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The New Age of Work

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It’s 4pm, and so far today I’ve worked from 3 different locations.  And while at this 3rd location, a coffeeshop a block away from where I live, it suddenly hit me that we’re starting to enter a new age of work.  I’m not exactly sure when the movement started, but there’s an overwhelming number of people that are working remotely or for themselves nowadays.  And just like the industrial revolution gave children more free time, I think the Internet revolution is giving everyone more free time.

Let’s take a step back and examine how this all came about. In the pre-industrial revolution era, the majority of the population started working in the fields when they were children and pretty much did the same thing for the rest of their lives.  Then science came in and gave us all these great inventions that reduced the amount of physical work we had to do for the same amount of output, if not more output.  Once these processes were refined and cheap immigrant labor was introduced from new forms of transportation, the children were no longer necessary in the fields and the birth of the “teenager with nothing to do” was born.  But machines that do our work for us is only the beginning of the story.Telegraph Operator

There has also been the rapid development of new methods of communication, and each new method allows us to reach farther and farther away with less and less time.  There have been traditional messengers for centuries, but the revolution really started with the introduction of the telegraph, which transmitted letters across wires at very slow speeds by today’s standards, but very fast for back then.  Then came the telephone, which allowed near instantaneous transmission of voice, albeit at a lower quality than being in the presence of someone.  Fast forward to the technology of today where we have live videoconferencing to anyone in the world, crystal-clear voice transmissions and instant delivery of digital text.  We now live in an on-demand world where you can see, hear and write to anyone in the world pretty much instantly.  What does this mean?

It means that we are no longer bound by geographical constraints. I can brainstorm on a virtual whiteboard while seeing 3 other people at the same time in iChat.  I can play a game with all of my friends from my living room while they play from their living rooms in various other parts of the world.  Right now, one of my coworkers is working from Australia and videoconferences in for the whole day.  His face just appears on a monitor and we can talk to him as if he was sitting next to us.

This begs the question, “What is the future of the office?”  I think that they still serve a practical purpose in many ways because it provides a common gathering place for brainstorming and great ideas.  But really a good coffeeshop or trip to a foreign country can provide that.  And as a necessity to get the actual work done, the office is becoming obsolete now that we have portable computers, phones and the Internet.  The office is really more of a social tool than a work tool.  This can be seen by the proliferation of coworking facilities across the country, which provide the social aspect of an office, minus the coworkers.

So what does the future hold?  A recession for office space and a boom for coffee shops, mobile devices and the travel industry?  A return to traditional stay-at-home parents that can still work while staying at home with the kids?  The death of the dreaded cubicle?  Or perhaps a more dystopian scenario where everyone works alone in their apartments and has no true social interaction with others?  There are so many possibilities.

Written by Curtis Chambers

December 18, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Culture, Future, Society

Bureaucracy vs. GTD (Getting Things Done)

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*Note: This is not a post about David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done framework, I just like the acronym.

I’ve worked at a variety of companies ranging from large 20,000 employee behemoths to small 15 person startups.  One of the things that’s always come across my mind is the direct correlation between company size and bureaucracy.  It really bothers me that as a company grows, its bureaucracy increases and a subsequent lack of productivity follows.  This inevitably leads to the company being overtaken by a smaller, faster competitor.

Everyone says that the increase in bureaucracy isn’t a choice, but rather a byproduct of a growing organization.  But why is this the case?  Is it because of conflicting personalities, too many cooks in the kitchen or just laziness?  At my first engineering job, my boss used to say “in a given 8 hour day, you only really work for 4 hours.”  I thought it was just him that thought that way, but I’ve seen the same thing occur at every place I’ve worked at since then.  I actually think that it’s a function of company size.  In fact, I made up this graph to illustrate the phenomenon using completely made up data.

Employee Productivity as a Function of Company Size

Google is the first company I’ve seen that’s really tried defying this, as they realize that once they become big and slow that someone else will beat them at their own game.  They’ve done this by keeping teams small and isolated on their own projects.  It also helps that it feels like a nerd version of Disneyland when you walk around the campus, but the small teams is the real reason.

One such example is the team of a Google product that I use every day, Google Reader.  It’s composed of 9 people.  That’s a pretty small team for a product like that, but it’s a great product and they get things done.

In the same vein, I’ve been working on my own for a couple months now, and the amount that I’ve been able to get done in that time is leaps and bounds more than I’ve been able to get done at any company, even the smaller outfits.  With the absence of meetings, conference calls and commuting, I’ve been able to work half as many hours with twice the productivity and the freedom to travel all over the world.  It even improves the quality of my work because I can work when I want and where I want, which does wonders for an engineer’s mind.

All of this makes me wonder why organizations hire so many more people than they need.  However, if companies only hired as many people as they needed to function, we’d probably have insanely high unemployment rates.  In all honesty, I think the real solution would be to find some sort of new management paradigm that allows for growth without loss of productivity.  You’d think that with all this grand new technology that facilitates better, more open communication that we could reduce some of the headaches and optimize things, right?  Perhaps it’s the people that are the problem.

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 23, 2007 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Culture, Society, Thoughts

The Downfall of Higher Education

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Ever since Russia launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, America has been obsessed with the bachelor’s degree.  The combination of World War II and the Cold War produced an innate fear of being second place in the new emerging world of science.  My father once told me that right around when he was in high school was when the big push for everyone to go to college started, as he didn’t really know anyone older that had a degree from a university.  However, I argue that the American university will not hold the value that it once did in the coming future.  The value of a bachelor’s degree is becoming less valuable every day.

Of course, I must preface all of this by stating that I myself do not have a bachelor’s degree.  I dropped out of college with 5 classes left in order to start a company back in 2003.  I came back and finished 3 more classes in 2007.  Part of me wants to finish the remaining classes, but I have this passion to create things and help progress society, and finishing school doesn’t really help me accomplish these goals; it only slows me down.

So back to my point.  The reason I see the bachelor’s degree becoming less valuable is because I feel that it’s starting to reach its saturation point.  Before the 20th century, the masses were not allowed to attend universities.  The major push for everyone to have a bachelor’s degree has destroyed the scarcity that once gave the degree its value.

Note that I don’t believe that education lacks value, just the piece of paper that comes along with it.  Despite my lack of a degree, I spend a majority of my day reading as many articles, papers, blogs and books as I can get my hands on, thus increasing my intellectual value.  Yet I lack this piece of paper that supposedly defines my intelligence, which everyone claims is the only rite of passage into a career.  This notion strikes me as odd because I’ve been working in my industry for 8 years now without one…

My lack of faith in the bachelor’s degree wouldn’t be so stated if I hadn’t actually been to college and seen what it has really become.  A degree used to mean something when only the truly intellectually curious pursued them.  I feel that undergraduate majors do a great job of preparing the student for graduate school in the subject they study.  Yet a great majority of the students have no plans at all to attend graduate school and only went to school in the first place because they were told they wouldn’t get a job otherwise.  Let me tell you, almost no jobs actually utilize the skills you acquired as an undergraduate.   I’d even argue that a year or two of intensive training in a particular subject (similar to a trade school) would prepare you better for a job, so why does the bachelor’s degree exist?

The bachelor’s degree exists for the same reason the SAT exists.  With increasing numbers of people coming in and out of the massive education system, big business (which includes universities themselves) need some sort of indicator of whether a person is capable.  However, standardized measures are never accurate measures and I’m not sure why no one has come up with a way to rid society of these inaccurate forms of self-evaluation.  With all the technology we have today, we shouldn’t have to endure broad generalizations anymore. I’m apparently not the only one that feels this way about the state of higher education. The wikipedia page on the university contains the following gems:

In his study of the American university since World War II, The Knowledge Factory, Stanley Aronowitz argues that the American university has been besieged by growing unemployment issues, the pressures of big business on the land grant university, as well as the political passivity and ivory tower naivete of American academics.

In a somewhat more theoretical vein, the late Bill Readings contends in his 1995 study, The University in Ruins, that the university around the world has been hopelessly commodified by globalization and the bureaucratic non-value of “excellence.”  His view is that the university will continue to linger on as an increasingly consumerist, ruined institution until or unless we are able to conceive of advanced education in transnational ways that can move beyond both the national subject and the corporate enterprise.

The ironic thing about these two studies is that they were done by professors!  If the professors at these universities have such a bleak outlook on the system that they’ve devoted their entire lives to, isn’t that a sign that there’s something wrong with the system?

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 21, 2007 at 12:06 am

Digital Communism

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A trend that I’ve noticed with the rise of “Web 2.0″ and open source software is something that I call Digital Communism.  The concept is similar to regular Communism in the sense that everyone pitches in for the good of the populace, but doesn’t relate to economic systems as much as it does our digital lifestyles and software.  Here I will present the different classes of users that power Digital Communism so that I can better illustrate what it all means.

Contributors

There are many ways that people contribute to the Digital Collective.  People write articles in Wikipedia, upload videos to YouTube and submit news articles to Digg.  None of the people doing this get any sort of financial gain, but rather do it because they want to share their knowledge and media with others.  In reality, a lot of it is probably powered by the narcissism of the current generation wanting to be noticed in an increasingly anonymous society, but it’s a different type of currency than money; it’s social currency.

In the realm of open-source software, these are the people that submit their code to the world for scrutiny and improvement.  They are people like Linus Torvalds, who started a small software project as a hobby that eventually turned into Linux, which is the operating system that powers the Web 2.0 revolution.

Contributors make up about 1% of a particular community’s user base.

Participants

There are also many users that don’t necessarily contribute to the Digital Collective, but they actively participate by leaving opinions, correcting mistakes or tagging items.  Rather than create uniquely new content, they edit, critique and help organize the contributions of others.  In some communities, this has the great benefit of improving the work and offering alternative perspectives.  In others, it is not so valuable.

Participants in the open-source community are extremely valuable as they find and report bugs, help fix bugs or even assist with documentation.  Some might say that the participants are even more valuable than the contributors as they help improve the quality of the raw contribution.

Participants make up about 10% of a particular community’s user base.

Passive Users

The major critique of Communism is that not everyone does their fair share and that holds true in Digital Communism.  The passive users of the Digital Collective are the ones that absorb the information but do not interact with it.  They read, they watch and they listen but they do not want to be heard.  However, that does not mean they are without value.  Without consumers, production would be for naught.

Users in the open-source community give a particular product a base of users, which increases its clout as a product.  Firefox claims to have almost 400 million downloads, which gives it a lot more exposure than if it was only used by some guy in his basement.

Also, over time users tend to become participants, who then in turn become contributors.  One example of this is Facebook, which used memcached to make its site faster, but then needed to make it better so they fixed some bugs and now they’re the biggest contributor of code to the project.

Passive users make up about 89% of a particular community’s user base.

As you can see, the different types of users reflect the different statuses of the users.  In fact, the distribution of users sort of resembles the distribution of the medieval caste system.  Back then, you had one ruler with a small group of advisors and aristocrats, and a huge lower class of peasants working in the fields.

The industrial revolution then brought many of the lower class up into the middle class.  The real question is if the same will happen with Digital Communism.  If a large majority of the users start participating with the media, what would happen?  It could either trigger the Golden Age of Information or perhaps go the complete other way and degrade the quality of information by saturation.  It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 15, 2007 at 6:11 pm

Mainstream media’s lack of journalistic integrity

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I saw this video today and had to write about it.  It’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the mainstream media in today’s society.  Before I go into my rant, I’ll post the video here so you can watch it as well.

Now I’ve never done this drug or any other hallucinogenics so I can’t really claim to have personal knowledge about them, but this story is completely over-dramatized.  Here’s a few reasons to question this story:

  1. The medical examiner found no traces of salvinorin in his system.
  2. He was on an acne medication that has been linked to depression.
  3. His parents were divorced, which has been shown to lead to higher depression rates.
  4. He was an alcohol user, a demographic that has nearly twice the suicide rate of non-alcohol users.

I’m not saying this wasn’t a tragic event or that his mother was at fault.  This post is mostly a criticism of the hysteria that mainstream media produces by distorting and/or omitting the facts.  They wanted to produce a sensationalist piece that got under people’s skin, so they only showed the things that would “shock and awe.”  The irony of it is that the local Delaware news presented all the facts and what happened, while the mainstream media outlets (CNN, ABC, NBC and USA Today) took the story and reported it as a “salvia suicide”, even though there are no documented cases of fatalities from salvia use.

In reality, the mother believes that it was a wide variety of things that caused her son’s death, which is probably the truth.  CNN also took this quote from his journal:

“Salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in the interdimensional time and space….  Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless.  Final point: Us earthly humans are nothing.”

Deducing that salvia killed him from that quote is purely a red herring.  Anyone with any sort of intelligence has probably thought the same thought at one point in their life, even without drugs.  You’d probably come to the same conclusion from reading a Stephen Hawking book, but no one ever blames that for killing people.

In the end, it seems that the news is becoming more and more of an entertainment source than a source of information. The well-informed are turning to other sources to get their information.

Written by Curtis Chambers

July 30, 2007 at 8:23 pm

Posted in Culture, Media, Thoughts, Video

Back to civilization

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I just got back from a week in Michigan for a wedding, so that’s why I haven’t been able to post in awhile.  That said, I learned a lot from that trip as I hadn’t been to the midwest before.  I’ll summarize it all in a list:

  1. The travel industry needs some major reform.  It’s such a ridiculously complex system for something that really isn’t that complex.  Fare codes, price changes, etc.  I nominate Apple to create iLine, the new lickable, streamlined airline that doesn’t cause major headaches and makes you actually want to travel.
  2. Michigan is actually pretty cool.  I met some great people there, saw some beautiful scenery and ate some great tasting, horribly unhealthy food.  Which brings me to point #3.
  3. America has a huge health problem.  As much as I’d love to have national healthcare here, I really think that the culture has to change first for it to be economically viable.  The “all-you-can-eat” mentality needs to be destroyed and our sense of value needs to be represented by quality instead of quantity.  However, a mindset change is much harder to do than just throwing money at a problem.  I’m not really sure how to approach this as western culture has a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, but our personal health and healthcare systems are both broken but no one realizes it.
  4. People in rural areas get married much younger than in metropolitan ones.  I knew this before, but I didn’t see a single girl in her 20′s in Traverse City that didn’t have a wedding ring.  I started thinking about it and I think there’s two things that contribute to this.  The first is basic economics.  Since there’s only a few girls in the city, the demand for them is much higher because of the fundamental lack of supply.  In big cities, there’s a virtually unlimited supply of new people to meet, so the pressure isn’t really there.  The second thing is that the local culture that enforces what the economics dictate.  People get married just because other people are.  I know I personally never even think about marriage until I realize that a bunch of my friends are getting married.  I think, “uh oh, I better get on this before I’m Weird Uncle Curtis to all their kids!”
  5. Almost everyone in Michigan drives an American car, which is inversely proportional to California.  Similarly, a lot of people in California have Apple computers, but that’s not really the case in the midwest as they see them as “those hippie computers.”  I just find it interesting how products have such strong geographical influences.

That’s pretty much all I learned. I had a great time at Emily’s graduation party and at Shayna’s wedding.  I’ll upload the pictures to my Flickr account soon.  I’ll be back to posting more regularly now as I have several topics ready to talk about.

Written by Curtis Chambers

July 24, 2007 at 5:37 pm

The Future of TV and Movies

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I’ve been saying for awhile now that television as we know it today is on its way out.  With major networks putting their shows online for free and on iTunes for $1.99, the Internet is the future of video distribution.  The TV itself might not go away as we still need a screen to watch everything on, but I think traditional broadcasting and the big media moguls’ days are numbered.

There’s a few reasons why this will inevitably happen.  One reason is because of the insanely hectic schedules that people have now.  No one has the time to religiously watch shows during the standard time slots anymore.  TiVo and On-Demand were baby steps towards what is the grand Internet video paradigm of “anything I want to watch, whenever I feel like it, without having to remember to record it.”

Another reason for the shift is because the Internet knows no bounds.  Currently, there is 3 hours of primetime per night and only 5 major networks.  There’s a time limitation on the amount of premium content that can be shown, which makes it very hard to get into those few spots as an artist, but also makes it so networks can charge huge amounts of money to advertise during those shows.  As Terry Heaton said in a paper of his, “Why pay a $500 CPM for a television ad that estimates the thousand people when an online ad will honestly deliver those thousand people?  It makes no sense.”  A $500 CPM rate is unheard of in the online world (a $20 CPM rate is pretty good online), yet television shows garner huge dollars for untargeted audiences.  That money is headed directly for the Internet once the business world realizes the power of online advertising, and it will be spread among a much wider range of content providers while being targeted specifically to the viewer of the show.

Another major benefit of the Internet is exposure.  In the old model, even if you’re an amazing actor, director or cinematographer you still have to jump through hoops and might never be able to make something that people see.  With the ability to create and post all the video you want online, it’s up to you to make sure people can see your creations instead of some suit with no creative talent at all.  However, that begs the question of how does an aspiring artist market their work without millions of dollars behind it?

That is the real question, and it is currently being answered in a variety of ways.  Creative marketing techniques are coming out of the woodwork by the creative people behind the works themselves.  My favorite example of the new school of Internet marketing is a feature film put together by Arin Crumley and Susan Buice called Four Eyed Monsters.  They made the film by putting $100,000 on their credit cards and posted the entire film on YouTube for anyone to view.  However, they made a deal with Spout.com to receive $1 for every new user they created for Spout.  So far they’ve made $35,443 from that revenue source.  They also made it possible to download DRM-free, high quality versions of the film for $8, and you can also purchase extra materials as well.  I threw down $8 for it because the first 20 minutes of it I watched on YouTube looked great, and I’m sure several others have out of the 724,198 people that have watched the YouTube version.  Even if only 2% of those people purchased it, they’d make a profit just from that.

The technology is also driving the democratization of video.  Miro, formerly known as Democracy Player, came out in its first public preview today and it looks amazing.  It already has over 1,400 channels of video and all of it is free and created by independent filmmakers or organizations that support free video.  It utilizes BitTorrent for downloads so there isn’t server congestion for popular videos.  It even searches all the major video sharing services like YouTube and can save them to your computer.  All I have to say is…

This is the beginning of the revolution.

Written by Curtis Chambers

July 18, 2007 at 12:34 am

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