The Jobs and Skills Summit

Last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit hosted by the Federal Government in Canberra was clearly designed to be a statement of intent by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Labor administration. Part policy endorsement, part policy road map, the Summit was hailed (by the Prime Minister at least) for reaching agreement on “36 immediate initiatives”. By all accounts, it was a jolly affair and everyone in the Government sounded very pleased with themselves. The reality is that despite some significant pronouncements, most of them lack detail, many of them relate to existing initiatives, a number of the “36 agreements” were largely concluded and/or telegraphed ahead of the Summit – and of course, the one item that got most attention was the most divisive: the renewed prospect of multi-employer collective bargaining.

Number of Australian companies by employment size, 2018-2022 (Source: ABS)

There were some contentious views about the small business association’s pre-Summit MoU with the ACTU. Some peak industry bodies and other commentators felt that COSBOA had “sold out” in apparently agreeing to sector-wide negotiations on pay and conditions. However, this does not appear to be the case – COSBOA is merely seeking better co-operation and consultation on areas of mutual interest, and is not endorsing any form of enforced unionisation or compulsory sector bargaining. There have been suggestions that sector-wide collective bargaining will result in higher wages, but without more detail, and pending greater clarity on the “Better Off Overall Test”, this will simply add friction to the current debate about wage and employment growth.

If we do return to a previous form of Industrial Relations policy, it’s interesting to look at the latest ABS data on Australian businesses by employment size (table above). I think it’s worth noting the number of working people in Australia who are employed by SMEs. Large employers are actually small in number, so if multi-employer collective bargaining does come into effect, it could mean tens of thousands of businesses will be involved, and many probably for the first time. On the other hand, in an industry like construction, which is both highly unionised and covered by significant industry awards, many workers are either self-employed or they are employed by independent sub-contractors.

Representation at the summit was reasonably well-balanced, between Unions (including Industry Superfunds), Business (individual companies and industry associations), the NFP and Community sectors, Academia, Think Tanks, and of course Politics. The absence of the Leader of the Federal Opposition meant that his voter base was effectively disenfranchised, although his Deputy (and Leader of the National Party) did attend. Go figure.

Much was said about “streamlining” and “updating” parts of the Industrial Relations regime. Like Australia’s tax laws, the system of Modern Awards as overseen by the Fair Work Commission feels unwieldy, unnecessarily complex, over-bureaucratic, at times vague, and often archaic bordering on arcane. There are currently over 140 different awards in place – some of them relate to an individual company, some to a particular trade or profession, and some cover a whole industry. Interpretation is often in the eye of the beholder as to whether or not it applies to a particular employer and/or employee – here is an extract from one award:

“NOTE: Where there is no classification for a particular employee in this award it is possible that the employer and that employee are covered by an industry modern award or a modern award with occupational coverage.” (Emphasis added.)

I should add that one reason given by the Labor Government for removing the prohibition on sector-wide collective bargaining is because the process for employers to request an exemption from the relevant Minister is “too cumbersome”. I don’t see how this is so given that much of the IR system is overly bureaucratic. Surely the reason for this administrative process is to avoid collusion and other cartel-like activities that would otherwise fall foul of competition law and anti-trust provisions.

The Summit had some notable things to say about gender equality and pay parity, (“Legislate same job, same pay”), training, immigration and child care; but some proposals sound vague without defined objectives (“Boost quantum technology research and education”); draconian if they inhibit workplace flexibility, especially in seasonal industries (“Limit the use of fixed-term contracts”); or too aspirational without more detail such as specific goals and measurable targets (“Leverage greater private capital into national priority areas, including housing and clean energy”). We know that Labor ministers have been vocal in their dislike of the so-called “gig economy” (a “cancer” on the economy, and “I’d like to regulate the sh*t out of it”), but perhaps they need to do more to understand why some workers actually prefer it, and what benefits it brings in terms of workplace flexibility, especially in start-ups and emerging sectors, many of which are SMEs from where much of our longer-term innovation and employment opportunities actually come.

One item that didn’t receive as much attention was the “Digital Apprenticeships Scheme”, which (subject to details…) would likely have the combined support of the Tech Council of Australia and the ACTU. Certainly, despite a vibrant and innovative IT sector, and some notable high-tech and high-end manufacturing businesses in Australia, we lag behind in STEM education, and lack basic digital literacy skills in the wider population. (Hence the need for adjustments to the skilled migration scheme?) A friend of mine who runs a small manufacturing business in Melbourne recently hired an Office Assistant. The successful candidate claimed to be proficient in standard productivity tools such as Word and Excel. In fact, they didn’t know how to COPY-PASTE, nor how to use the SUM-ALL function, which are both very basic routines. They thought they could “wing it” by watching a YouTube video…

Finally, if there is one note of caution or concern about the Summit, it is the niggling thought that this was more of a talk-fest, and that any new ideas to have emerged were either covered by existing programmes and “policy settings”, or were already in train. Going through the list of Outcomes, I counted at least three dozen separate initiatives (Plans, Schemes, Agreements, Reports, Statements, Codes, Programs, Compacts, Task Forces, Working Groups or Funds) many of which already exist, or were part of Labor’s election promises, or have been proposed prior to the Summit. (And that list excludes Federal Ministries and Government Departments.) Sounds a lot like “Talks about Talks”, with “new” money already allocated and spoken for (hence Labor’s push back on some of the implied costs of the Summit proposals). At worst, this “wish list” represents a huge amount of expensive and bureaucratic overlay, whereas we need agile and flexible economic, education and employment measures.

Next week: Finding a Voice

Digital Perfectionism?

In stark contrast to my last blog on AI and digital humans, I’ve just been reading Damon Krukowski‘s book, “The New Analog – Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World”, published in 2017. It’s an essential text for anyone interested in the impact of sound compression, noise filtering, loudness and streaming on the music industry (and much more besides).

The are two main theses the author explores:

1. The paradoxical corollary to Moore’s Law on the rate of increase in computing power is Murphy’s Moore’s Law: that in striving for improved performance and perfectionism in all things digital, equally we risk amplifying the limitations inherent in analog technology. in short, the more something improves, the more it must also get worse. (See also my previous blogs on the problem of digital decay, and the beauty of decay music.)

2. In the realm of digital music and other platforms (especially social media), stripping out the noise (to leave only the signal) results in an impoverished listening, cultural and social experience; flatter sound, less dynamics, narrower tonal variation, limited nuance, an absence of context. In the case of streaming music, we lose the physical connection with the original artwork, accompanying sleeve notes, creative credits and even the original year of publication.

Thinking about #1 above, imagine this principle applied to #AI: would the pursuit of “digital perfectionism” mean we lose a large part of what makes analogue homo sapiens more “human”? Would we end up compressing/removing “noise” such as doubt, uncertainty, curiosity, irony, idiosyncrasies, cognitive diversity, quirkiness, humour etc.?

As for #2, like the author, I’m not a total Luddite when it comes to digital music, but I totally understand his frustration (philosophical, phonic and financial) when discussing the way CDs exploit “loudness” (in the technical sense), how .mp3 files compress more data into less space (resulting in a deterioration in overall quality), and the way streaming platforms have eroded artists’ traditional commercial return on their creativity.

The book also discusses the role of social media platforms in extracting value from the content that users contribute, reducing it to homogenised data lakes, selling it to the highest bidder, and compressing all our personal observations, relationships and original ideas (the things that make us nuanced human beings) into a sterilsed drip-feed of “curated” content.

In the narrative on music production, and how “loudness” took hold in the mid-1990s, Krukowski takes specific aim at the dreaded sub-woofer. These speakers now pervade every concert, home entertainment system, desk-top computer and car stereo. They even bring a distorted physical presence into our listening experience:

“Nosebleeds at festivals, trance states at dance clubs, intimidation by car audio…. When everything is louder than everything else, sounds lose context and thus meaning – even the meaning of loud.”

The main issue I have with digital music is that we as listeners have very little control over how we hear it – apart from adjusting the volume. So again, any nuance or variation has been ironed out, right to the point of consumption – we can’t even adjust the stereo balance. I recall that my boom box in the 1980s had separate volume controls for each speaker, and a built-in graphic equalizer. To paraphrase Joy Division, “We’ve Lost Control”.

Next week: I CAN live without my radio…

The Crypto Conversation

A short post this week – mainly to give a shout out to my colleague, Andy Pickering, and the rest of the team at Brave New Coin. Andy kindly invited me to help celebrate the 250th edition of The Crypto Conversation, his regular podcast that has featured a pantheon of leading characters from the crypto and blockchain industry. On this recent edition, we talk about my journey into crypto, the highs (and lows) after six years in the industry, some aspects of “trust”, the usual Crypto Conversation “Hot Takes” and of course, a slightly contentious discussion on science fiction. Enjoy.

Listen here:

Spotify

Apple

Libsyn

Next week: The bells, the bells….

 

Free speech up for sale

When I was planning to post this article a couple of weeks ago, Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter and take it into private ownership was looking unlikely to succeed. Musk had just declined to take up the offer of a seat on the Twitter board, following which the board adopted a poison-pill defence against a hostile takeover. And just as I was about to go to press at my usual time, the news broke that the original bid had now been accepted by the board, so I hit the pause button instead and waited a day to see what the public reaction was. What a difference 72 hours (and US$44bn) can make… It seems “free speech” does indeed come with a price.

Of course, the Twitter transaction is still subject to shareholder approval and regulatory clearance, as well as confirmation of the funding structure, since Musk is having to raise about half the stated purchase from banks.

Musk’s stated objective in acquiring Twitter was highlighted in a press release put out by the company:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Mr. Musk. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

This latest development in Musk’s apparent love/hate relationship with Twitter is bound to further divide existing users as to the billionaire’s intentions, as well as raise concerns about the broader implications for free speech. Musk himself has encouraged his “worst critics” to stay with the platform. Meanwhile, founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey has renewed his love of Twitter, despite only recently stepping away from the top job to spend more time on his other interests.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned that a platform such as Twitter is in private hands or under single ownership (subject, of course, to anti-trust rules, etc.). Far from creating an entrenched monopoly, it may actually encourage more competition by those who decide to opt out of Twitter. What I am less comfortable with is the notion that Twitter somehow acts as an exemplar of free speech, and as such, is a bastion of democracy.

On the positive side, we will be able to judge the veracity of Musk’s objectives against his actual deeds. For example, will Twitter actually introduce an edit button, make its algorithms open-source, exorcise the spam bots, verify users, and reduce/remove the platform’s reliance upon advertising?

On the negative side, what credible stance will Twitter now take on “free speech”, short of allowing an “anything goes” policy? If Musk is sincere that Twitter will be a platform for debating “matters vital to the future of humanity”, he may need to modify what he means by public discourse. Personal slanging matches with fellow-billionaires (and those less-able to defend themselves) do not make for an edifying public debating forum. Musk’s own disclosures about Twitter and his other business interests will also come under increased scrutiny. We know from past experience that Elon’s Tweets can move markets, and for this alone he should be aware of the responsibility that comes with ownership of the platform.

We have long understood that free speech is not the same as an unfettered right to say what you like in public – there are limits to freedom of expression, including accountability for the consequences of our words and actions, especially where they can cause harm. The broader challenges we face are:

  • technology outpacing regulation, when it comes to social media
  • defining what it means to “cause offence”
  • increased attacks on “mainstream media” and threats to freedom of the press

1. Just as the printing press, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting and the internet each resulted in legislative changes, social media has continued to test the boundaries of regulation under which its predecessors now operate. Hitherto, much of the regulation that applies to social and digital media relates to privacy and data protection, as well as the existing law of defamation. But the latter varies considerably by jurisdiction, and by access to redress, and availability of remedies. Social media platforms have resisted attempts to treat them as traditional media (newspapers and broadcasters, which are subject to licensing and/or industry codes of practice) or treat them as publishers (and therefore responsible for content published on their platforms). (Then there is the question of how some social media platforms manage their tax affairs in the countries where they derive their revenue.)

The Australian government is attempting to challenge social media companies in a couple of ways. The first has been to force these platforms to pay for third-party news content from which they directly and indirectly generate advertising income. The second aims to hold social media more accountable for defamatory content published on their platforms, and remove the protection of “anonymity”. However, the former might be seen as a (belated) reaction to changing business models, and largely acting in favour of incumbents; while the latter is a technical response to the complex law of defamation in the digital age.

2. The ability to be offended by what we see or hear on social media is now at such a low bar as to be almost meaningless. During previous battles over censorship in print, on stage or on screen, the argument could be made that, “if you don’t like something you aren’t being forced to watch it”, so maybe you are deliberately going in search of content just to find it offensive. The problem is, social media by its very nature is more pervasive and, fed by hidden algorithms, is actually more invasive than traditional print and broadcast media. Even as a casual, passive or innocent user, you cannot avoid seeing something that may “offend” you. Economic and technical barriers to entry are likewise so low, that anyone and everyone can have their say on social media.

Leaving aside defamation laws, the concept of “hate speech” is being used to target content which is designed to advocate violence, or can be reasonably deemed or expected to have provoked violence or the threat of harm (personal, social or economic). I have problems with how we define hate speech in the current environment of public commentary and social media platforms, since the causal link between intent and consequence is not always that easy to establish.

However, I think we can agree that the use of content to vilify others simply based on their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, political affiliation or religious identity cannot be defended on the grounds of “free speech”, “fair comment” or “personal belief”. Yet how do we discourage such diatribes without accusations of censorship or authoritarianism, and how do we establish workable remedies to curtail the harmful effects of “hate speech” without infringing our civil liberties?

Overall, there is a need to establish the author’s intent (their purpose as well as any justification), plus apply a “reasonable person” standard, one that does not simply affirm confirmation bias of one sector of society against another. We must recognise that hiding behind our personal ideology cannot be an acceptable defence against facing the consequences of our actions.

3. I think it’s problematic that large sections of the traditional media have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to their ethical standards, and their willingness to misuse their public platforms, economic power and political influence to undertake nefarious behaviour and/or deny any responsibility for their actions. Think of the UK’s phone hacking scandals, which resulted in one press baron being deemed “unfit to run a company”, as well as leading to the closure of a major newspaper.

That said, it hardly justifies the attempts by some governments, populist leaders and authoritarian regimes to continuously undermine the integrity of the fourth estate. It certainly doesn’t warrant the prosecution and persecution of journalists who are simply trying to do their job, nor attacks and bans on the media unless they “tow the party line”.

Which brings me back to Twitter, and its responsibility in helping to preserve free speech, while preventing its platform being hijacked for the purposes of vilification and incitement to cause harm. If its new owner is serious about furthering public debate and mature discourse, then here are a few other enhancements he might want to consider:

  • in addition to an edit button, a “cooling off” period whereby users are given the opportunity to reconsider a like, a post or a retweet, based on user feedback or community interaction – after which time, they might be deemed responsible for the content as if they were the original author (potentially a way to mitigate “pile-ons”)
  • signing up to a recognised industry code of ethics, including a victim’s formal right of reply, access to mediation, and enforcement procedures and penalties against perpetrators who continually cross the line into vilification, or engage in content that explicitly or implicitly advocates violence or harm
  • a more robust fact-checking process and a policy of “truth in advertising” when it comes to claims or accusations made by or on behalf of politicians, political parties, or those seeking elected office
  • clearer delineation between content which is mere opinion, content which is in the nature of a public service (e.g., emergencies and natural disasters), content which is deemed part of a company’s public disclosure obligations, content which is advertorial, content which is on behalf of a political party or candidate, and content which is purely for entertainment purposes only (removing the bots may not be enough)
  • consideration of establishing an independent editorial board that can also advocate on behalf of alleged victims of vilification, and act as the initial arbiter of “public interest” matters (such as privacy, data protection, whistle-blowers etc.)

Finally, if Twitter is going to remove/reduce advertising, what will the commercial model look like?

Next week: The Crypto Conversation