Have the wonderful working opportunities promised by new smartphone tech been eroded by the replacement of real-life managers with algorithms and software? Mind Tools Founder and former CEO James Manktelow believes the time has come to protect and defend the “humanity” in management.
A grandfather and his grandson are talking. The old man tells his grandson, “Inside each of us, two wolves are fighting. One is evil, harsh and vicious, the other is good, honest and noble.” The grandson asks, “Which one wins, grandfather?” The grandfather answers, “The wolf you feed.”
I enjoy this story, and I am reminded of it when I think about recent developments in the tech world. I have a feeling that this world has “gone dark” over the last few years.
If you look back to 2011, everything was exciting. Ride-hailing apps were bright, shiny new services bringing freedom, convenience and quality to personal mobility. Social media gave us great new ways to connect with one another.
Clever new devices were appearing regularly, and they promised an exciting future. And repressive governments around the world were reeling as people worked out how to talk honestly with one another, bypassing state controls.
Since then, we’ve seen the dark side of all of this. We’re all aware of online bullying, technology addiction, and abusive or sexist cultures within internet companies. Also, we’re witnessing disruption of democratic elections, and the horrific polarization of political thought that has led to so much vicious, intolerant discourse.
Humanity seems to be going through a grim process of learning how to use – and avoid the gut-wrenching misuse of – these powerful new tools.
Humanity vs. Algorithmic Management
Part of this is about regulators around the world working to tame the worst excesses of Silicon Valley. (And yes, this has its own problems, particularly around free speech.)
However, it’s also about us learning to avoid the platforms that, by their nature, strip away people’s humanity, and that manage people – with all of our hopes, dreams, passions, enthusiasm, and energy – as if we’re machines.
I’m reading “New Power: How It’s Changing the 21st Century – And Why You Need to Know,” by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. This book gives a great overview of how internet models are reshaping the world. It’s worth reading for that reason alone.
However, it also zooms in on the relationship between “platform owners” (the tech companies themselves), “super-participants” (many of whom make part of their living using the platform) and “participants” (people like you and me who use their services).
Platform owners bend over backward to give an amazing service to participants, and we all love this. But what about the experience of super-participants, such as gig-economy workers? What about the many drivers, delivery cyclists, accommodation providers, and so on, particularly those who are managed algorithmically – in other words, by the platform’s software, and not by human beings?
Yes, the platforms give them a convenient income, but what happens when hard-working people fall ill, or things go wrong in some other way?
In the traditional workplace, right-thinking managers know who’s putting in the effort, and they will look after these people. More than this, they know their people, support them, help them grow, and provide a social environment in which they can thrive and achieve incredible things.
Should We Be Managing People Through Technology?
Just as importantly, people in decent, “normal” jobs can learn and grow, get promoted, and get ahead. They can work hard, use their initiative, give more benefit to their organizations – and get better compensated as a result. In short, they can “live the American Dream.”
How many super-participants, instead, live a psychologically unhealthy life without security, without mercy, without personal growth, without colleagues, and without someone looking after them and encouraging them?
And how many work in situations where, as they use their initiative and work out how to get ahead, the algorithm adjusts, and floods in more capacity, stopping them getting the benefit of their initiative?
I remember visiting one of my favorite cities, San Francisco, in spring 2017, and seeing the start of a revolt against this, as users rejected “uncool” platforms that treated their super-participants poorly.
We can all support this sort of movement. When we see poor behavior from a platform provider, we can delete that app from our smartphones and find alternative platform providers who look after their people better. Sure, this may cause us a few moments of inconvenience. But we all need to think about the type of world we want to live in, and act accordingly.
Ultimately, these platforms need to work for us and enhance our lives. They need to respect the quality of life of super-participants who work hard and well, and not crush them, or hold them down. This will only happen if enough of us delete apps from companies that treat people badly.
Which wolf do you feed when you use your smartphone?