› How Society Works

How Society Works

Understanding how society works would be a huge advantage in our quest to anticipate the future. Understanding how society works is therefore a very worthy goal within our future gazing context.

While the fundamental structure and values of society are different for different cultures and through different times in history, human nature has changed very little in the past 3000 years or so. This is obvious from studying literature from past eras (all of recorded history) and also from studying divergent cultures.

By gaining an understanding of human nature, we can understand what the underlying forces are that drive how society works. If these drivers on society have been constant for thousands of years, then it is quite reasonable to believe that they will continue for the foreseeable future. Technologies advance and change easily, but human nature is rather inflexible!

Creating a vision of the future for the Welder is one of the central aims of our e-zine, The WelderDestiny Compass. It is therefore obvious that we will spend quite a bit of time exploring "how society works", and use these insights to anticipate how these will affect the job of the Welder in the future.

This web page is essentially a compendium of articles published in The WelderDestiny Compass that deals with how society works. It assists those that want to follow our discussion regarding "how society works" without having to actually read all the back issues of The WelderDestiny Compass. It will be updated every time we discuss "how society works."

Image of Ancient Egyptian Gods: While ancient Egyptian society was a lot different to ours today, human nature was pretty much the same. Very little has changed in human nature in more than 2000 years.

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Compendium of Articles Dealing With How Society Works

As you read the compendium of the articles within this page, please keep in mind that these articles also have reference to other articles within the same e-zine edition in which they were originally published. This may make the different articles below appear a little disjointed. If you would like to see the broader context of any specific article, please click through to the full e-zine to get a more complete picture.

The other advantage of looking at the whole e-zine is that there may be supporting articles posted there by some of our readers, and their insights may just be what you are looking for.

"Self-Interest" Drives the World and Shapes the Future

Issue #002 - January 11, 2017 - Titled: Machine Learning Vision Systems

Always back the horse named self-interest, son. It'll be the only one trying. (Jack Lang – Labour Premier in Australia)

It is not only politicians that know that self interest is a powerful motivator. We all know this instinctively. While there are many people that shoot themselves in the foot (both literally and metaphorically) out of foolishness or error, very few people choose to do so willingly. If you can choose between two feet to shoot, chances are that you will choose the foot that is not attached to the end of your own leg!

While this principle of "self-interest rules" is not exactly a blindingly brilliant insight, it is central to how society works, and is powerful in trying to predict how society will respond when faced with the forces associated with the technological revolution.

This becomes clearer when we understand that everyone has a "sphere of influence" within which they can promote and defend their own self-interest.

For us small fish, the sphere of influence is small, so it is not possible to get a national law passed that will result in us getting advantaged in life. Maybe just a parking spot at the local tennis club! If, however you are a high-ranking government official, or mega rich business person, then you would be able to get this law passed with some effort on your part. In between these two extremes of influence, there are many levels of influence.

While these issues of influence and self-interest often lead to corruption, please understand that this principle is not primarily about corruption. Not legal corruption in any case. We could argue that it is about moral corruption, because people are acting in the interest of "self", or "groups" rather than the "whole of society", but that leads us to grey areas that do not help us much, so we will not go down that road.

At the highest levels, this self-interest results in small interest groups, or even individuals, being advantaged, usually financially, at the expense of the majority of people in society. Obviously this kind of thing only works if the actions leading to this situation can be "sold" as being to the advantage of society.

This is the point at which we put on our "tinfoil hats" and delve into the realm of the conspiracy theorists...

There are those that describe modern democracies as just a front for the unelected "insiders" that actually govern. Terms such as "the dark state" (or the swamp) are used to describe this group. This "dark state" is described as a group of insiders that make sure that they get the best deals in life while manipulating society to pay for it. Sometimes they are portrayed as some kind of organized group that is centrally controlled. (Illuminati anybody?)

When you think about it, it is an inevitable situation in any society that high-level influencers look after their own self-interest. This happens in all systems of government. It happens in a monarchy, socialist, democratic, theocratic, free-market and communist society. The big thing to note is however that this is not some centrally controlled group, but a diverse group looking after their own self-interests. To make this work, the people that understand how influence is wielded, know that they need to work with each other as far as possible. It is a matter of "I will scratch your back if you scratch mine". (And there are some multi-billion dollar backs out there with a serious itch!)

When those at the top of this pyramid of self-interest over-reach, or interest groups within the system want to juggle for position, then you get revolutions. These revolutions can be anything from a hostile change in leadership at a local sports club or non-profit board, a company boardroom coup, hostile company take-over and a national revolution. These are just different levels of the same thing.

To further expand on this, it starts to become clear that a democracy is just a series of agreed upon revolutionary events. It allows the broader populace to “revolt” against those in power at regular intervals, in a (hopefully) peaceful manner. The really skilful wielders of influence within these systems will however position themselves in such a way that they end up with their influence intact after the “democratic revolution”. In short, those that can achieve this outcome manage to maintain influence regardless of who wins the election. This is the “dark state”.

What we notice is that the leadership following revolutions (big or small) pretty much always gravitate back to the situation where the "insiders" (those with the influence) look after themselves in the first instance. The faces of those “in charge” may be different, but the outcome in terms of self-interest only changes in form, not substance.

If we think of this in an unemotional way, we will realise that this is the "natural order of things", rather than this being an aberration. We could explain this in terms of evolutionary adaptation or the sinful nature of man, or a hundred other ways, but the bottom line is that this is human nature. It has been so for thousand of years, (the extent of recorded history) and will continue in this way for thousand more. I would not bet on human nature suddenly changing just because technology is changing more rapidly than in the past.

Obviously, people that manage to maintain these positions of influence are typically people that know how to wield such influence to their advantage. If they did not, they would not last long within that position! It is pretty much a situation of natural selection and in some cases "breeding". (Hereditary power and / or wealth.)

OK, so let us take off our tinfoil hats and ask how this insight helps us in our mission to anticipate the future? Firstly, it tells us that any technology change (or change in the system) that does not offer an advantage to some group that wields influence currently, will have a fight to make it into the "mainstream". Sometimes a technology will have to “wait for its time to come", before it will go mainstream. Secondly, it tells us that any technology that will seriously damage the interests of those with influence, will need to garner its own support base to "get ahead". This too, is nothing new. It is the good old "constructive destruction" that is actually at the heart of the free market system. A new technology may have the potential to make the current system obsolete, but it will only gain traction if "managed" in the right way. Let us look at a couple of examples to get an idea:

In the "ride hailing" (e.g. UBER) VS Taxi industry battle, we have the entrenched taxi industry insiders with much to lose, so they will fight this battle rather fiercely. In the "home accommodation" (e.g. AirBnB) VS hotel industry battle, we have something very similar happening as with UBER, so again we will have a big battle. In both of these situations, the new technology companies have garnered the support of the "voters" to stand behind them in their fight. I use the term “voters”, because both UBER and AirBnB have a broad and enthusiastic user base. This broad user base vote for who gets into public office. While the politicians that are the front for the taxi and hotel industries are battling these two technology companies, they must be careful not to alienate the very large "voter" support base for these services. I believe that because of this dynamic, the technology companies will prevail, but there may be some "agreements" and "concessions" made along the way to soften the blow to the traditional suppliers.

The "streaming video" (e.g. Netflix) VS physical video/DVD rental war was very short with hardly a shot fired. While this technology killed a number of physical movie rental companies, the real power behind the entertainment industry did not mind the change. The real power behind the entertainment industry are the content creators, rather than the content delivery companies. Streaming content delivery was not to their detriment, so no big fight.

The new era of automation will be full of this constructive destruction paradigm with winners and losers aplenty. It will be part of the opportunities that we create, as well as the threats that we face. Are you game?

Click here to see this article within the context of the e-zine it was originally published in...

Man Doing a Machine's Job

Issue #007 - February 15, 2017 - Titled: Virtual Reality in Welding

“What Gus is saying is that we’re missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumors that they want to send a monkey up first. Well, none of us wants to think that they’re gonna send a monkey up to do a man’s work. But what Gus is saying is that what they’re trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey’s work. Us, a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees!” (From the movie: The Right Stuff)

When we see jobs being lost to automation, our emotions respond in a manner that tries to protect our own self-interest. We believe that there needs to be some protection for our jobs from this onslaught. While this emotional response is natural, history suggests that it is not very useful in the long run.

As an example, I look at the automotive industry in Australia. When the Australian automobile assembly plants were not competitive with those from Asia, the government subsidised the companies running the plants. The alternative was to automate the plants so that the high wage rates in Australia could be neutralised, but the job losses were politically unpopular, hence the subsidy option being chosen.

For years, this subsidy system prevailed in Australia, while car manufacturers in other developed nations such as Japan, South Korea and Germany (who also have relatively high wage rates) followed the automation route. Eventually it became clear that the subsidies in Australia were not sustainable, and the government had no choice but to eliminate them.

The nett result is that the automobile assembly plants are closing, with the associated loss of not only the jobs in the assembly plants, but also in the numerous small businesses that provided components and services to those assembly plants.

In hindsight, we see that it would have been better to encourage the automation. While this would have resulted in job losses in the short term, it would have saved a lot of jobs in the associated small businesses. In addition, it could have resulted in a burgeoning industry in the automation and robotics technology sectors that could service the equipment for the automotive industry. Instead, those industries were developed in Japan, South Korea and Germany.

If you believe that your job is being threatened by automation or robotics, then it is time to decide how you can add value to what you provide. As a rule, it is best not to compete with technology, but rather to use technology to become more competitive. Ask yourself how you can get an edge and significantly increase your productivity using technology.

High productivity and value add is the best protection against job losses. Your productivity needs to be high enough that the cost of capital associated with automation is just not worth the investment. This additional value can be achieved in several different ways, including your skill, knowledge, experience and ability to flexibly interface with a team.

To give up what you know is only possible when you acquire alternative tools. Always keep your eyes and mind open to identify your opportunities for acquiring those alternative tools. Remember, for salvation we need to move beyond fear.

When automation comes knocking on your door, don’t be the man doing a machine's job!

Click here to see this article within the context of the full e-zine it was originally published in...

Work Does Not Equal Job

Issue #009 - March 01, 2017 - Titled: X-Ray Vision is Coming

Whenever the effects of automation are discussed, invariably we will hear that the machines and robots will eventually take over all our jobs. Eventually we will have no more work! This argument assumes that the only “work” we do is what we do as an official “job”.

In the new era coming, there will indeed be very few jobs as we define them today. Instead, our work will be to find the niche within which we can attract wealth towards ourselves. The way to attract wealth towards ourselves is to find a product or service that adds enough value to somebody else, that they will be willing to pay for that product or service. This is just entrepreneurship 101.

The most successful people will not necessarily be those that “work the hardest”, but those that find the best way to add value to others at the lowest cost and effort to themselves. In other words, you need to become good at identifying a niche, and being able to supply into that niche.

Ask yourself: What skills do I need in the coming era to identify niches, and then supplying into those niches? If you are asking the question: What job can I do? Then I believe that you are asking the wrong question for the machine age.

Work does not equal job. Work equals adding value to a niche. We will discuss this mindset, and the consequences, in future editions of The WelderDestiny Compass.

While the consequences of much of the new technology being developed today will be automation of jobs, this technology is also going to make our work environment really cool!

Click here to see this article in the context of the full e-zine it was originally published in...

Google Already Has All the Answers

Issue #011 - March 15, 2017 - Titled: The Answer is 42

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book by Douglas Adams, the ultimate question was posed to an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought. The question was: "What is the answer to life, the universe and everything".

Deep Thought computed away for 7.5 million years and came up with the answer: 42. So, there you have it folks, the answer to the ultimate question is 42! 

The problem is that nobody really understood the question. In the book, they needed to wait another 7.5 million years for the computer to tell them what the REAL question is. 

I use the amusing anecdote (well I find it amusing!) from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, because it is really a parody of what jobs in the machine age will be about. We already have "deep thought", and deep thought will only get more powerful in the future. Just about any answer we are looking for can be found by asking deep thought.

Now, in our world "deep thought" is not a single computer, but it is the ability to find just about any answer you want by asking it to platforms like Google. Google already has all the answers! Well, maybe not all the answers, but it certainly knows a hell of a lot more than you or I or any other single individual, because it is the embodiment of knowledge aggregation. 

In my early years as an engineer, before the internet, when we wanted to find answers to questions we needed to look for it in books, or journal articles, or from a really clued up person, or develop it ourselves by doing expensive research and experimentation. Now we ask Google! 

In the good old days, the really good engineers were the guys that had all the answers in their head. You could just go to them, and they would give you a pretty good answer, without having to do the research. The really good engineers were the smart people. 

Now you can get the answers from Google within the time it would take to walk over to the smart engineer's desk! Not only will you get a single answer to your question, but there will be a number of different answers that may be better suited to your specific situation. 

We all know that knowledge is power, but in the machine age we all have access to the knowledge. Not only do we have access to the knowledge, but the machines also have access to the knowledge. Remember that when we are asking Google, we are getting the answers from a machine. 

Once the machines get smart enough to be able to access the information themselves, then people who only have an edge due to their "knowledge" will have no edge at all. If your job is only about knowledge, then you are in a job that will be done better by a machine in the not so distant future. Artificial intelligence (AI) will replace you in your job. 

This sounds rather depressing, because not only will machines take over physically repetitive work (e.g. production lines) but they will also take over knowledge based jobs. So, what will the future human job look like?

In the machine age, human jobs are those that require skills that machines are not so good at, or that machines cannot perform economically. One of the primary skills that you will need in a human job of the future is problem solving. In other words, the primary skill is knowing what the right questions are.

Once we can figure out what the right questions are, then we can rely on the machines to give us the answers. That is what they are good at. That is why a human teamed up with an AI will be the way of the future.

Click here to see this article within the context of the full e-zine in which it originally appeared...

No Child (or Adult) Left Behind

Issue #011 - March 15, 2017 - Titled: The Answer is 42

As kids in school we had to learn the facts that the teacher was trying to get into our heads. The kids that were seen as the smart one's were able to provide the right answers to the teacher's questions. To get "the brownie points", you had to be able to supply someone else's answer to a "canned" question. Notice how this does not seem like a good idea given our discussion of what skills you will need in the machine age.

Things were a little better when I went to university, but not much! If you liked a course, you would apply yourself, but often you just did the course to get the necessary credits. It was a means to an end, rather than being the end in itself.

The usual way to pass exams for these less favoured courses was therefore to do as little as possible during the term, and then cram for the exams. While this allowed me to pass the exams, I can't claim to actually remember too much about those courses. Luckily for me, it has become much less important to remember the facts, because I can just Google them! 

If we think about it, we see that kids from the earliest age are on a constant learning curve. So, how do kids learn before we send them off to joint the school and college system? I ask, because this is a time in their lives when they seem to learn the most, without much effort from those around them. There is no curriculum, trained teachers or exams. They just seem to pick it up all by themselves, with only minor inputs from those pesky adults. 

The answer is that they learn in a self-directed fashion because they have some need for enquiry that was stimulated. They do this while having fun in the process. Their learning is self-directed, because they learn those things that are needed to solve a problem in their lives. 

If you are lying around on the floor and you want to get to that very interesting looking Ming vase that your mother has precariously perched on a coffee table, then you need to learn to crawl. 

Once you can crawl, but you are still too low to reach that interesting Ming vase, then you need to learn to stand. When your mother takes that very interesting Ming vase away, you understand that you could probably get to things a lot faster if you walked like she does. Then you can probably get to the Ming vase before your mother has time to remove it. 

Something else that is obvious in this "real world" learning situation, is that you need to learn one thing before you move to the next level. You cannot run before you can walk. You cannot write poetry before you can read. One skill is dependent on another.

Self-directed learning of things that you find interesting, and having fun doing this, seems like a dream situation. Unfortunately it also seems like a pipedream, because it is not possible for each school kid and each college student to have their own teacher to customise their courses and constantly look over their shoulder while they are learning. This is certainly the case at the moment, but what happens when artificial intelligence (AI) enters education?

Once AI enters education, true outcomes based education, true self-directed learning and individually customised "courses" become possible. Not only will the AI guide you through the problem solving process, and provide the basis for your self-directed learning efforts, it will also make sure that you have mastered all the skills necessary before moving to the next level. Not only will the education process be self-directed, but the pace of education as well, because we do not all learn at the same pace.

AI will make sure that no child is left behind! Well, actually AI will make sure that no adult is left behind either, when we are talking adult education. Adult education will become a much bigger industry than that for kids.

The AI supported education paradigm will ensure that the emphasis is on learning skills, rather than learning facts. Obviously skills are underpinned by facts, therefore the learning of facts will never end, but once you have the necessary facts to apply the skills required, then further learning (and remembering) of facts is not that necessary.

If you get a kick out of learning facts, then nothing will stand in your way, but once you have enough facts to allow you to know what the right questions are, then the rest of the facts can be provided by the machines "on-the-fly".

Due to the rapid advancement of technology and knowledge, what you know today may not be valid by next year this time. Such knowledge should therefore be seen as transient in any case. Constant learning is therefore also "baked into the equation" of the machine age.

Click here to see this article within the context of the full e-zine in which it originally appeared...

Making Measures Ineffective

Issue #018 - May 03, 2017 - Titled: Ineffective Economic Measures

“Tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way… do not complain about illogical behaviour…” - Eliyahu Moshe Goldratt  

Mister Goldratt was a really good and respected management guru. I believe the principle stated in the quote above is entirely correct, but with respect, I also believe that it misses the critical issue. The critical issue is that if people know how you measure them, then the measure becomes subjected to manipulation and therefore largely ineffective. This is especially so if there are "consequences" attached to the measure. 

Businesses the world over link managers' and workers' pay to achieving certain "goals". Typical are the share price of the company, efficiency measures of departments, customer complaint levels and injury rates.  

The nett results are that executives manipulate the share prices through inefficient share buy-backs, managers manipulate inter-departmental efficiencies to optimise their own numbers at the expense of the company as a whole, and workers do not accurately report safety incidents or customer satisfaction. 

In the case of politicians, the typical measures are inflation, joblessness and economic strength through measures like Gross Domestic Product. (GDP) Over time, these "statistics" have been tortured by government departments to within inches of their lives. These days, the meaning of those numbers are about as reliable as the information supplied by somebody being encouraged by a bit of waterboarding! 

The same effect is at work in models that predict share price movements. Many economic gurus have proposed really great methods for predicting share price movements. Initially these measures are great, and have good predictive properties. However, once enough people know about them, and trade accordingly, the new trading patterns start to affect the share prices. This results in volatility and movements that effectively neutralises the predictive value of the proposed model. 

In short, if you want a good measure of anything where humans could influence the outcome, don't tell them how you are measuring them!

Click here to see this article in context of the full e-zine it originally appeared in...

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