Please Commute My Commute

Our acceptance of soul-sapping commutes in the era of Skype and Zoom betrays an ambivalence towards technology. But our ability to adapt to change, and a new generation of world-wise tech startups, are cause for techno-optimism.

By Hayden Bland

“Commute” is one of those words with a less-known doppelgänger usually encountered in legal settings. On appeal, courts can decide to “commute” a death penalty sentence, reducing it to something like “life without parole”. Such commutations usually occur because new information has come to light which casts doubt on the fairness of the original sentence, a recurrence — spoiler alert  — in Netflix’s disturbing but fascinating documentary series, I am a Killer.

Fresh from watching one such episode, I’m unable to resist this wordplay because the daily work commute can seem like a stiff penalty for, well, being dutifully employed. Not for committing a crime, let alone a serious crime. Simply for bringing home the bacon. One might understandably struggle to sympathize with murderers, but those with a lengthy work commute surely warrant our commiseration. As cities have grown, suburbanized and matured, commuting has become a necessary evil for workers across the world. In the UK, the average back-and-forth trip is closing in on one hour, while in the US it has crept over 50 minutes. To this, South Koreans might justifiably retort with a “lucky you!” given Korean commuters endure an average commute of over 100 minutes (see this translated article). And remember, these are average times, so plenty will be doing it that bit harder, such as the 25 million US commuters traveling something like 90 minutes per day.

The stress associated with commuting is obvious at face value, and has been well-researched for some time. What is more interesting is how slow we’ve been to take up opportunities to “commute our commutes”, as it were. So slow that the judge might be forgiven for thinking that there’s just no saving some people. Sure, humans are intelligent and resourceful, and it’s not surprising that we’ve found innovative ways of making our commutes more tolerable and/or useful. In Seoul, some people even share their ride with an English tutor to make good of this precious time. But when the option exists to eliminate commuting altogether, such adaptation can seem a bit like inventing a better soothing balm when one can simply stop self-flagellating.

Just what is an extra hour or two per day worth to you? Could you take up yoga or join a gym? Have a quality breakfast with your children? Perhaps study for a master’s degree to secure a better job? How about simply getting a full night’s sleep, or just doing something because you can, like savoring a glass of gin on the terrace to prove that there’s no ghastly poison beyond the salvation of rhubarb infusion.

And then there are the monetary savings. In the UK, “season tickets” now average £3,000 per year across the country, with the commute to London by rail from the popular seaside city of Brighton costing some £4980 annually. That’s a large chunk of salary for most people, so not only can a move to remote work free up time to savor a nice gin, but it can also help pay for it.

But I suspect that I am here preaching to the converted, with the “net positive affect” of commuting ranking behind that of house chores in research reported by economists Kahneman and Krueger (original papers here and here if you have access). The uptake of remote work might be painfully slow, but the hard evidence shows that people find scrubbing bathroom scum more edifying than their daily commute. Perhaps there’s hope for them yet, the presiding judge might muse! Lest we be distracted by the serially positive and their Seven Tips for…, we should be clear that most humans merely adapt to commutes rather than enjoy them.

With that established, the interesting question becomes this: How do we set about making more jobs amenable to remote work, and remote work more conducive to the creation of rewarding careers? This is a challenge that exercises brighter minds than my own, but given I have the self-importance to declare myself a “careers specialist”, grappling with difficult problems like these is a promise I’d best keep. Hence, my consultancy work with Crowdworks, a South Korean AI data annotation startup (LinkedIn; Twitter; Crunchbase) that is in the process of developing the remote work platform of the future. 

The internet has facilitated all manner of remote interactions, but distributed work platforms are particularly interesting because, well, they deal with work, and work, jobs and careers are things we all care deeply about. Not as much as football and litters of black and yellow labrador puppies, of course, but enough to cause consternation around dinner tables the world over.

Crowdworks specializes in the preparation of training data sets for the AI industry. In brief, AI applications need a very accurate preliminary data set in order to set them on the right path. This “training data” — whether be text, image, voice, video, or some other data — in most cases needs to be tagged manually, relying on a combination of human judgement, smart annotation tools and templates, and a secure distribution platform. Importantly, this tagged data needs to be accurate, reliable and delivered with haste enough that data scientists downstream don’t cash in and retire, a flourish of hyperbole that barely registers given market demand for their expertise

Achieving these things is no mean feat considering the diversity of AI clients and AI applications, low-tolerance QA requirements, and the challenge of building a skilled and coordinated remote work community. Add data privacy and security into the mix, and an insatiable need for computing power, and it is little wonder that the best tech investors and strategists going around are still grappling with the new world of AI startups. And yet, Crowdworks gets the job done, and since 2017 has completed over 600 major projects for this nascent AI market.

While much of our work has already moved online, digital learning technologists will happily tell you for hours on end when you’d rather be watching football that something done online is quite different to something designed to be done online. And this is where the story gets interesting. Unlike online freelance consulting or office telecommuting, which cobble together tools that more-or-less get the job done, AI data annotation consists of jobs that are broken down into smaller segments and distributed in bite-sized chunks for remote workers to complete. In a manner analogous to cloud computing, work distributed this way benefits from an efficiency and robustness with which work embedded in a traditional institutional arrangement such as a 37.5-hour 9-5 role, in a particular work setting in an office downtown, struggles to compete.

With all of the downtime, oversubscription, double-handling and social routine removed, just what is left of most jobs? And what about all that unnecessary cognitive burden invested in everything from persuading people to have lunch at your favorite deli to sponging mayonnaise from your tie thereafter? In many instances, what we call “work” seems a bit like a devious brand of corn chips, with a mere handful of morsels bouncing about in a giant air pocket of social routine. Ricky Gervais should write a series about it one day.

But before our minds race off in the direction of robotic dystopias, equated in public consciousness with giant mechanized warehouses, we need to put this disaggregation of jobs into tasks into context. Less than half a century ago, computer terminals and spreadsheets were the workplace cyborgs of the day. And if we step back and look at history more broadly, entire nations have transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing and on to services in the blink of an eye. Some even argue that we are about to enter a fourth industrial revolution, whatever that means. All that and yet here we are with more access to sophisticated work and diverse consumption experiences than ever before in human history.

It is important to keep reminding ourselves that anxiety always accompanies change, and a lot of change is much less disruptive than we first anticipate. For instance, many jobs have essentially gone remote already without the slightest hint of downgrade. Accountants are hardly out of work because we now deal with them online and through mediating platforms. And some jobs, such as nurse, data scientist, and professional narcissist, err influencer, have never seen such good times. So, the impacts of technology are not always as radical as they first appear, and in any case we’re capable of sorting things out when the time comes.

This human ability to adapt successfully to change is the context in which the divvying up of jobs into bite-sized chunks, distributed to remote work communities through intelligent platforms, is best understood. Not only do distributed work platforms solve fundamental business problems, but they also provide flexible work opportunities that are more in tune with the social parameters of our day. Furthermore, the disaggregation of jobs into parts also implies new aggregations of parts. Today, Crowdworks’ work community is handling data annotation tasks that are more complex than those it distributed just a year ago. In a year’s time — and far less in some cases — today’s tasks will become more complex again. The expectation is that in time, micro-tasks will become sequences of tasks, and sequences of tasks will become workflows, and workflows might even become entire jobs and careers. There is no exhausting of human work and freezing of human context; there are always new things to do in new circumstances.

Rather than running headlong into a slickly-run franchise restaurant with its choice of ketchup or mustard, we more likely parting the curtains on an alluring self-serve buffet of work opportunities. And “designer work” sounds a lot like something we all secretly desire rather than something that haunts our REM sleep.

This creation of a new work paradigm is what interests me most as a careers specialist consulting to one of the most promising startup companies in South Korea. Crowdworks anticipates that as its platform for distributing work evolves, so too will its work community and the way it understands and facilitates that community. At the same time, the company’s clients will continue to push the boundaries of innovation, even as developments in AI are brought to bear on distributed work itself. Ultimately, these changes will be accompanied by a general shift in societal mindset and behavior, and before we know it we will have successfully adapted once again.

We have a right to be optimistic about our ability to embrace new technology because we’ve got form: From automobiles through to PCs, mobile phones and the internet, we’ve done pretty well. And as the present wave of technologies work their way into our consciousness there could well be a rush to move work online, and to take up online work. Career development specialists already talk about protean and boundaryless careers, portfolio careers and life design; it’s barely a skip from these to constructing jobs from bundles of tasks, and shaping careers from bundles of jobs.

On reading whitepapers and posts by the World Economic Forum in its The Future of Jobs series, or reports such as the RSA’s The Four Futures of Work and the EU’s The Future of Work? Work of the Future!, the impression is not given of a world racing blindly into a dystopian employment future. On the contrary, this groundwork balances the promise of technology with a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of its risks and challenges. Similarly, when I work with the team at Crowdworks, I see a company mindful of the opportunities and responsibilities of new technology, and one acutely aware of the role that intelligent work platforms will play in our employment future.

Recently, I came across a brilliant blog post by orchestra musician and music lecturer Jason Heath. In the post, Jason recounts his struggle with commuting, or as he describes it, “life’s biggest waste of time”. Being a musician and teacher, he’s been a real gig worker in the original sense of the term, transforming himself in the process into a “mass transit ninja”, here mastering travel timetables, there buying new folding bicycles.

While Jason has a brilliant and fascinating career, commuting has nonetheless been the bane of his existence. Fortunately, though, music teachers and students around the world can read his blog posts, listen to his podcasts, and watch his tutorials online. This type of rich, immersive remote engagement was the stuff of science fiction a mere generation or two ago. And yet, we’ve managed to master these technological changes with the deft touch of a crocodile handler who’s accumulated long-service entitlements. Sure, we’ve had a few early scares and there’s need for ongoing vigilance, but there’s nothing we shouldn’t be able to manage, assuming we stay alert and don’t tempt fate.

Successful technology transitions, including those we’ve both aced and bumbled through, are central to the consciousness of Crowdworks, underwriting its vision for the future of work. Currently, the company has 26 patents focusing on better work delivery, with a further six pending and many more in the pipeline. Combined with a focus on human-centric design and an ambition to provide more and varied work through its platform, it is helping shape the work landscape of the future.

The work of tomorrow can be every bit as full of life, energy and opportunity as the career of someone like Jason Heath — as long as we keep innovating, pushing and evolving with these goals in mind. Hyped technophilia on the one hand, and paralytic dystopia on the other, are immature responses to uncertainty. Instead, the challenge as humans is to balance what we know we’re capable of with a clear-eyed recognition of our shortcomings. And this is why I have confidence in the next generation of startups, the GenNext of tech ventures, like Crowdworks, who have seen tech bubbles and financial crises, but are optimistic about our future and committed to doing things better.