This week: Googling productivity, placing weight on calories, and changing stories. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Intro: This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer and every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start.
Kai : Today on The Future, This Week: Googling productivity, placing weight on calories and changing stories.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai : I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and Leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So Sandra what happened in the future this week?
Sandra: Lots of things happened this week including new Musk adventures which we'll get to in a minute but our first story comes from The Outline and it's titled "Google wants to help your boss spy on you." It concerns a new patent application from Google.
Kai : And given the influence that Google has had on our collective lives especially online those patents are a good glimpse into the future of what might you know influence our collective lives in the workplace in this case or outside any time now.
Sandra: So this patent from The Outline article is a product that Google is hoping to patent that concerns a method and a system for automating work pattern quantification.
Kai : Well seems innocuous enough right, says the article. But maybe not.
Sandra: Maybe not. So what Google is telling us and I quote here is that "there is a need for a tool which automates the process of quantifying work patterns and provides feedback on worker focus".
Kai : So the patent application makes it clear that this revolves around so called focus metrics which will be gleaned from sensor data in mobile devices, sensor data about you and your work environment, personal sensors but most importantly monitoring what the employee does on their computer and then using these metrics to make recommendations to the worker for how to improve work patterns that will increase productivity.
Sandra: So just to put that into context say my boss would be able to check up on what times I do my email, how long I spend typing things into a word processor, when do I have my coffee or when do I take breaks or how often do I use my phone or how I browse the Internet, when do I use Slack.
Kai : And the beauty of it is that you know while this data is collected and probably available to your boss, the whole process of turning this into actionable recommendations for the employee will be automated by way of Google's sophisticated algorithm. The example that is being given in the article says the algorithm comes up with a message: Your most focused time is at 945a.m. You may want to block this time in your calendar to be more focused at that time and then of course to get more work done and be more productive.
Sandra: That is wonderful because if you don't I could say that you're actually not trying to work hard enough because you know your focused time is in the morning and instead of going and having a cup of coffee or starting with whatever tasks you've decided to start with you should actually be working on something else. You're not being productive enough.
Kai : So you ignore the recommendation of Google's magic algorithm at your own peril and the article asks the question 'Could this be grounds for dismissal for example, if you're not following the recommended work patterns that will benefit the company the most so how dare you work or make your own decisions about how you work when in fact we have this great commercially sensitive blackbox algorithm that knows better.
Sandra: And indeed it wouldn't have to be that direct. It could be slightly more subtle, you know when we do your performance appraisal we can see that you're not being as productive as you could be so you're just meeting expectations rather than exceeding them.
Kai : And the article also raises the prospect that of course productivity might go up because just the knowledge of being surveyed and recorded and monitored might spur employees into action to behave in the intended way to you know increase productive time. And you might ask what's wrong with that because isn't that what work is all about - creating as much output with as little input as possible. So what's the problem?
Sandra: So in theory there really wouldn't be a problem if your output was cars or bales of hay or Lego bricks and we could count them and we would know the more you have the better. But in the case of a knowledge worker or in the case of our jobs what's higher productivity? Sending out more emails, writing more words per minute, doing more podcasts?
Kai : Yeah while my boss would argue more 'A Star' publications but that's hardly a measure that you can apply to my daily life right because you come by these you know if you're lucky once or twice a year. So how would....
Sandra: That being very lucky Kai...
Kai : Yes very lucky, no productive not lucky. But how would you apply productivity on a minute by minute basis because we're talking about an algorithm structuring your day so what would the algorithm count as productive work? Surely sending out more e-mails is not necessarily a measure of productivity. It could be a measure of distraction.
Sandra: Being able to attend more meetings? Surely writing more pages or more text or instead of just two lines writing three paragraphs would be more productive.
Kai : Yes sure. When you're in the writing of an article but what about those days when I'm editing, I'm cutting stuff out so I'm going backwards. That's no good is it. So I think this makes sense when you're in a highly structured environment so you're sitting in a really pre-structured work flow. Someone has already turned your work into a meaningless ticking boxes and filling in fields in a form. Surely you can then measure productivity but for the vast amount of self directed work, which is incidentally where this algorithm would make sense, where presumably you help the worker be less distracted and be more focused, the catch 22 is that for those context productivity is very hard to nail down and then even if we could come up with a reliable measure, the time spent being productive improving that measure would always come at the expense of something else.
Sandra: And that something else could be boredom.
Kai : Well surely boredom is not something to aspire to or is it?
Sandra: Turns out actually boredom can incidentally make you more productive.
Kai : Now I'm confused.
Sandra: Well let me enlighten you. There's actually a recent study that shows that daydreaming, you know spending time doing nothing has a positive effect on test performance. So a couple of researchers from Bar-Ilan University stimulated regions of the brains responsible for daydreaming basically for thought freeing activities letting people's minds wander. And they found that this actually doesn't harm your ability to do a task but rather helps you complete your tasks faster. Incidentally being bored or spending time doing nothing also helps people think about the future.
Kai : Is that what you're doing?
Sandra: That is a big part of my job.
Kai : Thinking about the future or doing nothing?
Sandra: Well I'm again taking advice from researchers apparently thinking about the future is helped tremendously by letting your mind wander. This is another study we'll include in the show notes out of the University of California and the Max Planck Institute.
Kai : Germans.
Sandra: So whilst daydreaming or letting their minds wonder actually people most frequently plan and anticipate future goals or make future plans.
Kai : Which is directly linked to having more ideas, being more creative, reflecting on your work and therefore finding new ways in which you do your work better. So what I find concerning with these algorithms is the fundamental distrust that underpins the very idea of this algorithm that we cannot trust people to know how to work best and therefore we have to collect all this data about them and then somehow the arrogance to believe that with an automated mechanism we can infer better ways in which the person could be working. So I think that discussion shows that you have to make some very strong assumptions and ensure that the person is in a highly structured work environment for this algorithm to have any chance of success to be more than just make the manager feel good or be a colossal nuisance to the worker. So can't see this going anywhere especially not in the kind of areas where we have self directed work and where people are supposed to do the kind of knowledge work where they have to shift between different tasks.
Sandra: And we also wanted to highlight with the story of just how taken for granted concepts such as productivity or good communication or even happiness are in places like Silicon Valley. It is assumed that productivity has an unambiguous definition that we know how to quantify it and that more of it is always better.
Kai : Which is absolutely the flavour of our time. And if you dig a little bit into this is a deep and dark rabbit hole so the article for example links to another article in The Outline titled "Productivity is dangerous" and this article makes a quite convincing point about how we've come to see productivity or more generally being busy as a value in itself. And it relates back to our understanding of time. Time as a finite resource, time as always running out, time as always being scarce, and therefore something being valuable that must not be wasted. So boredom or being idle, doing nothing, reflecting, not to be seen to be doing something has gotten a really bad rap. To the point where we ourselves feel anxious when we're inactive, when we're not optimising every minute of our day, when we're not following the latest tips on LinkedIn about how you can become a successful entrepreneur and that's just before breakfast.
Sandra: If you stop doing these five things and start doing this other ten things...
Kai : Absolutely. So there's now a whole self-help, self-improvement industry that exploits this view of time and this need for being active, what the article calls the Tarot of Inactivity that we feel when we're not being productive which is of course a fallacy because just working more and working longer hours doesn't really make us productive because productivity as a definition is output divided by input. And if we increase the input just working more doesn't mean that we're actually creating more output or doing more valuable things it just means that we're feeling more busy and we see the downsides of this in people being burned out, people spending a lot of time at work not being engaged and not being happy generally. So maybe, just maybe, the key to being productive is not trying to be so productive all the time. So here's a shout out for procrastination and...
Sandra:...daydreaming, having a cup of coffee every once in a while.
Kai : Yes.
Sandra: We should take our own advice.
Kai : Not eating your lunch in front of your screen which I'm definitely also guilty of sometimes. OK here's to our next story.
Sandra: On a slightly more depressing note, our second story concerns the global food crisis. So our second story comes from TED from TED Global actually and it comes from Sara Menker who has quit her career in commodities trading to figure out how the global value chain of agriculture works and her talk was titled "The global food crisis may be less than a decade away". And it gives us a new way to think about our impending shortage of food. So resource security is one of our megatrends here at the University of Sydney Business School and it concerns among other things the fact that we will eventually run out of food. As the population grows and so do the energy needs and the nutrition needs of this population, it was expected that by 2050 we will have a global food shortage. And interestingly Sara Menker actually has a completely different way of thinking about an issue that has been pretty much tackled the same way for the past 10 years.
Kai : So Menker argues that the world has followed one dominant narrative and that is that in order to feed nine billion people by 2050 we have to increase food production by 70 percent. But she argues that 2050 is so far into the future that we can't even relate to it and it's not an appropriate basis for initiating any action right now. On top of this she argues that we're actually asking the wrong question. So we're focusing on the wrong problem. And it turns out it has to do with the way in which we measure food.
Sandra: So here's Sara explaining how we have been thinking wrongly about this whole global food crisis, how we should be measuring it, and when is this likely to occur.
Kai : So Sara Menker at the second TEDGlobal event in Arusha Tanzania...
Sara Menker: We discovered that the world will be short two hundred fourteen trillion calories by 2027. The world is not in a position to fill this gap. Until now this problem has been quantified using mass: think kilograms, tons, hectograms, whatever your unit of choice is in mass. Why do we talk about food in terms of weight? Because it's easy. We can look at a photograph and determine tonnage on a ship by using a simple pocket calculator. We can weigh trucks, airplanes, and oxcarts but what we care about in food is nutritional value. Not all foods are created equal. Even if they weigh the same. This is why we should care about calories, not about mass. It is calories which sustain us.
Sandra: So indeed 214 trillion calories does sound like a very very large number. Sara goes on to actually try to put this in terms we would understand. She says it's easier to think about it in terms of Big Macs.
Kai : So three hundred and seventy nine billion Big Macs is what we would need to, that's 214 trillion additional calories. For reference, that's way more than McDonalds has ever sold Big Macs in its history. So you know a sizeable number of Big Macs but thinking in terms of Big Macs that is red meat is also part of the problem.
Sandra: So not only will we run out of food by 2027 rather than 2050, the way in which we are producing food and the demands we're making on our food will actually really exacerbate the problems associated with climate change.
Kai : And this is nowhere more obvious than in global meat production and consumption. Meat being one of the least efficient ways to produce calories and calorie intake given the amount of resources it takes, land resources, water for the food production and for the production of meat and distribution of meat and also the side effects that the meat production creates in terms of greenhouse gas production.
Sandra: Sara also argues that we should take into account the fact that the population and economic growth come predominantly from places like China, India and the African countries and that this trend will continue to exacerbate as these countries have begun to add more and more red meat to their diet. The example given is China where Chinese people have begun to consume more and more red meat. And you could link this back to the conversations we've had last week about growing populations and about the size of the population and the demands that they have, given the rise of the middle class.
Kai: And the good news is that already in 2016 China announced a plan to cut meat consumption in China by 50 percent which was cheered on by climate campaigners at the time which outlines the way in which Chinese people on average have grown their meat consumption from 13 kilos of meat a year in 1982 to now 63 kilos of meat a year which is still about half of what people in Australia or the US eat per year on average. But that at current rates this will grow by an additional 30 kilograms per year until 2030 and that the government wants to rein this in to about 14 to 27 kilograms a year, so less than half of what Chinese people eat currently. So that's a real challenge given the growing middle class in China and the fact that they have really taken to eating meat and cynically speaking catching up in the obesity race to the rest of the world. So how do you do this?
Sandra: So if you're the Chinese Communist Party, besides recommending that the nation consume between 40 to 75 grams of meat per person per day, you enlist Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron and do public information adverts to encourage people to consume less animal flesh to help the environment.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: The more I went to do my physical, the more doctors started stressing saying "Arnold you've got to get off meat". So I'm slowly getting off meat. Less meat, less heat, more life.
James Cameron: The number one thing that you can do is to just stop eating or cut down on your consumption of meat and dairy. Meat and dairy are not good for your body and they're not good for the environment.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: If they tell you to eat more meat to be strong, don't buy it.
Kai : So it remains to be seen how effective those campaigns will be and of course it pays off to be a state run economy - China has a much bigger lever than the West to curb meatr production and meat consumption maybe less so than previously given that the country is more open to imports these days. So it remains to be seen what happens there and we've discussed previously strategies in which companies incidentally in the West try to curb this, like WeWork.
Sandra: Yep, in our first episode this season, the CEO of WeWork banned meat throughout the company at all the company events and you could no longer expense a burger for lunch on your corporate card, again in an attempt to reduce the impact we have on our environment but also to avert the types of food crisis that we're describing here.
Kai : So it is a pernicious problem and we also want to mention before we move on to our last story that all of the numbers we've heard before take into account only global production and global consumption, we already today have a food distribution problem where people even in Western countries go hungry while we're wasting a lot of perfectly good food in the supply chain in restaurants, in supermarkets, that is literally being wasted. And the ABC here, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Australia, has run a long campaign and various series on the 'war on waste'. And one of those is on food waste and new ways of redistributing food that is still perfectly fine but of no commercial use to supermarkets or other entities.
Sandra: And indeed Sara finishes her talk and we'll include the links of course in the shownotes with some solutions to avert the oncoming crisis that is coming now in less than 10 years, whilst 2050 would give us quite a bit of time to figure out how to address this, 2027 is a much closer target and she's looking at reforming agricultural industries, especially in Africa, and India she's looking at changing how farming is being done so not only how people buy and consume the food and decreasing food waste but also things like improving infrastructure, increasing farm yeilds, crafting better policies, lowering transportation costs, but also reforming banking and insurance industries that are associated with the farming sector which in the countries where we need this to work most actually still make large scale agriculture a fairly risky endeavour.
Kai : So clearly this is a space that needs a lot of creative thinking, a lot of innovation and not necessarily always of the spectacular lab grown food kind but also more low tech solutions to just tackle the problems of food redistribution and curbing waste.
Sandra: So are you saying we don't need another Juicero?
Kai : No we don't.
Sandra: So given our first stories were quite serious, the last one needed to be a little bit more lighthearted. So we picked something a little bit different this time.
Kai : Well you picked it.
Sandra: Are you sure?
Kai : Yes I am. And it's from Esquire.
Sandra: So Esquire Magazine is a mens fashion, cocktail, politics, interviews and women magazine.
Kai : Well so just like Playboy without the good stories.
Sandra: Well it does have good stories. And I'm reading out a few of the titles here with riveting content such as "You need to put peanuts in your next coke" and "The boots that will make you look like a style God for less than $100".
Kai : Still doesn't answer the question: where and why did you find? But let's talk about the article itself.
Sandra: The article is titled "How two years of Instagram stories has altered the way we love, act and play".
Kai : So Instagram, one of the all time favorites on The Future, This Week. The author looks at the 'Stories' feature that Instagram introduced two years ago as it felt the competition from Snapchat. So 'Stories' is meant to be a more ephemeral way of sharing your life with your friends. You'll record what you're doing during the day and content can then be seen by your friends. But it disappears after 24 hours so it doesn't leave that pernicious permanent record of your life.
Sandra: So the author looks at the fact that millions of people have actually embraced this...
Kai : Hundreds of millions really because as of June 2018 the feature has 400 million daily users, more than double that of Snapchat.
Sandra: So Instagram has had an effect on these hundreds of millions of people that have used Instagram stories. So the author also highlights how many of the holidays that we take, the meals that we share with friends, the times that we spend on the beach have become more about the way in which they are shared with other people rather than the way we experience them in the first place. So they've become a bit of a documentary of our lives where they've become our own little reality shows where we act out the moments that should be significant - just landing in a new country or having that first sip of a cold beer or that very first ice-cream in Italy.
Kai : So the author makes the point that she herself realised that subconsciously her behaviour had changed that whenever the camera came out and someone would film even though the table at the pub had gone quiet, everyone would put on a cheerful face and play up like it was happy times and she said we were all playing an elaborate con on ourselves pretending that we were having this happy time and once I'd seen how visible the con was I saw it in everything. Making the point that even though you might be having a shitty time, the moment you're on camera.
Sandra: It becomes about brand maintenance, not about what happens but about how we maintain our brand, our image that we projected to all of our friends and acquaintances online.
Kai : Which leads to a kind of self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing prophecy. We expect Instagram to be a recording of people having these special moments and that's what everything has to become then. Everything is now special, everything is happy. We completely eradicate any boredom, to rehash the earlier story, from our lives and it becomes tiresome the authors say and it becomes a little bit like an animal living in a zoo being on display all the time.
Sandra: And this has actually negative effects on things like mental health. We spoke previously when we brought up Instagram, a 2017 study that had found that Instagram is the worst social network in terms of its impact on mental health and this research out of the UK links Instagram to things like anxiety and depression. Given that significant time that people spend on the app and given the need to be validated and accepted by others through the content that they put out. Now interestingly this acting out and making everything look perfect and so on has had an interesting side effect in the way that our behaviour has started to converge towards these ideal poses.
Kai : These Instagram behaviours. And this is where we want to bring up another article from The NextWeb which reports on this Instagram account called 'Insta_repeat'. Insta_repeat collects pictures that all look the same that have become iconic of the type of Instagram photography that is meant to capture authentic moments but ironically repeat over and over again. And it provides these collages of lookalike pictures with descriptive tagline such as 'phone in the wild' which shows a photograph of a phone which shows a scenery being photographed. Or 'medium close up back of girl's head', again which has a blonde girl with long hair in front of a spectacular landscape and those pictures really all look alike as if they were scripted by someone or to name a few more: 'person alone centred looking up in a slot canyon': a collage which features a person in a small canyon looking upwards. Or one of the all time favourites on the account called 'tent hole' which literally has hundreds of photos where someone photographs a spectacular landscape from inside a tent through the tent opening, pictures that all eerily look the same. 'Person centred in front of waterfall'. 'Suspension Bridge'.
Sandra: 'Person alone at night with a flashlight'.
Kai : 'Person standing in the middle of a winter road'.
Sandra: And the particular favourite of mine: 'Person centred rowing in a canoe'.
Kai : Check it out. @insta_repeat. It's quite revealing.
Sandra: And of course we'll include it in the shownotes.
Kai : Now before we end...we have this...
Sandra: It's a Musk.
Kai : So Elon Musk has been in the media again on the back of a tweet that he made to take Tesla private where he said that he had the necessary funding lined up that of course refers to taking Tesla off the sharemarket. Elon Musk has long been frustrated with lots of short sellers in the market and this tweet did actually lead to the share price soaring by about 11 percent on the day of the tweet. And then falling subsequently but apparently cost some of the short sellers a sizable amount of money and there has now been an announcement yesterday on the 15th of August that Elon is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission because information he unveiled has had an effect on the sharemarket but it was not necessarily completely true.
Sandra: So Elon revealed in a later post, as it's a Musk, that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed and it was just a matter of getting things going. Now the Securities and Exchange Commission of course is looking into whether that counts as funding secured. But people have asked questions around why would Saudi Arabia sovereign fund be looking into investing in to Elon Musk, why not Ford or why not General Motors, why not another car company. But actually this is quite straightforward. If Saudi Arabia is looking at diversifying away from fossil fuels investing in the poster child of the renewables revolution makes actually perfect sense.
Kai : So while this is interesting and is a strong indicator for where entities heavily invest in fossil fuels think the future is going, this whole story also points to another issue which is that frequently long term innovation which is what Tesla is engaging in and the short term expectations of the sharemarket clash and that Elon Musk is frustrated with the way in which the sharemarket becomes impatient and therefore the shares are being shorted, while he engages in what he sees as a more long term innovation that just doesn't comply with the quarterly results cycles that many of the traders are interested in.
Sandra: But to be fair it remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia can afford the ticket price of, I believe it's like 70 billion dollars right now, or whether it will just follow in the way of other places like Norway who have invested away from oil and gas then into renewable resources as a move to try to secure a different future.
Kai : And that is almost all we have time for today because we have to issue a retraction...
Sandra: Actually a correction... And this correction is for the demographics story we did last week. Kishi, thank you so much for bringing it to our attention.
Kai : Our colleague who is from China.
Sandra: And who is also an avid listener of this podcast who has pointed out that in China it is not necessary that both parents be an only child to have two children and that also many of these regulations do not apply to Hong Kong or Macau or if you are giving birth overseas but that the policy that we mentioned was in place only from 2013 to 2015 and since 2015 the policy applies to all family you can have two children no matter whether you were an only child or not. So #thisisnotChinese and actually watch this space but #thisisnotChinese, Kishi thank you so much.
Kai : Oh and happy birthday Megan. Our sound editor Megan's birthday today.
Sandra: Happy birthday.
Kai : Yay. And that is all we have time for today. Thanks for listening.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made awesome by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes our sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want to discuss please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.