When Automation Goes Awry

Off-shoring leads to automation

The future may well involve automation, but the path to getting there is not so clear.


In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford suggests that:

As technology advances, we can expect that more and more of the routine tasks now performed by offshore workers will eventually be handled entirely by machines

His point is that offshoring is often a precursor to automation. It can be easy to see such conclusions as linear, straight lines with an inevitable end. However, I have had an experience over the last few weeks which highlights where we are at and where we still have to go.

The scenario in question involved changing to a SIM only contract as my plan with a handset had finished. My first step was to go into the telecommunication’s store. This is what I have always done. So I waited for near on half an hour in their newly designed space, with couches and screens everywhere, only to discover that they just sell products. If I wanted to change my plan then I would have to go online.

So I went online to my provider and looked around my account information. I could find how to add a range of useless services that would incur an additional.monthly fee, but was unclear how to adjust my plan.

Confused, I called the helpline. I followed the automated triage process. Got through to someone who said that they could not help me, explaining that they would put me through to someone who could. After waiting for thirty minutes, I hung up, fearing that I had been forgotten, and called the number again. This time i got someone who asked a few more questions to ascertain my situation, only to inform me that I had to go online if I wanted to change my plan.

So with fresh eyes I returned to the website. The more I clicked around, the more I bumped into the option to chat with somebody. I have had mixed results with this in the past. I was once told by a chat operator that global roaming had been added to my account only to discover once overseas that I had no connectivity. I clicked the button.

It opened a new screen and indicated that somebody would be with me soon. So I went back to searching the web and checking back every few seconds. I must have missed the notification and noticed that the operator had said hello, asking how they could help. I quickly punched in a “hello” back and then typed a second message outlining my situation. The messages were pushed through to the chat stream. I waited a minute only for an automated message to appear saying that the session would be ending due to my failure to respond.

I therefore opened a new chat window and went through the whole process again. This time I was more vigilant. A name finally appeared. I explained my situation. They verified my existence. We went around in circles, seemingly asking the same question over and over. Eventually it was ascertained that I wanted to change my plan. The operator shared a link to the plans. Once I identified which plan I was interested in, I was informed that I would be put through to someone from marketing. Ironically, while I waited the operator asked me who I was with for my internet. As if they did not already know from the 30+ cookies associated with their site. I politely explained that, with the quality of service provided, I would not be moving my internet to them. I received another token apology for more experience.

I was finally forwarded to a new operator. We spent another five minutes with civilities and again verifying who I was. After again clarifying what I was after, the operator explained that I needed to follow the steps on the page with the plan. I began clicking through. Even though the main page indicated that the plans were for those currently with Optus or coming from elsewhere, all the questions implied that it was designed for new users, especially the delivery of a new SIM. I asked Operator No.2 a few questions. They had no idea what I was talking about. This confused me, surely they would have a page for them to use in order to walk me through the process? Frustrated with the time I was taking, obviously throwing out the statistics, I was passed onto a third operator.

By this stage i had spent an hour trying to work things out, having spent an hour before that putting my children to bed. I explained that the situation was ridiculous. I questioned the fact that they continue rolling over phone plan which include a monthly handset charge even after the handset has been paid off (I know, buy the handset outright). All I got was the usual canned response. I ended up deciding to fill the form associated with the change of plan in to the best of my ability. It all seemed to be complete and my friendly operator clarified a few random questions until I gave up assuming everything was done.

I received an email indicating that the contract had been processed. I was unsure what was going to happen next as there was a mention of a shipping time for the new SIM card, even though I already had a SIM card. I decided to wait and see, unable to get a clear answer from the chat operator. However, I was surprised when I received an email and text message (just to make sure) requesting that I ring them.

I called back. After waiting 30 minutes, I hung up as i had work to do. I then called back at another time. I waited an 1:15 to speak with an operator. Only to find out that they were having trouble loading my file as the computer crashed or something. After waiting for another five minutes I was asked for my information to verify who I was and I was done. Even though I had provided this online, apparently they could not process the application until I had given this information verbally.


I recognise that the future will be automated. However, I am sceptical that it will be seamless transition. I wonder if what is lost in this rush to get everyone to go online is why automate in the first place? So often it is taughted as an improvement in efficiencies, but in the case of the telecommunications company, it seemed to be focused on profit. Surely this is why they allow plans to keep on rolling over once they have finished (I know someone who forgot to reassess for five years). I can imagine a number of ways that automation could be good for customer service, the same way bots and other forms of artificial intelligence are used in platforms like Slack. This could include letting you know when your plan is coming to an end, converting you to a different plan or reminding you when your bill is due. To be fair, I could probably create sone of these myself and maybe that is where the future lies.

So what about you? Have you had any interesting experiences with automation? As always, comments welcome.


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Is This the End of School as we Know It?

Are schools on the cusp of change? Will all jobs be transformed by 2030? And what is change anyway?


In the recent Google Education on Air conference, Jan Owens discovered that the biggest lesson learnt looking ahead to 2030 is that every job will be transformed. It would be easy to just add this as another Countrafabulist predictions. However, it raises wider questions associated with transformation and our role within it all.

During a discussion on the Modern Learners podcast, Bruce Dixon discussed the notion of ‘the end of school as we know it’. He shared an exercise where teachers are given three options to choose from in regards to the current state of education:

  • We are seeing the end of school as we know it
  • We are not seeing the end of school as we know it
  • We should be seeing the end of school as we know it

To me this touches on Audrey Watters’ discussion of the invented history associated with the Prussian origins of (American) education. In time we manage to bend the past into a linear narrative. One where all roads lead to innovation.

And so too we’ve invented a history of “the factory model of education” in order to justify an “upgrade” – to new software and hardware that will do much of the same thing schools have done for generations now, just (supposedly) more efficiently, with control moved out of the hands of labor (teachers) and into the hands of a new class of engineers, out of the realm of the government and into the realm of the market.
The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’

If I had to choose one response it would be that we are seeing the end of school as we know it. However, I also feel that this is that wrong question. Whether we like it or not, the world changes each and every day. For example, smartphones have had an impact on schools whether we allow them in the classroom or not.

Another way of looking at change is using Raymond Williams’ historical model where he differentiates between emergence, dominant, residual.

We can find terms which recognize not only ‘stages’ and ‘variations’ but the internal dynamic relations of any actual process. We have certainly still to speak of the ‘dominant’ and the ‘effective’, and in these senses of the hegemonic. But we find that we have also to speak, and indeed with further differentiation of each, of the ‘residual’ and the ’emergent’, which in any real process, and at any moment in the process, are significant both in themselves and in what they reveal of the characteristics of the ‘dominant’.

There is a constant flow of meanings, values, practices and relationships, where even if a certain aspect were to remain ‘dominant’, it cannot inoculate itself from new influences.

As I discussed previously, much is learnt as things are pushed to breaking point. The question is not whether we are seeing the end of school as we know it, but how do we want school (and society) to change for tomorrow? Gert Biesta uses a quote from Jacques Derrida which makes this point clear,

To live, by definition, is not something one learns.

Our focus therefore should be what education do we want and collectively work towards that.

So what about you? What is your choice? Is this the end of school as we know it? As always comments welcome, even better when they are from your own space.


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The Music of 2017 in Review, or The Year I Discovered Jack Antonoff

A reflection on the artists and albums that represented the soundtrack of 2017.


Music is important to who I am. Although I listen to a lot of podcasts, books and converse with people via Voxer, it is still music that I fall back on. Here then are some of the albums and artists that have caught my attention this year:

LCD Soundsystem

But out of the little rooms and onto the streets
> You’ve lost your internet and we’ve lost our memory
> We had a paper trail that led to our secrets
> But embarrassing pictures have now all been deleted
> By versions of selves that we thought were the best ones
> ‘Till versions of versions of others repeating
> Come laughing at everything we thought was important
> While still making mistakes that you thought you had learned

tonite

I have a habit of hearing a particular song and writing off an artist’s oeuvre based on it. I did it with ‘Over and Over’ by Hot Chip until I discovered Grizzly Bear’s cover of Boy from School, I also did it with ‘Daft Punk Are Playing at My House’ by LCD Soundsystem. It was only after a different me returned to the music with new ears that I realised what I had been missing. With LCD Soundsystem, it was James Murphy’s production of Arcade Fire’s Reflector that had me reviewing my assumptions. However, it was not until american dream that I finally dived in.

I came upon american dreams via Austin Kleon’s newsletter. My first impression was that the long flowing bleeps and beats seem to float on by. However, on repeated listens the seemingly careless tweaks seem to take on shape. You started to realise that what felt like a jam was very purposeful, especially in regards to the lyrical content. I had a similar experience with Radiohead, in particular, Kid A. Some music takes time.

Lorde

In my head, I play a supercut of us
All the magic we gave off
All the love we had and lost
And in my head
The visions never stop
These ribbons wrap me up
But when I reach for you
There’s just a supercut

Supercut

Earlier this year, my family and I spent two weeks in New Zealand. During that time, ‘Green Light’ had just been released and was on high rotation. The song and subsequent album are intriguing. I feel that it is ironic pop – if that is even a genre – in that it has many of the ingredients of popular music, whether it be four to the floor beats or lush layers, juxtaposed with unapologetic angst and honesty of someone reflecting on life at 19. This comes out in Lorde’s dissection of ‘Sober’ on the Song Exploder podcast.

The more I listen to the album the more I am baffled about what exactly draws me in. 19 year old me has long gone, yet there is still something that hooks me. I wonder if it is Jack Antonoff’s production, but I also think that it is rawness of the lyrics as well. In an interview, Antonoff describes Lorde as the Bjork and Kate Bush of our time. I guess we will see.

Arcade Fire

Well you’ve got one choice, maybe two
You can leave with me or I’ll go with you
I know you haven’t even met me yet
But you’re gonna love me baby when you get to know me

Chemistry

Another ironic album is Arcade Fire’s Everything Now. A fist pumping critique of fist pumping. It is one of those albums that has all the lyricals hooks and riffs to mindlessly sing and dance along too at an outdoor festival only, yet when you stop and look and listen, the music feels like a critique of that, instead calling for some kind of awakening and realisation of the world that we are creating.

Along with The National’s dark Sleep Well Beast and LCD Soundsystem’s american dream, if feels like these albums offer an intentional comment on the current climate. Having said this, I also find it interesting to listen to something like The Bleachers’ Gone Now from a political perspective. For at the end of the day, everything is ideological, or as Jack Antonoff suggests “music is a mini documentary of that moment“.

Ryan Adams

Ten months sober, I must admit
Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it

Clean

I am always intrigued by automation. Earlier this year I was driving back home across town and decided to put on some random driving playlist that Google made me. A few songs in this track started playing. It felt familiar, yet I had never heard it. The song was Ryan Adam’s cover of Wildest Dreams. I can only assume that Google thought I would like it based on both of my daughter’s obsession with Shake It Off. Well Google was right, I loved the whole album.

I remember watching an interview in which Adams explains how he chose to cover Wonderwall to annoy an ex. This album though seems more purposeful. A case of Bruce Springsteen meets The Smiths, Adams brings something different out with his reimagining of the songs. It was also fascinating a few months later, listening to Taylor Swift’s original album and comparing the two. Felt like comparing a book and movie adaptation, where you feel as if they are both capturing a particular tangent, yet neither quite captures the full circle.

Reuben Stone

Another plane, another train
I’m checking in and checking out again

Push to the Limit

This year, my daughters and I have regularly ventured into the city on the weekend in an effort to get out and about. This usually involves visiting one of the many parks or buying dumplings and donuts at the market, but it has also come to include listening to the many buskers that fill the streets. Some artists that come to mind are Amber Isles and their ability to fill.the sound of a full band even with the makeshift drum kit, as well as Gareth Wiecko and his layered piano concertos. However, the major highlight was Reuban Stone.

A self proclaimed samplologist, Stone builds songs from scratch, beginning with the beats, then layering this with various instruments, including vocals. Although his recorded material is good, his performances are something to be experienced. He manages to adjust to drag out tracks without feeling at all tedious or repetative. It seems mandatory to have a looper when busking these days, however Stone takes it to a new level.


So what about you? What music has caught your attention this year? What albums and artists have you had on high rotation? Like my discovery of all things Jack Antonoff, is there something that seems to tie your year together? As always, comments welcome.


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