We were initially anxious about the introduction of robots into our workforce because of the potential disappearance of manual labor jobs. Robots would take over factories, we were told, they’d drive our cars and trucks, and they would do all of the cleaning that janitorial and domestic workers are currently hired to do. But it turns out auto-pilots drive cars about as well as my cat when he’s drunk, and the way my friend’s Roomba always gets lost under the kitchen table, spinning uselessly, unable to find his way out, suggests we’ll still need people with brooms for a while now.
Instead, the robots are here not to replace this lower tier of underpaid and undervalued work. They are here to smugly sit in the middle, monitoring and surveilling us, hiring and firing us. Amazon has recently replaced its middle management and human resources workers with artificial intelligence to determine when a worker has outlived their usefulness and needs to be let go. There is no human to appeal to, no negotiating with a bot. This is the most boring possible Terminator sequel, where the robots aren’t here to murder or enslave you but rather to text you snidely that you won’t need to come into work tomorrow or, for that matter, ever again.
According to a report by Bloomberg, Flex drivers, who are Amazon contract workers and not granted the protections reserved for full-time employees, are being hired and fired via an app. A software program monitors each worker to determine whether they are working quickly enough, whether they are driving safely enough, and whether they are efficiently meeting their delivery quotas. That this program is rife with errors and punishes workers for things that are not their fault, from traffic problems to incorrect delivery directions, does not seem to concern Amazon. Workers have often complained about the unfair monitoring and lack of human oversight, but Amazon has maintained its system.
It’s not even difficult to figure out why. Jeff Bezos, who keeps promising us he is going to leave Earth and go to space but here he still is, seems to believe all workers are inherently lazy. And look, it’s always very helpful when our billionaire overlords just say the evil thing out loud so we don’t have to speculate. The man who designed Amazon’s warehouses has pretty much said that Amazon’s systems are set up to promote high employee turnover, because longer-term workers are more comfortable and less desperate to please.
The desperation is key. When human beings are uncertain about why things are happening to them, or feel a general loss of control over the outcomes of their own actions (because, say, they are doing their job to the best of their ability but are suddenly, mysteriously, fired), it causes anxiety and desperation. It makes superstitious pigeons out of all of us, flapping our wings wildly in the hopes we can recreate the conditions that once got us rewarded.
This system works for Amazon because the US maintains a large population of insecure and underpaid workers. (And by insecure, I don’t mean the same insecurity that drives our billionaires to compensate for a sadness deep down inside with extravagant wealth. I mean a lack of stability in finances and housing.) Bezos and others like him seem to think there is an endless supply of people available to be churned through their system and spat out when convenient. And, until recently, they were not wrong.
The terrible working conditions of Amazon delivery drivers has made headlines for years, but Amazon has not struggled to fill those jobs – even as delivery vans are targets of theftandlooting, and delivery drivers are harassed and followed by residents through neighborhoods. In an open letter to Jeff Bezos last year, Abe Collier wrote about his experience working as an Amazon delivery driver and the pressures put upon him during a work day: intentionally dehydrating himself because of the lack of bathrooms, unrealistic expectations for speed of deliveries, hostility from passersby, physical strain. But Collier also wanted to make it clear that he was grateful for the opportunity to be mistreated in this way. He wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits, and, he wrote, “Due to the pandemic, I was desperate for any income.” That gratitude was also behind the recent failure to unionize at an Amazon warehouse. Many workers spoke of being grateful for the work, as bad pay is better than no pay.
But thanks to the recent extension of unemployment benefits due to the pandemic, fewer workers are feeling the desperation that allows Amazon to treat its workers so cavalierly, as if they were disposable objects. Many employers who have overworked and underpaid workers are finding themselves without a staff to abuse, as people decide to prioritize their families or their health or just not being yelled at for $8 an hour over the “dignity of work”.
While politicians pout about the possibility of having to raise the minimum wage to $15, a level that would have sustained a decent life 10 years ago maybe, it’s likely these unemployment benefits will be allowed to expire and the safety net will be removed once again. Amazon isn’t going to change on its own unless forced to, and that means giving people the power – and the money – to say no to their own exploitation.
The UK capital was the only European city to make the top ten in Startup Genome’s ranking, tying with New York in second place for the second year in a row.
London is Europe’s number one start-up city, according to a recent report by Startup Genome. The research and advisory body which specialises in start-ups released its ‘Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021’ report today (22 September).
The report identified London and New York as joint second-best cities in the world for start-ups. London was the only European location to make it into the top ten. The city is attractive to founders thanks to its educated workforce and tax incentives, the report found.
Silicon Valley in California took the top spot, unsurprisingly. This year’s global rankings were dominated by the US, with half of the top 30 ecosystems coming from this region, followed by Asia with 27pc and Europe with 17pc of the top performing ecosystems globally.
Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles alone contributed more than 70pc to the US’s total ecosystem value.
Paris made the top 20, coming in at number 12. The Amsterdam-Delta region followed in thirteenth place. Dublin improved its rank from the previous year’s report, coming in at number 36 this time.
Beijing, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Seattle and Stockholm also made the top ten best start-up cities.
The global start-up economy is currently worth more than $3.8trn in ecosystem value. There are 79 ecosystems generating over $4bn in value, which is more than double the number identified in 2017. This time last year, 91 ecosystems had achieved unicorn status.
“Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community leaders in Europe have been working hard to build inclusive innovation ecosystems that are engines of economic growth and job creation for all,” commented JF Gauthier, founder and CEO of Startup Genome on the report’s release.
“The Global Startup Ecosystem Report is the foundation of knowledge where we, as a global network, come together to identify what policies actually produce economic impact and in what context,” Gauthier added.
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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.
The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.
Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.
Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.
The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.
The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.
The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.
Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.
A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.
The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.
Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.
The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.
“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.
Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.
“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.
However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.
Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.
But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.