British Servility, Gamification of Jobs Inside the API

Issue 5 of my newsletter – subscribe here

The rise of Conservative MP Rory Stewart has sparked an intense frustration in me. Many people who would never vote for a right-wing party have confessed liking this “British eccentric with preternatural intelligence“, as Hadley Freeman from the Guardian described him.

What is it, precisely, that Freeman admires – other than the headline fact that Stewart opposes a no-deal Brexit (but, of course, still wants Brexit and doesn’t want a second referendum)? He quotes Latin; as a child, he named his toy horse Bucephalus “for the horse that Alexander the Great tamed as a youth”; still as a child, he had a fondness for reciting Hamlet; he gives impassioned speeches in the house about hedgehogs. That sort of thing. Never mind the fact that he voted against measures to prevent climate change; against regulation for fracking; for welfare benefits cuts; against laws to promote equality and human rights.

To be fair, Freeman confesses the British attraction towards eccentrics is what’s led to the rise of Boris Johnson and all the ills that accompany him. But let’s not mince words. I think there’s still a pathetic servility towards the upper-class – eccentric or not – in this country.

Rory Stewart’s accomplishments and political positions are ‘better’ than many other Tory leadership candidates, but that doesn’t make him a good leader – especially since his accomplishments are wildly overstated; rather than governing an Iraqi province, he was deputy to a US “governate coordinator” of an Iraqi region. Yes, he spent a month on a walking holiday in Afghanistan, and he was briefly tutor to Prince William and Harry, but how much of that is down to the fact that he had opportunities that most people could barely ever dream of?

As for principle, I will never forget his inventing the statistic that 80% of the British public supported Theresa May’s Brexit deal. When pressed by the interviewer as to where he had got the information, he said, “I’m producing a number to try to illustrate what I believe,” confirming that he was not simply ignorant, but rather, a liar.

I honestly just don’t understand how otherwise smart left-wingers are taken in by this. Someone who quotes Latin isn’t worthy of any extra consideration above someone who knows engineering or medicine or fashion, but it seems some people cannot break their fascination with activities associated with the upper class.

It’s not entirely class-based, to be fair. Around the world, people have fallen hard for public intellectuals who claim to know everything about everything, whether that’s Yuval Noah-Hariri, Jordan Peterson, Jill Abramson, or Naomi Wolf. In one way, Stewart is merely a British, upper-class version.

If I had to be generous, I think the idea is that because Stewart has had all these interesting experiences rather than working in a normal job doing normal things like earning a wage, that means he is not only uniquely placed to lead the country, but he is also more principled than most. That may end up being true – we can’t know yet – but what is true is that barely a fraction of a percent of the British population were born into the wealth and privilege that Stewart was, and thus afford to have all his experiences. He may well have done better than others brought up in the same conditions, but I can promise you there are plenty more people who didn’t go to Eton but have made a better go at it.

That the class system still exists in Britain is no surprise. But the thoughtless admiration bestowed on Stewart shows this country still has masters – and servants.

Another week, another set of creepy headlines about gamification. The Washington Post reports how Amazon turned the tedium of warehouse work into a game with a series of games that sound like they were rejects from first-year game jams.

This isn’t a new development – Amazon has had a team working on these games for years, and the gamification takes many forms. In December, Bloomberg wrote about Amazon’s “Power Hours” for warehouse workers:

in which employees are pressured to move extra fast in hopes of winning raffle tickets.

“Every day they’re changing the goal — the finish line is changed every day,” Bleach said.

Amazon said incentives offered by the company “are part of our company culture, and we want to make sure Peak is a fun time of year for associates who are working hard to fulfill customer orders.”

Uh huh.

The insidious nature of these games is that it allows managers to really believe they’re making their employees’ work more enjoyable and productive while also saving money. Why? Because they’re games! Never mind the fact that the employees have no choice in whether they play or not, which makes a mockery of the entire principle of games. Would those same managers appreciate their work being gamified? I think not.

Which brings me to an interesting lens on how to think about modern employment: whether a job is “inside the API” or not. As Jakob Falkovich puts it:

Algorithms are replacing middle management, and if you don’t have a job telling computers what to do, sooner or later your job will consist of doing what computers tell you.

(An API is an Application Programming Interface – a clearly-defined way for applications to talk to each other and request things. These days, an API might allow you to request an Uber to deliver a burger to a specific location)

To focus that lens even further, if your job is inside the API, prepare for it to be gamified.

Watching

🎞 Always Be My Maybe, a decent Netflix romcom elevated by its Asian-American leads. Also, I must possess Daniel Dae Kim’s Adidas:

Incidentally, Netflix prevents you from taking screenshots of their content on computers and apps, which is absurd and unnecessary. I ended up torrenting a copy of The Wandering Earth simply to grab parts of the end credit sequences.

🎞 A Knight’s Tale (rewatch). How on Earth did they spend $65 million making this movie? What a classic.

Reading

📖 Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, a lazily-written but fairly readable argument that empathy (defined narrowly as “I feel your pain”) gets in the way of ‘better’ and more rational decision-making. It’s not a good sign when the author flat out tells you in the introduction you can stop after the first chapter.

Listening

🎧 The Automat on 99% Invisible. Even if you know about the general concept of Automas restaurants, this is a lovely description of why they were so special – because they were a great leveller, like Ikea, and allowed people to eat and drink at their own pace, as fast or as slow as they liked. People of all classes went there. Perhaps one day they will return.

Visiting

Edinburgh has a lot of galleries, considering it’s a city of only half a million:

🏛 Collective, a contemporary art gallery newly-relocated to Calton Hill, with an interesting exhibition, Enigma Bodytech, about “the interconnection between energy, technology and the body” by Kimberley O’Neill.

🏛 The Fruitmarket Gallery‘s Design Market. Interesting to see the explosion of work that uses laser cutters and 3D printers.

🏛 Edinburgh Printmakers, newly-relocated to Fountainbridge.

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