you who is at this very moment reading this blog post. Could we resurrect you?

I think that the hard part will be creating a mind, not recreating your mind. If we know how to generally recreate a human mind, it will be but a matter of shuffling a few inputs and outputs to make the mind like yours, or mine, or anyone. Even a thin thread of personal information which exists today might very well be enough to convincingly recreate you. 

The question we are really asking is this – how special are we? We have run into this question many times before, and we have never liked the answer. We are not the centre of the Universe and we are not the purpose of creation – maybe we are are not so special as individuals either? People are utterly predictable, and even at our most unique we are still only a hairs width apart compared to the infinity of possibility. So if we were to become so adept at recreating individuals, would we really be so interested in re-instantiating boring old human minds?

So, we have come to the irony: If realizing digital resurrection leads us to abandon the mysticism of individuality, what reason will we have to bring anyone back?

Is the Economy Obese?

Given the popularity of discussion about the problem of growing wealth inequality, you are probably already well aware that a certain segment of the population has done much better over the last few decades then the rest of us. This video lays out the insane level that the problem has reached, and if you haven’t seen it I would really recommend checking it out.

The key issue that I think a lot of the 1%’ers talk is missing, is something I alluded to in my last post. When we are talking about how much money the mega-wealthy are acquiring we are not really talking about people, rather we are talking about capital. These people are not standing in line at the bank to cash oversize $1M paycheques, rather, the majority of income for the wealthy comes from investments. Even if we are talking about big CEO salaries, their pay is directly determined by how much money they have made for stockholders, and thus how much capital growth they are producing. While it is divisive to talk about how much money certain people are making, talk about increasing concentration of capital is much more productive. Thus, if we want to have an honest discussion about wealth inequality we must talk about the rise of the financial sector.

In my post We Are Not Programmed for Abundance, I ask whether the increasing polarization of society is occurring for the same reason that our waistlines keep expanding. Just as we lack the biological programming to push the plate away when we have eaten the right number of calories, do we also lack the cultural programming to deal with the age of plenty provided by the modern economy? I think it’s an interesting idea and deserves another thought infection – to see what insights can be gleaned by thinking about the parallels of obesity and the growth of the financial sector.

Is the economy obese?

What does it mean to be obese? Based on a ratio of your height and weight, your BMI is the standard measurement by which a doctor will decide where you fall on a scale running from underweight to obese. Obesity is defined by a BMI greater than 30.

A better metric than BMI is a body density measurement. By dunking your entire body in a tank of water and seeing how much water your displace, you can get an exact measure of your body density. Because fat weighs less than muscle, a reading of the overall density of your body translates into a % fat you have on your body. Ultimately, it is the amount of fat that someone carries which is the most relevant metric in considering obesity. Whereas a healthy person’s body fat might range from 15% to as high as 30%, an obese person can have 40% body fat or higher.

Because fat is the method by which the body is able to store highly concentrated energy for later use, essentially someone who is obese is just storing up to much energy. Think of a bear that fattens up over the summer and fall, and then lives completely off of this energy store as it hibernates through the winter.

Fat stores have evolved as a safety net for lean times. What happens if there are no more lean times? Or lean times simply don’t occur with adequate regularity to counteract surpluses of energy input during times of plenty? In the modern world, we have essentially unlimited access to delicious calorie rich food, so our caveman bodies take the surplus of energy we are shovelling into them, and storing it away for later.

As your body adds layer after layer of fat, it eventually reaches a point where biological prudence turns to pathology. All of this fat that we are accumulating becomes a serious detriment to our body. The fat starts to drag us down, keeping us from interacting with the world in a normal way. The fat also starts to build up in places where it shouldn’t, leading to things like clogged arteries and heart problems. In a sense, obese people become ensnared in their own biological safety net.

So now the crux; what does this have to do with the economy? In some ways capital investment acts as a form of high energy storage for the economy at large. Whereas fat can be converted into things like muscles or bones, capital can be converted into things like factories and goods. As our economy gets better at serving the basic human needs as well as the expanded consumerist needs of today, the natural response is to store away more and more energy as capital.

It is important that we are not necessarily talking about all money, or even all capital here, what I specifically see as the fat would be the growth in financial sector investements (such as banks, derivatives, etc…) that are increasingly disconnected from the “real” economy. Just as there are many forms of energy in the human body, there are many forms of capital.

Another interesting thing about fat, is that all this fatty tissue itself has metabolic demands. Thus the more fat you have, the more you are driven to eat, leading to a vicious cycle of weight gain. Similarly, as the financial sector grows, it demands to be fed by economic resources. More capital growth demands more resources dedicated to maintaining and growing that capital, and the cycle continues.

While it might look great on paper to have a GDP driven by record profits in investments, this does not necessarily reflect the betterment of people’s lives. Yes, this vast wealth represents potential businesses and factories, but it does so in the exact same way that fat represents potential muscle.  If we don’t put it to use, then it will just continue to grow of its own volition.

Having a certain amount of this high density storage is absolutely essential to normal function whether we are talking about the economy or your body. But what constitutes a healthy amount of capital for an efficient economy? At what point does the growth of capital move from economic prudence to pathology? You may not agree that we have reached such a point yet, but if you at least accept that there exists a point where our overzealous nature to squirrel away profits starts to do more harm then good for the economy, then perhaps we should talk about how we might short-circuit this vicious feedback.

Just as there are countless solutions to lose excess weight, there are many solutions for the economy:

We can go on a diet. In a way, this is what happens in a depression. Disruptions in various sectors start to have a ripple effect across the economy, and things go off the rails for a while. People’s lives are suddenly worse off, and real demand grows in its wake. This drives investment into real economic output and a leaner and more efficient economy. While I think this would work, it is not really an ideal option given the need for things to get shitty in order for things to get better. This would not be the choice of a self-aware and well managed modern society, and in the end it would only perpetuate the cycles of boom and bust.

We can count calories. Some people seem to think that moving to a planned economy is the only solution to the problems of capitalism. I am not one of those people. While I do not blindly view socialism as some sort of super evil, I also think there is a disrespect for freedom built into a purely planned economy. I personally would not want to lose weight by counting every calorie I eat, similarly I do not want to restrict the economy to exactly fulfilling only what is decided to be appropriate needs or wants.

We can eat healthier food. If we were to demand that the economy start producing things with radically lowered environmental footprints, it would demand retooling by industry, and significant investment across every sector of the economy. It is a heinous lie that we cannot grow the economy and improve the environmental footprint of society at the same time. It is only through a sickening lack of creative vision that anyone could think that we are incapable of lowering our impact on the environment. The market could be the best friend of the environment if we devise systems that reward innovation to improve sustainability and punish inefficiency. This is absolutely something that we should do. Why are we not doing this?

We can find a new reason to lose weight. To me this is the single most important step for anyone to accomplish anything. People will not lose weight until they have a reason to do so. In the same way, the economy is not going to shed excess capital until it has a drive to do it. This is why the outbreak of war normally leads to such great economic stimulus. As a society, we are suddenly shifted to accomplishing a goal, which is so desperately necessary any and all means should be employed. At the most extreme, we become convinced that the very existence of our society depends on this, and every level of our society follows suit. Industry invests and we all go to work. It is a sickening fact that killing each other has so often lead to great advances in human society, but purpose does not have to be derived only from war. The space race of the 50’s and 60’s is another example of how a societal level challenge can lead to great economic growth and great accomplishments. I think the world of today thirsts for new grand challenges. 

In the end, the solution to income disparity will likely come from dealing with other problems in our society. No problem is ever an island unto itself. Societal change has in the past emerged from processes that we did not understand. We faced environmental collapse because we did not see our collective impact on the natural world, we saw depressions when we failed to see our collective impact on the economic world. But it does not have to be this way. Just as new understanding of our biology will allow us to remake our bodies as we would want them to be, a consciousness of the forces the make our society will allow us to remake our society as we would want it to be. How do you want the world to be?

UPDATE: A great article here on the state of excess capital in the world today.

Disclaimer: There are many different ideas touched on in this post, and there are many intelligent people who have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about these things. This post is not meant to be exhaustive in any way, and is simply meant to infect you with some new thoughts. I would suggest reading more about monetary policy, growth of the financial sector, derivatives, obesity, economics and whatever else might strike your interest. Just keep thinking, and don’t be afraid to be wrong, it’s the discussion that matters!

The Jobs Are Never Coming Back

I just watched former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s TED Talk. She provides some nice insight as to what it is really like as a politician trying to grapple with the new realities of the modern world; trying to save jobs in America that just don’t make sense economically any more. Granholm also raises the need to address global climate change as an enigma on equal footing with economic issues. What makes her talk interesting is she sees that a solution to the climate change problem could also be a solution to economic woes, a surprising position given the normal myopia of politicians when it comes to linking environment with economy.

While I like the general slant of Granholm’s view, in particular with respect to proposing a feasible means of stimulating the move to green energy through competitive incentivization programs, I have to disagree that even a major shift to green energy in America is somehow going to bring back “good jobs”.

We can make all the windmills the world needs, and it won’t bring back the robust jobby-ness of the past, because things just don’t work that way. Economics is not going to change course because it would make it easier for us to structure our world. It would not take that many people to make all the windmills we would ever need, because in modern and efficient businesses it just doesn’t take many people to do things. If these green energy companies really did go on a hiring spree and started employing the numbers that politicians would like to see, they would be (a) unsustainable and (b) replaced by more efficient businesses with less costs.

The jobs are never coming back.

To be fair, this post is not so much directed at Granholm in particular, rather it’s aimed at the endless parroting of conventional wisdom about jobs inundating us from all directions. It is in fact, utterly unsurprising to hear a politician talking about a daring new plan to “bring jobs back to [Insert Place Here]”. Given how mercilessly politicians beat the long dead horse of job creation in literally every political speech, the only thing that is surprising is that people still somehow believe that politicians can create jobs.

And this is not to say that business people are the “real job-creators”, and government should just get out of the way. What those business owners and investors are really interested in is making more money. We are not really talking about people here, we are talking about capital, and capital investment flows to the most efficient mechanisms to accomplish work and thus accrue more capital.

In the 21st century, the rules of the game have changed. Capital growth has become decoupled from job growth, yet we still somehow seem to think that a growing economy is going create enough jobs to match the number of people looking for them. Or, maybe if we just trained people to better match the few sectors that are hiring, then there will be enough jobs for people? Please, go ahead and ask a recent University grad about that one.

In my first post to this blog, I talk about the trajectory the economy is on. We are headed towards untold abundance with little need for actual human labor. Examples like people who transport things (ie truck drivers, taxi drivers etc…) provide an easy illustration of how the automation of menial labor is pushing more and more people out of work, but menial service jobs could just as easily be replaced as computers become more adept at digesting natural human language.  Even high level jobs could be at risk, as these very expensive positions are targeted by enterprising software companies.

We are not going to get there tomorrow, but eventually your job can be replaced by a computer (or part thereof). And if you don’t have a job today? You can at least partly thank technology for that. Yes, there are many factors involved here (globalization, tax regulations, economics etc…) but greatly increased worker productivity driven by technological innovation should be considered an increasingly important consideration.

Here is a simple example: If you had a magic box that could create (almost) anything for relatively low cost and required very little human labor to do so, what impact would that have on the economy?

At this point in my rant I am obliged to point out what should be obvious. People needing to work less and having greater and cheaper access to goods is a great thing. Industrial development is a good thing and it should not be unduly interfered with, beyond perhaps trying to make it less horribly destructive to the environment.

My point is this, we must accept this uncomfortable fact: There is no natural, physical, economic or legal law which states that economic growth creates more jobs. Yes, jobs have traditionally been a side-benefit of a strong economy, but believing that somehow if we just maintain a strong economy jobs will magically come back is nothing more then a collective delusion. The future is different than the past, deal with it.

It is time change the discourse about jobs. Enough with the increasingly absurd talk about “stimulating growth” because it is the “engine of job creation”.  A 20th century approach for a 21st century problem is just not going to work. It is time to stop with the bullshit, suspend our collective illusions about jobs. The jobs are not coming back; now what do we do about it?

There exist policy changes that could help greatly to reinvigorate the job market of today. If there is not enough work to go around, then we can take measures to share the work more equally. Perhaps by decreasing retirement age, we can encourage employers to hire younger people. Shortening the work week could be another approach. How ironic it is that austerity measures everywhere are pushing to raise retirement age and decrease holidays? And this creates more jobs how?

As Wingham Rowan describes in his TED talk, we could also apply the dynamism of high frequency trading to ground level job markets, to get labour to where it is needed more quickly.

All of these ideas are great, and could have real impact on today’s problems, but the elephant in the room is what we do 20 years down the road. How are we going to structure a society that needs radically less human labour? This conversation needs to start now. If we accept the fact that the job market has fundamentally changed, then there are things that can be done about it, but we must first accept this as fact. 

So lets take off the jobs coloured glasses and get on with it already. 

UPDATE 2014: Since writing this article I have come to support the idea of instituting a basic income. I think it is an idea whose time has come. I am not so optimistic as to think it can solve all of our problems but it would go a long way to providing the kind of breathing room which people need to power economic innovation in today’s world. See Basic Income Means Basic Freedom

UPDATE: NYT article examining the trend of decoupling in the economy.

UPDATE: Not just America, here is a paper examining decoupling of wages and productivity in Australia

Retail automation

See the future