Saturday, June 24, 2017

Fauxtomation

This new word hit the zeitgeist on June 19, 2017 thanks to @astradisastra.


The next day, Mel Healy wrote a smart essay about Fauxtomation and the Mechanical Turk.
For all their tech, many leading tech firms nowadays may be rather more “hi-Turk”, relying on cheap labour to do the day-to-day maintenance and moderation of their social media. Like the Mechanical Turk’s operator these people are largely hidden away inside big boxes, only this time the boxes are on the opposite side of the planet, in India or the Philippines. Vast armies of invisible workers in underdeveloped countries.

Each box is decidedly unglamorous compared with the shiny new HQs and campuses of Silicon Valley in California or Google Docks in Dublin. You won’t find any fancy games rooms and lavish staff restaurants, or “micro kitchens”, chillout zones, fitness centres, swimming pools, wellness areas, tech stops or phone booths.
June 23, 2017, Shira Ovide wrote about the army of workers needed to bring you Amazon's one-click convenience.

Fauxtomation is the word that crystalizes why I feel so angry about gushing articles like this about places like Eatsa, a restaurant that supposedly serves vegetarian food made by robots.
Customers tap their meal selections on an iPad or their smartphone and pay electronically. No cash is taken here. Then when the order is ready, hands slide the meal into a “cubby,” which lights up with the customer’s name. The plan is for it to be ready in less than minutes from the time the order is placed.
Silicon Valley reinvented the automat. But--most insidiously--this time, they are selling a guilt-free low-cost experience by pretending that a low-paid human did not make the food.
Eatsa is the brainchild of Scott Drummond, a techie focused on data-driven results. He says forgoing meat, along with staff, helps keep the cost of goods down.
Drummond is all about the data science and other buzz words/phrases such as “enhanced predictive and personal health engagement.” But can robots prepare these meals? If so, what a breakthrough in robotics!
How the kitchen will hold up remains to be seen. For now, at least, it relies on human components: about five employees involved in prepping, assembling, and expediting behind the store’s façade.
The dirty secret finally comes out, there are people hiding in the mechanical Turks. Even then, he obfuscates further by invoking the glamour of warfare and robotics.
But for now, Eatsa still needs a few good chefs, with some special skills. “They can’t be afraid of technology,” say Drummond. “Our first general manager used to be a military robotics specialist.”
You betcha that a robotics expert is not the guy making your $7 lunch in San Francisco.

Wonkblog explains the crisis in restaurant staffing, particularly in high cost areas such as SF-SV.

And don't even get me started on Blue Apron's unsafe working conditions necessary to bring us cheap, home-cooked meals.  Food, like clothing, is not going to be cheap and fast unless we sacrifice some people.  Are we willing to confront those choices head-on?


Addendum:
The Washington Post reports that shipping costs account take up 30% of the price of Blue Apron meals.  It's a big driver in why BA squeezes their kitchen staff to work at unsafe speeds or to work off the clock without pay.


9 comments:

  1. Whoa. Literal food for thought. Fauxtomation. Makes me think of Dorothy's disappointment when she pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard is just a guy. But the lesson is the same - it all comes back to head, hands, and heart.

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    1. If we work backwards from price point and fix the quality, then there is no where to cut but in labor. Women's work has traditionally been "free" in the sense that no one paid for these high-skill and high-stress jobs.

      Our whole sense of what things should cost is warped because we didn't factor in the cost of women's work. Let's make our work--the infrastructure of society--visible.

      Delete
  2. What do you think we (as a society? as individuals?) can do, practically, to make this work visible? And what do you think the practical goal should be?

    I feel conflicted by some of these services. I personally don't use them, but mostly because I have all sorts of fancy luxuries that most people don't have.(primarily, a high-earning and hardworking (male) spouse who does at least as much housework and childcare as I do, probably more. But also the ability to live in a walkable city with farmers markets and restaurants nearby). So me "setting an example" is kind of useless--most people just don't have the same choices as me, period, even if I wish they did. I think about some friends I have who are balancing 2 demanding careers and three young kids and live far away from family (location has been determined by the wife's job-she is a doctor completing her training). I think they use a dinner prep service for their dinner. I'm not really sure I'm in a place to judge them for the choice to outsource their weekday cooking. It seems that the best I could hope for is that the price of these services were higher, so that it reflected the actual cost of paying the people fairly.

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    1. Demanding (and auditing to ensure) that they adhere to existing safety and wage laws can go a long way to fix these structural problems. Then the prices have to go up.

      I batch cook on weekends, but that's not feasible for everyone.

      Some people belong to neighborhood supper clubs where each participating family cooks 1-2x/week.

      In college, I used to shop for a disabled lady who paid me. I met a lady at Trader Joe's who said that she makes the TJs run for 3 families at once.

      I think it is possible for busy people to find other busy people to share the work. Why are there so many sites for finding hook-ups and so few for creating a genuine village?

      Delete
  3. my younger son (15) is a student of Marxism and socialism. On a canoe trip recently he opened a Coke and remarked, "ah the sweet taste of the tears of non-union workers".
    So, he's figured it out ;-) that unions to defend safety and wage laws are essential. Re-making society so that unions are part of it, not so simple..

    Cheap food or clothing or most anything cheap, is fueled by someone's tears. Look at Amazon warehouse work conditions, and Uber's behavior to its drivers (and customers). At some point we have to start prioritizing human beings over cheapness and profits, or at least giving them equal status. Maybe not in my lifetime.

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  4. I'm glad to see you posting again!

    I wonder if people's addiction to smart phones or business's drive for more profit is the bigger reason behind the fauxtomation trend. I guess this is a chick and egg question. Is people's seeming lack of desire to acknowledge the presence of another person leading business to come up with ways to accommodate that? Or is the business's desire to cut costs leading to encouraging customers to not want human interaction?

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    1. I don't most people are trying to avoid interaction so much as avoid confronting the exploitation of other human beings in their personal consumption habits.

      Delete
  5. How do you determine whether exploitation is happening or not? Presumably, there is a point at which you would be ok with the working conditions and pay of the people doing the work, though probably there will be some people who still won't be ok with it. So what's a reasonable standard/goal to work towards?

    As you point out, enforcing existing laws is a start. But sometimes existing laws are inadequate (e.g. Many people think minimum wage should be higher than it is). How does one figure out what is reasonable?

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    1. You've asked the eternal question. I don't have an easy answer. I agree that minimum wage is too low.

      Here's how I deal with a common conundrum:
      I read that SF hotel maids earn ~$18/hr. (See this story amongst others. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/article150907997.html )

      That's not a livable wage in SF.

      I also read that maids clean ~2 rooms/hour.

      If I leave a tip of $5-10 a day in my hotel room, then the maid gets $10-20/hour more--a livable wage.

      I'm also tipping more at restaurants, especially in high cost of living areas.

      I don't have to wait for our entire society to get behind reducing inequality to do something on my own to make the world less awful.

      Delete