The promise of technology has long been to deliver a life of leisure. Internal combustion, electricity, telecommunications, computers, and the internet all had the potential to alleviate work for humans — a full day’s work would become four hours’ work, leaving time to sit and drink lemonade.
Since you’re not working four hours a day, one would think that productivity has skyrocketed thanks to the latest of such innovations, the internet. What evidence exists suggests that hasn’t been the case, though. The lack of a productivity jump could be chalked up to numerous sources: distracted workers, faulty measures of productivity, ill-constructed workplace norms. But one thing’s clear: Today’s bevy of technology hasn’t made life demonstrably simpler for workers.
Amazon, that place that’s supposed to suck to work at, could be at the forefront of changing this. The company announced this week that it’s going to employ part-time workers who will receive the same benefits as full-time employees.
This might not seem like game-changing labor policy; part-time employees are cheaper, after all. But if the experiment works, Amazon might set the table for labor practices that fulfill the leisurely promises of technology.
Let’s say the broader lack of productivity in the internet era is real and a product of inefficiency. If work practices can be honed, then it’s possible 40 hours of Amazon work can be done in 30 hours. In the current system, an employee might finish her work in 30 hours then while away for 10 hours at, say, unnecessary meetings. By explicitly making these positions part-time, Amazon is signaling that the employees are to spend less time working on, well, work. Thus, these new part-time teams could be as productive as full-time teams, but get more time to spend at home.
If it works, then Amazon can extrapolate the new work processes to full-time teams to yield a real increase in productivity, possibly establishing a system where employees can choose in explicit, contractual terms how much time they want to spend at work or at home.
Or the system could be abused by a large employer. Either way, it’s an experiment worth having.
One would think life is good for a millennial who’s getting a free education and has a very good shot at a $90,000 job when she’s done. But, as New York Times writer Kirk Johnson lays out in a wide-ranging story, area millennials aren’t optimistic about much.
The Ada Developers Academy students featured in the story were stressed about politics, debt, terrorism, the economy, and much more. Even the technology industry that was about to employ them gave them unease. Johnson writes:
Technology is the sea that millennials swim in — a kind of second nature, especially to Adies (Ada students). But many of them feel a deep ambivalence. Tech, they say, means military drones, loss of privacy and cyberbullying. Social media, the new town square, often feels more like a combat zone than a place to share ideas. Tech companies are driving up rent in places like Seattle, forcing out lower-income people, even while creating excellent jobs that Adies are likely to get.
That dichotomy in the last sentence frames the social guilt of tech cities. The Seattle area is full of liberal people who just so happen to work for a tech company that pays obscene amounts of money compared to what the area’s lower class receives. The pace of change likely exacerbates that guilt — it’s less fun, I imagine, moving into a shiny apartment if you saw the lower-income housing it replaced.
Above all else, Johnson’s is a story of a city in flux. Change always yields winners and losers. What’s interesting, though, is the people in his story could be considered winners — they’re about to be employed by the huge industry that’s buoying the Puget Sound area’s rapid growth. One must wonder, then, why they’re so unhappy, and what can be done about it.
Mind that Merger
Microsoft’s Nokia buy notwithstanding, big-time tech mergers have gone pretty well for the buyers. Perhaps too well, Times columnist Steven Davidoff Solomon argues. In light of Walmart’s $3.3 billion purchase of Jet.com, an e-commerce site aiming to challenge Amazon and Walmart, Solomon says tech mergers aren’t receiving the antitrust scrutiny they should be.
It has become commonplace for tech companies to buy chief competitors. Facebook spent nearly $23 billion to buy Instagram and WhatsApp. Google bought Waze and YouTube, and Microsoft bought LinkedIn.
Solomon argues that antitrust regulators are taking an antiquated approach to monitoring these transactions:
Under the traditional view of antitrust, when Facebook, for example, tries to buy a company like Instagram, it can argue that anyone can start such a website. And there are other competitors like Google and Snapchat. And so this gets past the antitrust authorities, who seem more concerned with how the data will be used rather than the accumulation of users. … This misses the point that domination is all about users and views. Those companies with users and page views can dominate, and accumulating those users is everything, something only an infinitesimally small number of companies can find the key to doing.
What’s interesting is that the tech economy has come to rely on purchases like these. The goal of taking a company public has virtually vanished; mergers are the exit de rigueur for startups. Startups, it seems, don’t hope to topple Amazon or Apple or Microsoft. Instead, they hope to get just big enough to be seen as a threat, and then the cash rolls in.