Over the past few months I’ve been struggling with the mind-boggling uselessness of the German bureaucracy. A lot of services are only partially digitised. Many of the documents that must be exchanged are unfriendly PDFs which you may even be invited to fax back to the relevant institutions. Setting up a company is a taxing experience that can take many months. And of course it doesn’t help that customer service as a concept is alien to the country’s culture. Your Disney+ (or Netflix) apps get better every year. But these services remain hopelessly the same.
The gap between the way these services are delivered and the technologies we use on a daily basis is wider than it’s ever been. Though it’s likely to be worse in Germany than in many other places, there’s actually such a gap everywhere. Technologies continue to grow exponentially whereas our public services, traditional organisations, legal categories and social norms change much more slowly, in a linear fashion.
At school, classes are often taught as if Google and Youtube didn’t exist. Our tax systems largely ignore the specifics of our digital economy and fail to properly grasp the value created by digital giants. Labour unions fail to target the growing precariat of our day and age. More people fall through the cracks of the safety net we designed for the industrial age. Even the way we measure and analyse economic value is more and more beside the point. The list could go on and on…
That’s why I was particularly satisfied to find out that this gap had been given a name: the Exponential Gap. In a must-read book titled Exponential, Azeem Azhar, creator of the influential Exponential View newsletter and Harvard Business Review podcast, explains that in our Exponential Age, technological change is exponential whereas institutional change is only linear, which results in a fast-growing gap between the two.
After the publication of my book Du Labeur à l’ouvrage (“From Graft to Craft”), he invited me to talk about technology and the new world of work in his HBR podcast. So it was with immense pleasure that I returned the invitation and interviewed Azeem about the exponential gap and its consequences on work in my Laetitia@Work podcast. We had a fascinating conversation about his new book (and the process of writing it), the pervasiveness of tech pessimism, the exponential gap, the new world of work, the skills of the future, the gender gap and many more things.
Listen to my interview of Azeem by using the player in this newsletter 🎧 ☝️
I recommend you read his book 📚 It’s a short, well crafted book that manages to make clear the issues at stake in the paradigm shift we are experiencing. With a few striking concepts, it gives us food for thought about the institutional issues of our Exponential Age. Like every good read, it made me wonder about more things, including the relationship between the exponential gap and the gender gap 👇💡
Mind the Exponential Gap
There are many reasons why human-built institutions are slow to adapt, from the psychological trouble we have conceptualising exponential change, through to the inherent difficulty of turning around a big organisation. All contribute to the widening gulf between technology and our social institutions” (Exponential)
The pandemic provided us with ample evidence about our being ill-equipped to grasp exponential change. At the beginning of each new wave of contamination, policy makers fell into the same cognitive trap. They ignored exponential growth at the beginning. The early points on any exponential curve look so unimpressive at first that everybody (except for epidemiologists or financial experts) will fail to pay attention to it. So people aren’t ready to adapt to exponential change.
👉 Read my Welcome to the Jungle review (in French) of Azeem’s book: Futur du travail : Et si le problème c’était le “fossé exponentiel” ?
Though this example isn’t in the book, this cognitive problem is best illustrated by the wheat and chessboard problem: if a chessboard were to have wheat placed upon each square such that one grain were placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on (doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square), how many grains of wheat would be on the chessboard at the finish?
The total number of grains equals 18,446,744,073,709,551,615. Unless you’re good at math, you can’t even read that figure. That’s eighteen quintillion, four hundred forty-six quadrillion, seven hundred forty-four trillion, seventy-three billion, seven hundred nine million, five hundred fifty-one thousand, six hundred and fifteen, over 1.4 trillion metric tons. Or 2,000 times the annual world production of wheat, as explained in Wikipedia.
We humans are better at incremental changes. We understand the seasons, our human lifespan, and the (linear) productivity of an assembly line. Not the exponential phenomenon of artificial intelligence. Nor the effect of Wright’s Law. Likewise all our legacy institutions—social norms, policies and organisations—weren’t designed for the Exponential Age. They often move too slowly to adapt.
The “exponential gap” is the kind of enlightening, catch-all notion that can make a book very successful because people will talk about it everywhere. It explains many of the problems we deal with and why our legacy institutions can’t keep up. As it widens, the gap leads to more cultural and political tension and resentment. In short, the gap makes us angry as my anecdote about German bureaucracy illustrates… (although I do sometimes wonder why I don’t see more people express their anger at Germany’s particularly disastrous exponential gap!)
How do the exponential gap and the gender gap intersect?
I confess that’s one of the questions that concerns me the most. Exponential technologies and companies are overwhelmingly in male hands. Women make up less than 20% of the engineers who make them. They don’t share much in the exponential profits of winner-take-all digital giants. Less than 5% of venture capital go to female-funded companies. Even when they do ask for money, women don’t get much of it. Because it’s so hostile to them, many women find it hard to identify with the culture and mindset that come with working at an exponential company.
I read in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Women-Led Startups Received Just 2.3% of VC Funding in 2020” that women received even less VC funding in 2020 than in 2019:
It will likely be some time before all the reasons for this precipitous drop are clear. Some speculate that the pandemic made investors more wary of risks and more likely to stick to their existing networks — which is very much a “boys’ club” and tougher for women to break into. And even when going outside their networks, many investors may be sticking with “pattern-matching habits,” seeking the same kinds of companies that they’ve supported in the past, which are often tech companies led by men.
After all, only about 12% of decision makers at VC firms are women, and most firms still don’t have a single female partner, according to an analysis last year. Of all partners at these firms, only 2.4% are female founding partners — who, as Fast Company notes, “control an outsize proportion of a firm’s investment decisions.” When women venture capitalists do make the decisions, they’re twice as likely to invest in female founding teams.
The lack of gender equality in funding startups leads to further problems. It affects the overall jobs picture for women exponentially. It’s also likely to slow the recovery and efforts to tackle inequality.
Reading Azeem’s book I couldn’t help but wonder: if the “exponential” curve is so much more male, does that mean there’s an exponential gender gap?
At least the idea that tech is gender neutral is one that fewer people will dare defend today. For a couple of years now, there have been more and more debates about the many biases of AI and tech. The book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez helped shed light on the problem. See this Guardian review of Criado-Perez’s book:
Gender-blindness in tech culture produces what Criado Perez calls the “one-size-fits-men” approach. The average smartphone – 5.5 inches long – is too big for most women’s hands, and it doesn’t often fit in our pockets. Speech-recognition software is trained on recordings of male voices: Google’s version is 70% more likely to understand men. One woman reported that her car’s voice-command system only listened to her husband, even when he was sitting in the passenger seat. Women are more likely to feel sick while wearing a VR headset. Another study found that fitness monitors underestimate steps during housework by up to 74%, and users complain that they don’t count steps taken while pushing a pram (...)
The sheer abundance of examples in this book militates somewhat against its argument, which is that there is a lack of gender-specific data: a “gender data gap”. Googling “gender impact assessment” yields upwards of 345m results. Criado Perez to some extent acknowledges this tension, imploring planners and politicians to make better use of the data that already exists, but that’s less an issue of data than of policy and design.
The neat thing about data is that it avoids thorny questions of intention. Criado Perez doesn’t set out to prove a vast conspiracy; she simply wields data like a laser, slicing cleanly through the fog of unconscious and unthinking preferences. Unless we crunch the numbers and take positive steps to correct bias, she argues, inequality will automatically continue. Technology is associated with innovation, but algorithms tend to reinforce the status quo: “If you like that, you’ll love this.”
Also last year Black Lives Matter denounced how biased facial recognition software is against Black people. More people ask “Who is making sure the AI machines aren’t racist?” So if everything on the “exponential” curve is that biased and unequal, how dangerous is that for all those people who live and work on the “linear” curve? What do you think?
👩💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces : Futur du travail : et si le problème c’était le « fossé exponentiel » ?, La pénalité maternelle, ça vous parle ?
🤔 Why Is Exercise Good, But Physical Jobs are Bad?, Sam Westreich, Medium, July 2021: “Some people in white-collar fields dream about getting a more active job. They consider taking a job as a waitress or a construction worker, believing that they’ll be out doing exercise and will be more fit. “If I work at a physical job, it’s like getting a workout regimen in every day!” Unfortunately, physical activity workers are also at high risk of a number of diseases related to their jobs. People working at Amazon warehouses, for instance, are at a higher risk of back injuries, muscle sprains or injuries, and a wide variety of repetitive stress injuries.”
🛫 Who needs expats?, Bartleby, The Economist, September 2021: “If chief executives are the monarchs of the corporate world, the cadre of well-paid staff they deploy from head office to oversee operations across the planet are their ambassadors. In the golden era of globalisation, sending an expatriate Western executive to a distant emerging market signalled the place was being taken seriously. That model was starting to feel out of date before covid-19 made foreign travel a misery. As Zoom and remote work have become the norm, is shuffling emissaries across the world even worth it anymore?”
♀️ How Some Women Are Remaking the Workplace to Better Suit Their Lives, Raksha Vasudevan, The New York Times, September 2021: “Offering more remote work options and flexible hours in a culture that still expects employees to overwork may actually do more harm than good, contributing to a greater erosion of boundaries between work and personal life. The pandemic has confirmed this: Instead of using time spent on commutes, breaks and socializing at work to rest, most people simply worked more. A recent survey also found that 39 percent of women fear that taking advantage of flexible work arrangements will negatively affect their career growth.”
Mind the gap and take care! 🤗