Report On Automation & Labor Share

This report is a brief, critical exploration of the imminent wave of automation with acknowledgement of past innovations and possible future societal effects and implications. Not to mention, the culmination of weeks of research.

Have a gander if you’re curious!

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E-Waste Podcast: What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why we need to stop

Reflection

With a bevy of assignments piling up towards the end of this session, I grabbed the BCM bull by its horns and knuckled down like an upstanding, model student. Having already an interest in Amazon due to their imminent Australian debut, I dove into their use of automation for DIGC335. Upon seeing the BCM310 lecture on data centres and their environmental impact, I knew I’d have to look at the way companies manage their e-waste. While it became difficult to identify the methods of individual companies, like Amazon, I found a wealth of information, statistics and exposés on the broader flow of e-waste.

Most concerning, was the realisation that much of the world’s e-waste, corporations’ included, ends up either in landfill or lining the streets of impoverished nations. So, this shaped my focus instead to investigating the status of e-waste worldwide, with an emphasis on international legislation that informs ethical businesses, tied up by looking at the Australian e-waste landscape. Having committed to completing a research report for DIGC335, and not a digital artefact, I thought it might be therapeutic exciting to hone my content production skills with this project instead.

Having overcome one of my early obstacles in hiring a microphone (turns out you just need to say you’ve “borrowed one before”), I set about researching. One key challenge was having to ignore sources due to there being so many available; the Dateline report comes to mind, which I only sampled once in favour of focusing on ABC’s similar story. Another challenge was being only able to digitally ‘rent’ eBooks for 24 hours via UOW’s catalogue Research done and script written, it was time to record my lines. Again and again. Because upon editing them together, I noticed a slurred word here, my phone ‘pinged’ there, and the neighbours running their water audibly shaking the plumbing. These made many lines unworkable. Half an hour and many fits of giggles later, Madelyn’s lines were recorded. Everything was coming together.

Until, of course, I had to delete a thousand words because 2,500 words doesn’t actually equal 9/10 minutes of speech. Hmm. That was soul-crushing another challenge.

I’m very happy of the final product. I believe the podcast medium has allowed me to convey a large amount of information in a more digestible format than a written report, and I’ve comfortably satisfied the assessment criteria. I’m also pleased that I completed it in a more humane, relaxed timeframe, even if that is out of necessity. While I spent a lot of hours editing, mixing, finding appropriate music and generally fussing about, I feel like it was worth it.

Some of the disadvantages, however, include that same requisite pedantry. While there’s formatting involved in written work, it takes much longer for a podcast. Additionally, extra time is taken up in the podcast by acknowledging sources on the fly as opposed to relegating them in citations and references.

References

ABC, Background Briefing: How did Westpac’s e-waste end up on the worst dump in the world? 2017, Radio programme, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Produced by Vivien Altman, Presented by Rebecca Le Tourneau,
<http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2017-03-12/8329068 >

Baldé, C.P., Wang, F., Kuehr, R., Huisman, J. 2015, The global e-waste monitor – 2014, United Nations University, IAS – SCYCLE, Bonn, Germany
< https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf >

As You Sow, 2016, Amazon.com, Inc. Request: Report on Electronic Waste, viewed 3/5/17
< http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Amazon-E-waste-2016-Resolution.pdf >

Hieronymi, K., Ramzy K., Williams, E. 2012, E-Waste Management, ProQuest Ebook Central,
< http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=981726 >

SERI, About SERI 2017, Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, viewed 24/5/17
< https://sustainableelectronics.org/about >

Zhang, K. 2011, Recycling of Electronic Waste II, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
< http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/lib/UOW/detail.action?docID=699415 >

Basel Action Network 2010, Country Status / Waste Trade Ban Agreements, Basel Action Network, viewed 24/5/17
< http://archive.ban.org/country_status/country_status_chart.html >

1-800 EWASTE 2012, Monitoring the effects of our obsolete CRT monitors, 1-800 EWASTE, viewed 24/5/17
<http://www.ewaste.com.au/ewaste-articles/monitoring-the-effects-of-our-obsolete-crt-monitors/&gt;

Planet Green Recycling 2016, Landing Page, Planet Green Recycling, viewed 25/5/17
< http://planetgreenrecycling.com/ >

SBS, Dateline: E-Waste Hell 2011, television programme, Special Broadcasting Service, Produced by Donald Cameron, Presented by Giovana Vitola,
< http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/story/e-waste-hell# >

Bonningston, C 2014, Our E-Waste Problem Is Ridiculous, and Gadget Makers Aren’t Helping, viewed 25/5/17,
< https://www.wired.com/2014/12/product-design-and-recycling/ >

Gunther, M 2015, Amazon, Best Buy and the free rider problem, viewed 5/5/17,
< https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/05/amazon-best-buy-electronic-waste-walmart-recyling >

Gough, M 2016, Australian laws lag on electronic waste management, University of New South Wales Newsroom, viewed 27/5/17,
< http://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/australian-laws-lag-electronic-waste-management >

AMTA, The Recycling Process, Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, viewed 26/5/17,
< http://www.mobilemuster.com.au/learn-about-recycling/?gclid=CJ7YlYapj9QCFQwEKgodPgoOpw&gt;

Department of the Environment and Energy, National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, Australian Government, viewed 26/5/17,
< http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/television-and-computer-recycling-scheme >

Dearne, K 2011, Participants fear e-waste recycling scheme has lost direction, The Australian, viewed 26/5/17,
< http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/technology/participants-fear-e-waste-recycling-scheme-has-lost-direction/news-story/f88ddf68d940c69debcdf8eed6081d57 >

Johnston, R 2017, Australia’s E-Waste Problem Is Getting Worse, Gizmodo Australia, viewed 27/5/17,
< https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2016/07/australias-e-waste-problem-is-getting-worse/ >

The Economist Intelligence Unit 2015, Global e-waste systems Insights for Australia from other developed countries, Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform, viewed 27/5/17,
< http://anzrp.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Global-e-waste-systems-A-Report-for-ANZRP-by-EIU-FINAL-WEB.pdf >

Travers, P 2017, e-waste: What happens to discarded televisions, computers and mobile phones?, ABC Radio Canberra, viewed 27/5/17,
< http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-22/e-waste-what-happens-to-old-computers-televisions-and-mobile/8372516 >

Stone, M 2015, A Slimmer Smartphone Means Mountains of E-waste, VICE Motherboard, viewed 27/5/17,
< https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/slimmer-smartphones-mean-more-ewaste >

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Reusing and Recycling: Big Challenges, Big Opportunities, University of Pennsylvania, viewed 5/5/17,
< http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/sponsor/electronic-recyclers-international-inc/ >

Bensound, The Lounge,
< http://www.bensound.com/royalty-free-music/track/the-lounge >

The impending societal ramifications of automation

My last blog post focused on Amazon’s, now confirmed, entry into the Australian market and the potential impact that such a move might have on domestic consumers, retailers and workers. Many of the sources I came across while digging deeper concerned Amazon’s increasing use of automated systems. As such, I’ve decided to shift the focus of my project towards the broader implications of automation on the global workforce. This change means I don’t have to limit myself topically to either Amazon or, necessarily, Australia.


As early as 1967, figures like Marshall McLuhan were criticized (p.237) for believing that ‘total automation is upon us’.  So to did William Gibson poignantly state time and again, that ‘the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’. So to that end, let us assess the current status of automation: What systems have been made obsolete by automation? What specific technologies are emerging today, and who is it displacing? Finally; what is on the horizon, and what professions, if any, will be safe from the process of automation creep? These will be the questions that my research report will engage with, and what I’ll be touching briefly upon in this post.

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Novelist William Gibson

To talk about automation is to talk about what John Maynard Keynes coined (p.3) in 1930 as ‘technological unemployment’. He described this emerging phenomenon as the unfortunate ‘[availability] of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’. Keynes added that this is only ‘temporary’, and standards of living will be multitudes better in one hundred years when there’s little work for anyone to do. But it was Keynes belief that ‘everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented’ (p.6) as work provides meaning to one’s life, a topic for another time.

Since the process of industrial mechanisation saw a decline in production-line jobs that manufacturing industries provided, we haven’t yet seen any mass unemployment from the introduction of new technologies. Aside from the advent of electronic computing decreasing the need for human computers, and automatic exchanges largely making switchboard operators redundant, the workforce has survived. We’re only now seeing the beginnings of the technological unemployment Keynes imagined.

With the introduction of technologies such as the self-checkout machines at supermarkets, many commentators including Barack Obama himself, see automation as ‘relentless’ and  ‘killing traditional retail’ jobs. With robots capable of sorting more than 200,000 packages a day in warehouses, and capable of working on cents worth of electricity instead of minimum wage, it’s hard not to be concerned. But importantly, it’s not just blue-collar industry workers who are at threat. White-collar professions relying on skills like decision making, paperwork, and writing are newly susceptible to automation via learning AI.

Platforms like Quill from Narrative Science can analyse large amounts of data and identify meaningful trends, then output a report reflecting these findings in ‘everyday language’, be it finance or sports results. While it’s been criticized for an inability to ‘discern the relative newsworthiness’ of stories, the unmatched speed and lack of bias that an AI system writes with is undeniable.

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In addition to AI software, ‘general purpose’ robots are being developed with an ability to ‘learn’ new tasks. ‘Baxter’, from Rethink Robotics and Roomba creator Rodney Brooks, is being developed to fulfill ‘quality assurance or small assembly’ in factories, but still requires a human to initially ‘teach’ it these functions. This universal robot represents a leap in usefulness comparable to the first personal computers. Baxter is capable of fulfilling whatever task is ‘within his reach‘, but perhaps this is an agreeable compromise; there will still be work available for workers on an assembly line, but it will be less laborious and more about oversight and refinement of process.

Other systems are being designed to take over more skilled professions. IBM’s ‘Watson‘ for example is being touted as an AI doctor, networked to be constantly up to date with the newest research and possessing the ability to instantly access and share your medical records as required. Similarly, Enlitic has a program which can analyse medical imaging results and boasts a ‘false-negative rate of zero’.

The impact that automation makes on employment isn’t always clear until years later, however. The Economist reminds that although automated teller machines briefly reduced the number of human tellers in 1988, bank branches became cheaper to operate and so they grew by ‘43% over the same period’. So, will a technology like self-driving cars destroy the transport and hauling industry, or will new, unprecedented roles appear for the millions employed in those sectors?

While time will tell, I’ve plenty of sources to investigate for my final report in the meantime.

Amazon VS. E-waste: BCM310 Proposal

Project Proposal

This project will focus on the impact that large retailers have on the global problem of ’e-waste’, with a particular interest in how these companies attempt to mitigate their contributions to it. E-waste, which can be defined as any discarded electronic product, is the ‘fastest growing and most hazardous component of the municipal waste stream,’ according to the non-profit foundation As You Sow[1].

Because companies like Amazon, Best Buy and our own domestic retailers such as Harvey Norman and JB-HIFI are ultimately responsible for the sale of most consumer electronics and appliances, some argue that they too should be responsible for the ‘end-of-life management’ of these goods.

‘End-of-life management’ includes either the reselling of second-hand goods after refurbishment, or the responsible recycling of these electronics in compliance with officially sanctioned government or commercial means. In 2014, a United Nations university report on worldwide e-waste found that only 16% of the world’s e-waste was recycled in such a way[2]. The rest, according to Electronic Recyclers International (ERI)[3], is either:

  1. Discarded in landfill or incinerators;
  2. Gathered by individuals or private companies for unofficial recycling systems;
  3. Or is shipped off to the developing world for ‘informal recycling’.

John Lingelbach, executive director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, describes ‘informal recycling’ as two different processes. Either an individual who works in unfathomable conditions that pose ‘serious health and environmental risks’, or the more innocuous but unregistered businesses in countries like India that have begun employing people to break electronics down to their individual components and metals. This practice has also been labelled ‘urban mining’, referring to the potential of these recyclable materials, but the impact of the ‘toxic mine’ and its harmful chemicals also needs to be properly accounted for.

With Amazon arriving in Australia sometime next year[4], as mentioned frequently with my blogging this semester, now is an important time to analyse and question the responsibilities of large corporations regarding their relationship to the electronics they and others sell.

In 2009, US electronics chain Best Buy introduced an admirable e-waste recycling program which allowed people to submit their old, unusable or unwanted consumer electronics. Regardless of where the goods were purchased, they could be recycled for free at any Best Buy. Mark Gunther of the Guardian lamented competitors for not offering similar services, stating ‘Best Buy is collecting trash generated by Amazon, Walmart and other competitors’[5]. In 2015, Best Buy dropped the requirement of its recyclers to comply with R2 certification which indicates responsible recycling[6]. Then in 2016, after 7 years of free service, the chain was forced to implement a $25 flat fee for the disposal program. Meanwhile Amazon, writes Gunther, remains a ‘black box’ regarding sustainability and collaboration with industry bodies, whilst being ‘next to impossible’ to assess  in terms of social and environmental impacts.

Australia, for its part, is particularly susceptible to the effects of e-waste mismanagement due to some key factors that UNSW researchers have identified.

  1. Legislation is majorly flawed; the categorisation of e-waste is limited and roles ill-defined.
  2. Low population density and shortage of facilities; some consumers need to travel upwards of 100km.
  3. ‘Auditing, compliance and reporting measures’ are all unsatisfactory; there simply isn’t an efficient, systemic management of recycling.
  4. Different laws for different states; you can’t dispose of e-waste in South Australian landfills, but you can across the border.
  5. ‘Australians are the second largest producers of waste per person in the world’; we’ve an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem.

To surmise, I will be looking deeper into the way large companies engage with the typically unspoken issue of e-waste, and how their policies will further impact our country. Amazon’s forthcoming arrival, along with its lack of a recycling program, has the potential to worsen our already overly encumbered e-waste programs. I will make use of the aforementioned United Nations University report and as one of the primary sources of information for my project, as well as a series of five articles that the company Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. wrote for the University of Pennsylvania on their website[7]. These provide a thorough understanding of the state of e-waste globally and the various ways, both legal and otherwise, that companies and countries deal with it.

As for presenting my research, I regularly fall back on writing academic-style reports; however for this project I might instead try producing a single succinct, informative podcast to diversify my portfolio. One key challenge would be sourcing a quality microphone, but surmounting that, a podcast is certainly achievable. Having previously researched Amazon’s policies and operations for a different project, and possessing the knowledge to produce a podcast and embed it on my blog, I’m already partially prepared for the research project proper.

 Timeline

Week 10: Conduct further research. E.g. ‘Where do the likes of JB-HIFI, Harvey Norman and similar rank among Amazon and Best Buy?’

Week 11: Preliminarily enquire at building 25’s AV equipment hire office re: microphone. Receive feedback on proposal, incorporate it.

Week 12: Re-evaluate progress made and ensure I’m comfortable with what I’ve gathered. Begin transferring this information into audio-friendly syntax. Wednesday is my self-imposed deadline to ensure any last-minute problems can be dealt with.

Sources Referenced

As You Sow 2016, 2016 Shareholder Resolution, As You Sow, viewed 3 May 2017,
http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Amazon-E-waste-2016-Resolution.pdf

Baldé, C.P., Wang, F., Kuehr, R., Huisman, J 2015, The global e-waste monitor – 2014, United Nations University, IAS – SCYCLE, Bonn, Germany, viewed 3 May 2017
https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Meeting the E-waste Challenge, Knowledge @ Wharton, viewed 3 May 2017
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/meeting-the-e-waste-challenge/

Jager, C 2017, Amazon Is Coming To Australia In 2018, Kotaku Australia, viewed March 30 2017,
https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/03/its-official-amazon-is-coming-to-australia-in-2018/

Gunther, M 2015, Amazon, Best Buy and the free rider problem, the Guardian, viewed 3 May 2017,
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/05/amazon-best-buy-electronic-waste-walmart-recyling

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Electronics Recycling: Competing Certifications Create Confusion, Knowledge @ Wharton, viewed 3 May 2017
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/electronics-recycling-competing-certifications-create-confusion/

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Electronics Recycling: Competing Certifications Create Confusion, Knowledge @ Wharton, viewed 3 May 2017

In-text Citations

[1] http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Amazon-E-waste-2016-Resolution.pdf – As You Sow is dedicated to protecting the environment belief in, and advocacy of, ‘corporate responsibility’.

[2] https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf.

[3] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/meeting-the-e-waste-challenge/ – This article and the series it is part of will likely be referenced extensively in final project.

[4] https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/03/its-official-amazon-is-coming-to-australia-in-2018/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/05/amazon-best-buy-electronic-waste-walmart-recyling

[6] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/electronics-recycling-competing-certifications-create-confusion/

[7] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/sponsor/electronic-recyclers-international-inc/