'Obedience and fear’: the brutal working conditions behind China’s tech boom
China’s tech industry has seen unprecedented growth in the past few years, but at what cost?
In a fascinating piece for the Financial Times, the Deputy Beijing Bureau Chief, Yuan Yang, discusses the impact of controversial working conditions.
Whilst we break down the points below, you can also find Curio’s intelligent audio version here.
Young workers have had enough of the endlessly competitive nature of the industry. Awareness of their treatment is finally starting to be raised after the deaths of two workers from Pinduoduo: the six-year-old company that claims to be China’s “biggest online marketplace for agricultural products”.
The trillion-dollar tech companies of China have been likened to fortified cities — “when you’re outside you want to get in, but when you’re inside, you want to get out”.
They are the pillars that helped to reshape China’s image, but as far as younger workers are concerned, they symbolise a bygone era.
The American Influence
Executives at companies like Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance frequently cite figures like Jeff Bezos and Jack Welch as inspiration. Many of the actions Chinese companies have taken also seem to have a distinctly American influence.
Alibaba fashioned a shrine out of Jack Ma’s old apartment in a similar way to how HP bought and refurbished the garage space in Palo Alto, California, where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started their business.
Even workers referring to themselves as “Code Peasants” sounds a lot like Silicon Valley workers referring to themselves as “Code Monkeys”.
Where the student becomes the master
The main difference between American tech giants like Apple and Google and their equivalents in China is speed and scale.
The growth that Google saw in half a decade in the doubling of its workforce, takes companies like Alibaba 12 months.
Globally-known investor, Kai-Fu Lee describes China’s tech companies as having a “lean startup approach” and credits this as the reason why they never go out of fashion (or business, for that matter). He says that their willingness to change in response to the market instead of imposing their views is key to their eternal relevancy. The drive to continue rapidly evolving is incredibly important.
A notable example of this is Meituan, which started out as a “Groupon for China”, is now “delivering groceries, takeaway and medication”.
Nei Juan — “Involution”
Involution is a term coined by Clifford Geertz to describe the increasing amounts of labour entering an industry and output staying the same.
In China, this took on meaning thanks to the work of Cao Fengze, a PhD student who believes that involution can be equated to intense resource competition that continually grips the country. All that’s happening is people are “working harder and harder without gain”.
One employee in Yang’s article believes that involution is the reason why it’s difficult to climb the ladder and join the people who seem to do the innovative work. Competition is fierce and Masters graduates are employed to do the work that a high-school student could.
Off to the races
Many companies run so-called “horse races” for special projects or product releases. Several teams within the company work towards the same goal and a winner is chosen at the end: either by the company themselves or by the market response to the competing products when they are released to the public. One example was Tencent’s all-in-one messaging and payments app, WeChat. “Hothousing” or “closed-door projects” are another way that companies push their employees to produce the most innovative products. ByteDance is known to have a dozen or so employees get together in a single room, working around the clock, for a month! Don’t worry though, they stress that breaks and meals are provided.
Alibaba sends its workers to Jack Ma’s old apartment to do their work. They live and work in these apartments, scarcely leaving for months on end.
But, this sort of creative work is experienced by only a few.
According to the social anthropologist Xiang Biao, “The growth of China’s tech giants has not come from true innovation but from labour intensity…”
The innate terror of the ranking system
When new workers join new companies like Alibaba, they are often told that they will be ranked. At Alibaba in particular, this means that any so-called “losers” — the lowest-ranked workers of the year — will not receive a bonus.
For Xiang Biao, the forced rankings are a way for companies to exercise control. It simultaneously “destroys all solidarity between peers” and “generates obedience and fear towards the person above.”
The clash of the generations
When speaking to a couple who have worked for Ant Group and Alibaba for over a decade, Yang found that they had a dismissive attitude towards upcoming tech workers. They argue that new employees are unwilling to embody the company culture, and "they’re not as willing to suffer as we were”.
They also argue that younger workers feel as though they missed out on the opportunity for “economic freedom”, and that their attitude can make them difficult to manage.
Where they describe the company’s values as, “doing things of value to others while also developing yourself”, a graduate employee describes them as “chicken soup”. Meaning they’re a phrase said to placate and soothe employees. In fact, the relationship between managers and employees has been described as dishonest and abusive in some cases, thanks to the over-promising of opportunities to progress.
The move to government
Peking University announced in 2019 that 17% of its graduates went into work with the China Communist Party, which was a 6% increase from the previous year.
Generally, a quarter of its graduates had gone into state-owned enterprises and institutions whilst the number of workers entering the private sector halved.
One worker cites health needs as her reason for making the change. Others reason that whilst employees may have a hand in building these tech behemoths, most will never see the rewards.
So what — if anything — is being done?
The 996.ICU campaign was started in 2019 to raise awareness surrounding the working conditions of many workers. The colloquial name refers to the fact that workers are often expected to work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. Or, 72 hours a week. As of mid-2021, it has managed to source complaints from employees at over 200 companies.
Socialist labour law reforms have borne little fruit in terms of resulting in measurable change. This is largely due to the fact that the government is all too eager to make concessions for the companies on which it relies for income from taxes and wider economic growth.
However, the Chinese media leaked communications from Alibaba’s Chief People Officer Tong Wenhong. Tong discussed the concerns of employees and announced that the rankings system would be relaxed.
To employees’ surprise, this promise was kept. There were no more “losers”, and everyone received a bonus. More junior employees also had the opportunity to receive equity shares.
Whilst this is certainly fairer, it is all too clear that China’s private sector still has a long way to meet these new found demands.
Coping with burnout, figuring out the purpose of Snap and surviving a Taliban kidnapping
Need a break from work? Prolonged exposure to stress in the workplace is causing a rise in mental and physical health problems. Meet the paramedic, the advertiser and finance director in our top story, who hit the reset button and are now thriving. Emine Saner talks to workers that have experienced and coped with cases of extreme burnout by completely changing their occupation. This listen from The Guardian reveals that there are many solutions that can help to restore a sense of balance in turbulent times.
In the rest of this week’s edit, we uncover the uncertain fate of Snapchat, we find out how an education professional survived a Taliban kidnapping, and we discover why self-driving cars might not be the future of automation after all.
Wishing you a safe and restful weekend.
Our Top Story
Chronic stress at work can lead to listlessness, fatigue — and a much higher risk of stroke and heart disease. Effective tools can combat this: including walking away. Emine Saner talks to people living happier and healthier lives after experiencing some extreme side-effects from the high-pressure working world.
3 stories to spark your curiosity:
In this weekend’s long listen, explore the rise and decline of one of the biggest social media apps. Is strategic confusion the source of the cultural decline of Snapchat? Vox explores why users and investors have such differing ideas about the future aims of the platform.
Sasha Kassam recalls the night that she was kidnapped by the Taliban. In this captivating listen from Pysche, she reflects on the profoundly intense situation where it’s impossible to enter a flight or fight mode of survival.
It’s time to stop worrying about what the younger generations have ‘lost’ in lockdown: they've shown an incredible aptitude in adjusting to difficult situations. Lucy Foulkes, an adolescence psychologist, argues that plenty of teenagers have managed to navigate the pandemic with remarkable strength.
The ones to share with friends:
Can you really change your personality?
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be someone else for the day? Or a different version of yourself? Perhaps you’ve wished that you were more sociable, more comfortable spending time in your own company, or even being the sort of person who can enjoy an early morning workout.
All of these examples present a fundamental change in who we are as people or how we conduct our everyday lives. Although change may be difficult, it isn’t necessarily impossible.
In an article for the Financial Times, columnist Tim Harford explores how two different books: Christian Jarrett’s "Be Who You Want" and Katy Milkman's "How To Change," claim that they can help you change your personality, with the backing of science.
You can listen to our expertly narrated piece right here on Curio.
The Two Approaches:
Jarrett’s "Be Who You Want" focuses on the more lofty-seeming questions such as: can an introvert become an extrovert? Or can a neurotic person become more resilient and confident?
He builds a convincing argument for the fact that people can change in these ways on a study from 2016, which is based on the Scottish Mental Survey from 1947. It found no correlation between the personalities of participants from when they were teenagers to when they were pensioners.
Milkman is more concerned with the view of change that comes about from altering your situation. Although this can seem simple and more manageable, forcing yourself to actively make the change can be much more difficult.
“Stories of change are inspiring and straightforward, especially when the narrator knows that they end with an Olympic Gold...”.
Both authors use elite sportsmen as their examples in boxer Anthony Joshua and tennis player Andre Agassi. It’s true, that when you often look into the background of celebrities, you will find a story of redemption or a seemingly fundamental change in their personalities. But, what both Jarrett and Milkman fail to mention is precisely what their examples had to change and maybe even sacrifice, in order to get to the top of their game.
That being said, the books do offer some useful insights.
Jarrett's and Milkman's Main Tips:
Pick your moment. Big life events, such as becoming new parents, can be great opportunities for change. If that seems too overwhelming, try yearly milestones – New Years’ Day or the start of a new season
Change your situation. Find a social reason to change; having someone around who can help you along the journey or hold you accountable can be very useful. Change may feel uncomfortable at first, but if you change how you act, your personality could develop.
Combine things that you enjoy with the thing you are trying to change. One of the examples given is, if you like bingeing Netflix and want to exercise more, try only allowing yourself to watch it whilst exercising.
So to answer the big question: Yes. Changing your personality can be done.
We hope that these helpful pointers will prompt you to make the changes that you want to see.
Harvard researchers say this mindset matters most: follow the rule of 3 questions to be more likable
We all know people who we can tolerate and get along with, but don't necessarily like. Why is that? Most of the time, it's because they don't seem to care about what you have to say.
Building relationships is hard. Friends, work colleagues and romantic interests can all feel like they take a tremendous amount of time, energy and effort. But it may not be as hard as you think it is.
According to researchers from Harvard University, one simple rule can make connecting with people much easier.
This is what’s known as the three questions rule.
Jeff Haden does a fantastic job of illuminating the importance of the rule in his article from Inc. Magazine, which you can listen to on Curio.
Put simply, the three question rule is this: when you start a conversation with someone, ask a question, listen to the person’s response, and then follow up with two more questions in the same way.
We promise you it is.
So why do the researchers say this technique works?
“We converse with others to learn what they know…”
Around 40% of our everyday conversations are about our subjective experiences. So, rather than talking in facts and statistics, we talk in thoughts and feelings. Talking about ourselves activates the same regions of the brain associated with reward and satisfaction. But, it’s important to remember that in the case of the three question rule, our aim is to encourage other people to talk about themselves.
When we ask more questions, we are perceived as higher in responsiveness. As a result, asking followup questions that directly relate to a person’s responses allow you to demonstrate better engagement, as well as the fact that you care.
The three question rule is about a fundamental demonstration of respect
Having conversations in this way will help you to build more meaningful connections with people
Try not to turn the conversation back on yourself (unless you’re responding to someone else’s questions, of course!)
Being more likeable is really, really easy!
We hope you can use this rule to flourish social settings as the world begins to reopen.
The billionaire boom, the first NFT, and how authenticity is a sham.
And if you'd like to have these stories sent to your inbox every week, sign up to our Weekend Edit newsletter here.
“Where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?” became somewhat of a meme last year as the conversation around racial microaggressions entered popular discourse. But, beyond the political arena, these narratives or stories of ourselves - from nationality to birthplace to gender - shape our sense of who we are. Our feature story this week is a touching personal account of identity from Chinese-American writer and artist Angela Qian, who reflects on how the heightened competition between her two home countries has left her feeling entirely displaced by the growing differences between the two cultures. A piece full of rewards for a listener.
Elsewhere in this blog post, we’ve dug out some pieces that’ll help you in crafting your vision of leadership from a funeral startup founder who discusses why ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’, to a piece from Aeon magazine examining why the pursuit of authenticity is a thankless game.
With our minds on the money, and money on our minds, (yes, we really did just paraphrase a Snoop Dogg song) we’ve lined up two billionaire stories. In the first, we meet SPAC king, Chamath Palihapitiya and in our second piece, we chart the rise of the billionaires after Covid.
People and Society
‘As borders closed, I became trapped in my Americanness’: China, the US and me
Chinese-American Angela Qian explores how her yearning for the nourishment of tradition and understanding of Chinese history was met with a feeling of cultural disconnect on returning to the modernised nation.
3 stories to spark your curiosity
The SPAC King Is Doing Just Fine Even as the Bubble Starts to Burst
Here’s one for your business longlistens. A listen that’ll undoubtedly make your weekend walk a bit like watching a tennis match without rules or an umpire in sight. Here’s how Chamath Palihapitiya—tech billionaire, Golden State Warriors co-owner, and all-around meme lord—found success with SPACs (Special Acquisition Companies).
Authenticity is a sham
One of the lessons in the book “Act like a leader, think like a leader” discusses authenticity and how it limits the ways in which we’re willing to take a playful approach to ourselves. From monks to existentialists and hipsters on the search for a true self, writer Alexander Stern takes a look at where all of the dead-ends and paradoxes of self-creation come from.
The billionaire boom: how the super-rich soaked up Covid cash
During the pandemic the total wealth of billionaires worldwide rose by $5tn to $13tn and the number of billionaires rose to a total of 2,700. So, where did all this money pour globally? Writer and editor Ruchir Sharma charts the rise of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ billionaires around the world in this thoroughly comprehensive listen.
The ones to share with friends
‘Like Uber, but for cremations’: I created a $2m funeral startup — and became a monster
Did an avant-garde French artist sell the first NFT?
A Day with Curio: the ins and outs of building a widget on iOS 14
If you are anything like us you’ll be well aware that Apple released the 14th version of iOS last Wednesday. It’s a pretty exciting update, containing a bunch of new features like a native translation app, compact phone calls, and an emoji search. Among the many new features was something that we found very exciting here at Curio: widgets.
What’s a widget?
Widgets are essentially miniature apps that live on your iPhone’s home screen and update throughout the day, helping you see live information from the main app in a quicker and easier-to-access way. Apple have created widgets for most of their native apps like Calendar, Clock, and Weather — there’s even a widget to show the battery life of all your various connected devices.
A Day with Curio
As soon as we found out about them we knew we’d have to make one. It would be so great to see our app right there on your home screen. After a team brainstorm, we landed on a core concept: A Day with Curio.
When you start your day our new widget will show you the latest stories on the app, just tap on either the widget or one of the stories to be taken straight to it
In the afternoon, the widget will bring you stories to help you learn something new — you might even discover something you haven’t thought of before.
Finally, in the evening, we will offer a chance to escape to mysterious lands, dive into philosophy, and the dilemmas of technology, with stories to unwind your mind.
There are three different widget sizes: small, medium and large. As the widget grows, so does the information you can see, with the bigger sizes directing you straight to a story that interests you.
The technical nitty-gritty
Widgets are built using relatively new technology from Apple called SwiftUI. Introduced in 2019, SwiftUI is a super simple way to build user interfaces across any and all Apple platforms, it’s easy to learn and a very clean way to code.
Another great thing about building like this is that it allows us to package up our widget and let our systems handle refreshing and updating throughout the day without draining your device’s battery.
Want to get going? Update to the latest version of Curio on any device running iOS 14 to see our widget and voila 🙌
Curio, the curated audio platform for journalism, has closed $9M Series A funding
Curio, the premium audio platform with a curated library of expert journalism, has closed a $9M Series A round led by Earlybird. Draper Esprit, Cherry Ventures, and Horizons Ventures also took part in the investment. Before the Series A, Curio raised $2M, led by Cherry Ventures, with the participation of 500 Startups and private angel investors, bringing the total amount raised to $11M to date.
Curio plans to use the investment to strengthen its position in the US and UK markets, while expanding to other anglophone parts of the world, including India, Australia, and South Africa. Co-produced series and guest curation are also in the pipeline, alongside AI-led personalisation and commissioning based on over 2 million monthly data points.
The subscription app is entirely ad-free and updated daily with the most outstanding stories from over 50 leading publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist, and the Financial Times as well as specialised content from WIRED, MIT Technology Review, Foreign Policy and Aeon.
Govind Balakrishnan, an ex-BBC strategist, and Srikant Chakravarti, a former solicitor, founded Curio in London in 2016. Last year its users played over 18 million minutes of audio on the app, Apple featured it on its Keynote launch event, and Curio was named the App of the Year by Google. In 2020, Curio has already been featured over 220 times on the App Store worldwide.
“We want to help everyone become wiser, empathetic, and fulfilled. I believe learning about ideas and insights shaping our future, and stories that move us can do exactly that,” said Govind Balakrishnan, Curio co-founder and CEO. “I’d never have imagined when growing up in India and listening to the BBC on shortwave radio, that I’d one day work there, let alone found a startup that is building the future of screenless media and empowering publishers in the process.”
Focusing on audio rather than screen time, Curio provides an opportunity for people to learn in real-time from current world events through trusted, high-quality stories from top-tier and specialist publications. Curated to provide insights and coverage on essential topics that impact our present and the future, Curio gives voice to the top analysts and thinkers of our time.
“Audio offers us a unique way of engaging deeply with quality content. And on Curio, that quality consists of the best journalism and expert stories — including opinions, analyses, investigations — designed to help us all learn from the real world,” said Srikant Chakravarti, Curio co-founder and COO. “We have also developed a mix of curation and machine learning personalisation. With this combination, we believe that Curio can revolutionise how we all consume media and relate to it.”
Fabian Heilemann, a partner at Earlybird, will be joining Curio’s board. “Over the last five years, a boom of new technology brought exponential growth to the audio industry, impacting how media is consumed and produced. We, at Earlybird, share Curio’s vision of disrupting modern journalism through curated audio formats, and I am very excited to join the board. Being an early investor in the crowd-publishing platform Inkitt and a former consumer-tech entrepreneur myself, I am proud to support the exceptional team at Curio in scaling internationally” said Fabian.
Govind Balakrishnan and Srikant Chakravarti founded Curio to change the way people get insights on critical topics, learn new ideas, and grow. Curio is a premium audio platform with a curated library of expert journalism.
The concept was born while Govind was working at the BBC. He noticed that exceptionally written pieces were getting lost into endless feeds of unorganised content. The world was not lacking compelling stories nor insights; it needed a more straightforward and engaging way for people to discover them. So, in 2016, Curio was born, helping people to learn in real-time from current world events through trusted, high-quality audio stories from top-tier and specialist publications.
The app is free to download on iOS and Android and offers monthly and yearly subscriptions, priced at £5.99/month and £44.99/year for those wishing to gain unlimited access to the content library and listen to unlimited stories.
To learn more about Curio, visit curio.io
Press contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Blockchain, bull and bears
You probably know by now that Facebook is planning to launch a new currency based on blockchain early next year.
The first online record of blockchain was back in 2008, on a mysterious technical paper, written under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The technology was to serve as the public transaction ledger of the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
But seeds were planted before that. In 1999, Nobel Prize American economist Milton Friedman proclaimed on this interview: “I think that the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that’s missing, (…) is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A, the way I can take a $20 bill hand it over to you and then there’s no record of where it came from”.
However, blockchain is more than just bitcoin and will revolutionise far more than money: it will change your life, or so says Dominic Frisby in Aeon Magazine, while explaining how it actually works.
Perhaps it will also change the lives of poor communities. Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, is setting up a blockchain-based decentralised ledger system to let poor communities record both their formal and informal property rights permanently.
It’s not all roses in the blockchain world, and there may be a catch or two:
Catch number 1: Bitcoin and oil have more in common than you might think, including devastating environmental impact. Some can’t help but wonder whether
Catch number 2: We can’t always trust the technology.
Is the start of a shift or the beginning of the end? Are you feeling bullish or bearish about the future of blockchain?
Why audio is the media of the future
A twig crackles underfoot as a predator approaches.
A mother sings her new born baby to sleep.
A rumble of thunder, the farmer’s relief.
If you listen, you can hear it, some sound somewhere telling exactly what’s happening around you.
Sound has put us in our place for millennia. It situates the self in an immediate and immersive way. And will continue to do so for millennia to come.
We have evolved to discern between the whisper and the scream, the small stream up ahead or the waterfall around the corner.
It tells us where we are and which way to go. Audio has the power to transport you to another world, to firmly put you in the shoes of someone on the other side of the planet.
But if you look around you, where you are now, what you’re reading there’s no clear sense of direction. I bet you’ve got several tabs open in the browser on a laptop, or that you’re looking at this on some secondary screen.
We have all these windows that open onto the world, but we leave them all open, and they just start reflecting onto one another.
This chaos, this contemporary cacophony is often referred to as ‘noise’. But human-produced sonic experiences are far more linear. They have beginnings and ends, whereas this visual mess has no end in sight. I like to think of it as a great ‘blur’, obfuscating the things that matter, clouding them over with things that don’t.
You can never learn anything important if you can never get to it.
At the same time as being omnipresent, these constantly blurring screens aren’t particularly convenient. We have to consciously take them with us, constantly be looking at them as to not miss anything. They require effort on our behalf. And as our working lives become ever more sedentary and wholly reliant on these screens, the last thing that people want is to be equally dependent on them for information and leisure.
Of course, today, most of us are. But we can also imagine a different future.
A media landscape that moves beyond the screen is often one that is seen as being synonymous with Augmented Reality (AR). AR technology, most obviously successful in the case of Pokemon Go, allows the boundary between the on-screen world and the real-life world to disappear.
In the future we could imagine AR technologies which allow you to walk through the ideas contained in a book. But today, one element of AR is already here: audio.
In fact, audio has been around for a while as a form of media, radio waves ensured the first iterations of mass communication. And there is no reason to think that listening to ideas, information and stories won’t remain relevant in the future.
Today, when you are listening to a podcast, an audio article or an audiobook, you can take it with you anywhere. It is of the place you listen to it, and allows you to experience different worlds without peering through the confines of a screen.
Our media diets have become so piece-meal, so stuttering, that I bet you haven’t read every single word of even the most interesting stories you come across — this one included! But if you were listening to something fantastic, that 21st century lapse of attention can’t kick into place, you can’t just mindlessly start scrolling away.
Audio forces us to appreciate language and writing as it was meant to be written, word by word, from start to finish. At the same time as offering that mental focus, it also frees us to carry out menial tasks or carry on with our day. Audio allows us to enhance every moment.
Our other senses are freed to make the most of the world around us. We can cycle into work while crossing the Sahara, and gain insight into Stoicism while doing the dishes It allows for both a healthier and more productive way of consuming content.
So the next time you read an incredible article and get distracted, imagine what else you could be getting done while you listened to it; imagine where you could be, the things you could see.
Want to experience some incredible audio today? Download our app.
Forgeries: Could you tell a fake from the real thing if it was hanging on a museum wall?
The value of a name
When we appreciate art, what are we valuing? Is it the skill that goes into the execution of the piece? The ideas and intents that inspire it? Or merely the name of the artist — its single and indisputable origin?
Most people would like to argue that it is all about the craft, the affect that a piece might have on its audience — but if that were true, then why should forgeries be so maligned?
Skill in deception
Indeed it takes an incredibly skilful artist to find success as a forger. Like the Hyde to a successful artist’s Jekyll, the forger thrives on their technical ability and often ends up selling to the same buyers.
But with so much money floating around the higher echelons of the art-world, it is no surprise that such artful dodgers are so thoroughly hounded out and aggressively prosecuted. Millions can be made by illicitly copying a Rothko. And there aren’t millions of people who could ever sniff a fake Rothko out.
Meet James Martin, Sotheby’s own art forgery detective, and most probably, the world’s best. Armed with an infrared microscope and an obsessive knowledge of art history, he bypasses the aesthetics of the works and tackles them purely as physical specimens, ripe for examination.
Deep fakes and dragons
Beyond the galleries and museum exhibitions, imitations don’t just fool us — they can also lead to incredibly dangerous situations.
Take AI generated images and deep fakes. These can accurately recreate people’s faces in any imaginable situation. Such pixelated forgeries obviously pose a threat to the smooth functioning of democracy. Would you believe it if you saw Trump, topless, riding atop a bear?
Financial and political gain aside — fraudsters also benefit from being able to sell a better story than humble relayers of the truth. In the world of palaeontology for instance, calling something a dragon will get you noticed, when complicated scientific terms and the slow burning reality of evolution will lead to eyes glazing over.
Fakes are common-place and even our own conscience can play tricks on us — but there is something incredibly compelling about the successful forger and the deliberate corruption of the world as we see it.
You can listen to all these pieces and more in our inimitably hand-crafted playlist, available on our app.
Universal Basic Income: Playlist Intro
Fired by AI
Software will eat the world.
But first robots will chew through your pay checks.
Machines will make your life easier. They will also ensure you can’t make rent.
Assuming all this techno-doomsaying is accurate — the question remains as to what you do with all the unemployed and literally economic useless citizens. And by that I mean you and me and everyone whose day-to-day work involves something procedural, calculating or remotely repetitive.
Robots will do grunt work well. They may even be better writers, better lawyers, better friends, better lovers. But we don’t need to worry about that just yet — the economic situation is still under our control.
So how do we make sense of a world where jobs aren’t necessary?
Our leaders could ensure that all citizens are guaranteed a job that no one, man nor machine, can take away: A ‘basic jobs’ programs, the likes of which has been proposed by leading US progressives. This would be similar to the grand industrial projects of the post-war US.
At the same time, it risks creating legions of workers who are all too aware that their livelihoods and careers are totally artificial.
Another alternative, and one that is actually being trialled in some countries, feels a little more new. That alternative is a “Universal Basic Income”. Paid to all citizens, regardless of their needs or earnings. It would simplify the benefit systems of welfare states, as well as guarantee some level of equality between all citizens.
It sounds tempting: a situation where everyone is free to pursue their passions, free to take risks. A world where everyone has just enough money to fall back onto and feel comfortable. Without the drudgery of labour, who knows what humanity could achieve?
But who wins?
The popularity of UBI as a solution to the disruption brought about by AI and automation, makes it feel more like a reactionary measure rather than a genuine attempt at egalitarianism.
Indeed, what better way for Silicon Valley billionaires to satiate the fury of the dispossessed than to sprinkle free money on the masses? Aren’t these the same power-houses who sell our data, and make millions off us giving them free stuff? Why can’t Facebook pay us a basic income?
And even beyond such tech-related cynicism, there are plenty of economic reasons to be sceptical about UBI. Not least the core truth that work gives meaning to individuals’ lives in a way that abstract cash cannot.
So what do you think — would it really be too good to be true? You can listen to the playlist in full on our app.
Who wrote Shakespeare?
The life of the English language’s most famous poet doesn’t often appear in his work. Could that be because William Shakespeare never wrote a single decent verse? In 2002, Gavin McNett, writing in Salon, investigated the claim that the playwright, translator and spy, Christopher Marlowe was in fact the man behind one of the greatest ever bodies of literary work.
“There are six extant Shakespeare signatures from banal documents, all crabbed and variant, as though he had difficulty writing his name. There’s no record of his having attended the village school, or of his having donated a penny to it in his wealthy middle age, although, as the film shows, he lived literally across the street. His daughters were, it seems, illiterate, in sharp contrast to the practice among educated Elizabethans (and in the ethics on display in the Shakespearean plays). We do know that William Shakespeare composed the oft-quoted inscription on his tombstone:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare: Blese be ye man yt spares thes stones, And curst be he yt moves my bones.
It really kind of stinks.”
Listen to the full piece here:
Is it too late to save the world?
“If an essay is something essayed — something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity — we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The US president now operates on this presumption…”
We’re pleased to have been able to produce the acclaimed US author’s remarkable new essay for the Guardian in audio. You can listen to it in full here: http://bit.ly/curio-franzen
Do you trust cryptocurrencies?
Rising from the ashes of a mistrusted financial industry, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies promise to revolutionise monetary systems. But should we be ready to put our trust in them?
You can listen to the curio.io audio series, made up of articles from Aeon Magazine, where we examine the future of money, from crypto to blockchain and beyond, here: https://medium.com/s/crypto-confidence