This Old House and An Industry in Transition

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Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Another benefit of such automation (any automation, really), is the massive reduction in waste. A robot/machine is not only incredibly accurate, but can be designed to perform jobs that humans just physically can not do.

    As I’ve said before, at some point, there will be very few humans in factories making products. They’ll be programming and maintaining the machines that make products. It’s work that won’t require a college degree, but unless our high school curriculum changes pretty dramatically, it’s work you won’t be doing straight outta high school, either.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      What’s interesting to me about automation is that it seems to also create a market for stuff that is extremely handmade too. The middle gets gutted.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        How does the middle get gutted? You’ll always have a market for artisian wares, but artisian is insufficient to meet the needs & wants of a large population. Everything else needs to be mass produced.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          What he means is that there won’t be any “nice, with some degree of customization, but not hugely expensive bespoke” stuff anymore. Everything will be either one-size-fits-most mass-produced or straight-from-the-raw-materials handmade.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Oh, that, because machines can never hold more than one program…Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              I suppose this is what I get at below.

              Does it really matter if you “hand-made” mahogany belt rack with hammered silver hooks is made by human hands or robot hands?

              I’m actually reminded of a funny episode of “Friends” where they had to convince the blonde girl (I didn’t watch the show much but caught this episode) that an item from Pottery Barn was bought in a flea market because she would have refused it if she learned it was mass produced. She loved the piece until learning its history (or lack thereof). She was much happier when she thought it was from the days of “yore” instead of the mall.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        These homes still allow for a high degree of customization. Not to mention all the non-wood items (lights, carpet, etc) still create markets.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          In the town I grew up in, several neighborhoods had houses with identical frameworks (I don’t know if this is the right word but it seems to be). If you look close enough, you can see that the houses have the same structure (or a mirrored version) and if you go inside, the layout is identical. But at first glance, you’d never notice because of all the ways they are customized… color, outside finish, shutters, doors, windows, stone for stoops, landscaping, etc.

          And these houses are probably between 75-100 years old. They are definitely older than any relatively modern “pre-fab” approach. So the idea that utilizing a basic design/layout will create homogeneity is just misplaced.

          Also, some people like homogeneity. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable preference to hold.Report

  2. Avatar Lyle says:

    There are other changes that are occuring some minor such as hurricane clips tieing the rafters to the top plates with metal strapping so that more than nails hold the structure together. In pluming with plastic pipeing there is a move to home run pluming where the pipe to each fixture goes directly to a distribution manifold.
    Back in the 1950s there were homes (such as one my father bought) that came partly pre-fab with wall sections assembled, taking the pre-cut a bit further, but without the complications of moving a built structure along the streets.Report

  3. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    Well, allowing myself a touch of cynicism, I note that Tom Silva won’t be one of the guys that would be spending two days cutting all the lumber whose job is eliminated. So he’s unconcerned. He’s happy that his costs and job complexities are reduced.

    I don’t want to be the guy yelling “stop” at this stuff, and advocating for featherbed-style regulations. AND I recognize that there are some people – people I hung out with growing up, in fact – who this will have an adverse impact on.

    Which is why I support UBI, and lower-cost education. And by the way, I think “free college” should be “really cheap education” and include trade schools.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      Not that one specifically but the West Coast had their own versions of pre-fab and/or quickly built homes. Eichler homes are considered desirable pieces of modern art that you can live in. Others not so much.

      I remember reading an article a year or so ago that starter homes are a hard sell because no one wants the cheap materials that made those homes starter homes. No one wants linoleum or vinyl. Everyone wants granite or marble counter tops and hardwood floors.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        The stone countertop thing in particular I find odd, and a bit infuriating.

        If you drop a dish even a couple of inches over a stone countertop, it’s likely to shatter. Otherwise, they’re exactly as functional as counters of other materials.

        For that privilege, we pay a lot more, and turn beautiful mountains and seaside cliffs into desolate pits.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Right now, I am having quartz countertops installed. Completely manufactured from ground quartz & looks like white marble, but much more durable.

          And much cheaper.I’ll take that over marble or granite any day.Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog says:

            Oh neat – I’ve also seen some places with polished poured concrete countertops. They look as sexy as stone ones do IMO, though they’d also share the dish-shattering property (which may be less of a problem for folks less clumsy than I am).Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

              You can do some pretty creative things with concrete countertops so it isn’t just a grey slab. If I was doing starter homes, I’d put in stone tile like I describe below, or concrete slabs.Report

        • Avatar Morat20 says:

          Doesn’t burn, which is nice when moving hot pots and pans around. And if you get the kind without seams, that’s no grout or joints for gunk to get into. Which is my primary problem with tile. I hate cleaning grout.

          I prefer the synthetic stuff myself. Cheaper and there’s types that are a bit ‘softer’, so less breakage.Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine says:

            Right, it’s the heat resistance that is the primary benefit…for those of us who needed that, granite was among the only choices – originally it replaced formica and corian. I’m glad there are more choices on the market that offer heat resistance and hopefully lower costs.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Oh they look nice now. The old countertops were put in by the builder, and where cheap ceramic floor tile counters (1 sq ft tiles) with 3/8″ grout lines, filled with sanded grout. Cleaning those was a huge pain, and if the house hadn’t been a relative deal, I would have said no on that alone (actually, I did say no because of that originally, but my wife brought me around by promising me I could replace them ASAP).

            At my last house, I replaced the laminate counters with that real deep black granite tile, and filled the 1/8″ grout lines with an epoxy grout. About $5/sq ft for the tile (clearance sale, yay!), so hella cheap compared to a granite slab, very handsome, and just as easy to keep clean..Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      I remember reading about various efforts to make eco friendly homes, and one thing many of them did was move away from drywall in favor of modular insulated panels. Part of the design included ease of access to electrical, data, and plumbing, but still allowed for wall mounted fixtures.Report

    • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

      Yup. My cousin lived in one in the suburbs of Chicago. Once the novelty wore off, he couldn’t sell fast enough.

      I also had the pleasure of attending a party in a Sears home. It was a nice little 2 bedroom, Craftsman style home in Evanston. Too small by today’s standards, it was really cool from a design standpoint, and had a lot of unexpectedly nice touches that you’d never find in a starter home today (think real wood mouldings).Report

  4. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    My parents are pretty sure their house was a catalog kit.

    A house nearby went up for sale some time ago, and they went to the open house, just to compare the interior of the houses and try to figure out what might have been changed on their house since it was built. Turns out the odd arrangement of the basement stairs at their place were probably not original.Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’ve a client who is a cabinetmaker, and I’ve had the opportunity to tour their factory floor. The amount of computerization, automation, and precision is remarkable. Much of what the people do is lifting and carrying things from one machine to another, or operating other equipment like forklifts to do the same thing.

    Roughly three dozen people at work at any given time, most of whom have had no more than day’s worth of training in the technical operation of the equipment. Most of the training that is done is on workplace safety. The only highly-skilled people there are the two who actually program the machinery.

    A millworker used to be a highly-trained, highly-skilled kind of quasi-carpenter — now millworking looks like a semi-skilled job that requires advanced education only at the highest operational or at the managerial levels. Actually converting the wood into millwork is done mostly by robots.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I think about similar issues with food. We tend to romanticize the idea of things being “home made” and I’m not sure why. And I’m admittedly as guilty as any. Obviously, there is a difference between Grandman’s chocolate chip cookies and the crud laden stuff inside most boxes. But if a factory replicated the exact same recipe that Grandma used with better and more consistent execution, why would so many of us reject it as somehow inferior?Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      @kazzy

      I am more torn on the food issue. I have been watching Michael Pollan’s Cooked on Netflix with my girlfriend.

      On the one hand, he sidesteps the economics issues when he talks about what we lost from home cooking. I just watched the second episode which is officially called “water” but is really about the rise of processed foods and has a lot of “activists” bemoaning the modern food industry. You see Pollan cook a stew in his house. The stew takes several hours to prep and several more hours to cook. Anyone with eyes can see that Pollan’s house has a nice huge kitchen that allows two or three people to do the prep work comfortably. He is also obviously very rich and has the right life-work balance to make cooking feel like something he can devote time to. If I get home at 7 or 8 from work, I don’t want to spend two or three hours cooking and then another 30-45 minutes cooking. He also fails to show how Mumbai’s famous tifflin system only works because India is still poor enough that there are lots of women who can get up before dawn and cook homemade meals for office workers and make 79 dollars a month and think it is a good deal. There are enough employment issues that delivering these lunches can be a source of income for men. I suppose Spoonrocket or Ubereats is a rough equivalent though.

      On the other hand, I do think it is fairly obviously that there are a lot of public health issues associated with the rise of processed food including huge spikes into the numbers of people suffering from diabetes. And I am liberal enough to think this is a public health issue that needs to be addressed by the government.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Processed food is far to vague a term to be useful. Processing food isn’t an issue on itself, it depends what is done to it and how much the person eat. Almost nobody can buy fresh individual ingredients from a store. Like you said, its nice to be rich and a pro cook so you can make that your life. Processed foods have become important because they are hella easy and often just as good as making your own darn pasta or whatever.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          @greginak

          I think processed food in this case meant TV/Microwave dinners, anything that lists lots of chemicals, but yes the phrase suffers a void for vagueness and overbreath issue.

          That being said, eating fastfood every night is not necessarily healthy. My big issue with cooking is more the clean-up.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        @saul-degraw

        I don’t disagree with anything you say here. (And I think I need to check out “Cooked”.)

        But I’m talking less about “processed” food and more about “mass-produced”.

        I have a sugar cookie recipe that is yummy and uses about 5 ingredients. There is no reason you couldn’t scale the recipe up and make thousands of cookies at a time that would be of equal quality. I wouldn’t consider them to be “processed” at that point, at least not any more than you would consider my homemade versions to be “processed”. But I think — for whatever reason — if people saw those very same cookies — same ingredients, same recipe, same procedure… just on a larger scale in a commercial kitchen — in a bag or a box on the shelf at the super market, they would perceivethem to be different than the ones I made in my kitchen. And not only different but somehow worse or less than. They *might* consider them better than the Chips-Ahoy (which I would consider “processed”) but still somehow different because they wouldn’t conjure up the image of a woman in an apron with flour streaked across it that they associate with “homemade”.

        But maybe I’m just arguing semantics? I dunno…Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          The other thing about old fashioned home cooking is lots of started with Add one stick of butter or Add a heaping cup of lard. Lots of old home cooking was fatty and unhealthy. Not all of it, but it was far from what we would consider healthy or all that palatable now.Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

            @greginak

            Haven’t you heard? Fat is good for you now. Yay FDA!Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            Maybe my “science” is wrong, but I’d rather make a recipe with four “whole” ingredients, one of which is butter than eat something that screams at me how Low-Fat and Low-Cal and Fiber-Rich it is from the box.Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              oh i agree with that at times. But there are butter alternatives and even good old butter aint’ that good if you eat to much.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Agreed. I don’t consume a lot of fat. But I also don’t stress it anymore assuming I’m getting it from a good source. I eat very little that comes out of a box or jar and even then I try to get stuff with minimal ingredients.

                I’m also on my feet all day and super active and am blessed with “good genes” when it comes to metabolism/diet/exercise and the like, so I can get away with more than most.

                Which doesn’t mean I don’t stuff the occassional Big Mac down my gullet.Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog says:

              I’d also distinguish “processed” vs “whole” as something potentially useful.

              Do the cookies use white flour or whole grain? White or brown sugar? That tells you something about what’s actually in them. Of course, which is the good answer and which is the bad one remains a largely religious issue.

              As you say, the same process carried out in a kitchen or a factory will have the same results, so the staff count and equipment size involved in making a thing isn’t really very useful to determine the quality of the thing (though it’s potentially useful for assessing the effect on the economy of choosing to buy this thing vs. that one).Report

            • Avatar El Muneco says:

              When I think of a four ingredient cookie, my go-to is traditional Scottish shortbread. One part sugar, two parts butter, three parts flour. That’s it.

              What, that’s only three? The fourth is breading to deep-fry it in. I did say it was Scottish shortbread…Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                One of my weaknesses. I can resist most cookies, but not that. Ate a whole batch in an afternoon once. Regretted it later, but it was soOoOoOo good.Report

              • Avatar El Muneco says:

                Most of the time I don’t have that problem because I use it as leftover disposal – the dog-end of a stick of butter, or the end of a bottle of maple syrup / agave nectar / etc… Cooked on a pie plate in the toaster oven. Even living alone, it’s not a big enough batch that I worry about it going stale. And if I do eat half of it in a go, it only stretches my nutrition plan, it doesn’t shatter it.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          The big issue with mass produced is that it is often pumped with a lot of chemicals that are cheap and/or increase self-life. If you make bread at home or at small expensive bakery, you are probably not adding lots of chemical preservatives to fight mold and increase self-life.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            @saul-degraw

            I think that is the distinction I am making between “mass produced” (in which the recipe is not changed other than scaling up) and “processed” (in which all sorts of crazy shit happens).

            You can achieve large-scale production without “processing” the food. You are just in a different lane than Nabisco.Report

            • Avatar Marchmaine says:

              Well, no… have you ever eaten your 4 ingredient cookie that has been on your shelf for 2 weeks?

              The distribution system *is* the food system, and that system requires cookies to remain moist for long periods. That’s the point of all those “other” ingredients that Grandma didn’t use.

              You can definitely mass produce Grandma’s cookies and bread, they just have to be eaten within a day or three.Report

            • Avatar notme says:

              You can achieve large-scale production without “processing” the food. You are just in a different lane than Nabisco.

              Maybe in your imagination. What do you think trans fats were used for?Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Stop saying “chemicals” like that. Everything you eat is a chemical.

            What you are referring to is the addition of compounds to extend and enhance shelf life, or to bolster the appearance or flavor of food (this relates to what @marchmaine
            is saying down thread).

            Same with “processed”. The moment you alter (cut, cook, etc.) food, it’s processed. Buying a bag of salad mix is buying processed food. The ideal is minimally processed”, and even that is highly subjective (some people are OK with pork chops, but consider sausage to be processed, even if it is uncured/nitrate free).Report

            • Avatar Marchmaine says:

              Agreed, let’s get our terms straight. 🙂

              That said, we bake all our own bread (and grind a certain amount of grain), plus you are quite literally *never* out of cookies when the main ingredients are simply flour, butter, eggs, chocolate chips and sugar.

              The distribution system is what it is… it does some things we need for mass society, it does some things we think we need (but don’t), and it does some things we’re better off without.

              The changing of the late 20th century distribution system is one of the good things happening to food… its not about nostalgia.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                My broader point is that we erroneously romanticize the idea of hand/homemade. I went a bit on a tangent there but sometimes the lone artisan creator is a skilled craftsmen and sometimes he is a shoddy know-nothing who can barely ply his trade. The terms “handmade”, “homemade”, and the like ultimately tell us nothing about the quality.Report

  7. Avatar Damon says:

    If I’m not mistaken, TOH build a complete house / or an addition, out of 100% hay bales.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      I thought that technique could only be done in the West due to the high moisture content on the East coast. Interesting. I will have to look that one up.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        IIRC they were in New Mexico. It’s been over 16 years or more since I watched the show so it was a long time ago.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

          New Mexico makes sense. Lots of adobe out there. I just assumed it was East Coast since most of their projects have been there.Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine says:

            My buddy’s father was all set to make a mudbrick house out here in Virginia… bought the equipment and everything.

            I was very keen to see them do this as VA clay is, er, bountiful and as far as green/energy efficiency goes the paper specs are very good… and, part of me wanted to see how it withstood our wet/dry seasons (or, more accurately our moist, damp, and cloying seasons).

            Alas, the house was never built. I’m constantly scouring the interwebs for new building ideas (we have land and children and need) but I’m amazed at how few alternate options really exist – especially when you go from the global internet to say, my zip code.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        My wife claims to have heard of this done in Wisconsin.

        I don’t believe her.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          My wife’s aunt built one out here, on Whidbey Island. She did it during the (relatively) dry summer, but it’s still standing, 25+ years later.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

          I guess today it would be possible due to lots of space-age sealants that could be sprayed onto the adobe afterwards. It would be unusual though.

          I used to hear that was why you hardly ever see shingle-sided houses here in KY. Just too much moisture. But it also doesn’t seem to jibe with wooden siding, which we see in lots of older neighborhoods.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        When I was an undergraduate (so, mid 1970s), I helped a classmate move his 90-year-old grandmother out of her soddy that dated back to at least 1905. Far outstate Nebraska, precipitation ran 15-20 inches per year.Report

      • You can build straw houses pretty much anywhere, it’s just that they get finicky in damp environments. There’s a lot of stuff online about it, basically all variations on articles like: http://www.buildnaturally.com/EDucate/Articles/DryStrawbale.htmReport

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I’ve watched this season, but I still object – I strenuously object – on principle on what they are doing. Making a new home Is Not What It Says On The Tin.

    It’s not quite the first time they’ve done this. IIRC, one of the three homes during their post-Sandy Jersey Shore special was a complete tear down and rebuild, as was one of the homes they put up for disabled veterans in that brief mini-season. I didn’t, however, really have a problem with these, as their stories were interwoven with other homes they were working on simultaneously, thus directly comparing and contrasting parallel construction techniques.

    The art that Tom and Norm and Roger and Richard and the rest of the associates bring to the show with their decades of experience is not building something from scratch – that’s super easy, relatively speaking, robots or no robots.

    The art is being able to work around decades – or centuries – old prior construction and incorporate the new into the old, and preserve or restore the old when it’s, yes, “really worth saving”. (similarly, I think Nicole Curtis’s home improvement show is one of the best of the genre, even though she’s occasionally an advocate for historic preservation using other people’s money).

    The second half Ask This Old House is still good though. Probably the best show under the brand actually. Bob Villa era TOH never really considered costs and tradeoffs, and Norm’s own show demonstrated how good he was, and how you were never going to be anything like him.Report

  9. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    In the second episode, there’s a remarkable moment when the manager of the factory in Vermont says that all of the rafters will be cut within 30 minutes using machines and be accurate to 1/32 of an inch.

    I met a man who supervises at a local firm that builds residential roof trusses. If I remember his assertion correctly, it was, “No one who cares at all about quality builds trusses on site. We can custom-build the trusses for your plans and deliver them faster, cheaper, and stronger than anyone can do it on site.” Recently I was bicycling through some new construction and there were two or three big trucks in there, each with a load of roof trusses, and with a modest extensible crane arm integrated into the trailer for lifting the trusses into position.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine says:

      That’s my understanding as well… even our “stick-built” home used pre-fab trusses – I think this is now standard.

      Also, from the research we’ve done (looking to add a second residence on our property), most of the work we’ve seen at the factory is still basic framing carpentry… it’s just done in a controlled environment. Framing carpentry is a different skill to Finish carpentry, but I haven’t seen the actual framing replaced by robots. And… even after the modules are delivered, there’s still several weeks of construction and finish carpentry required before the house is livable.

      I think some of the automation is slightly over-played here… these are not robot houses, they are houses built offsite in controlled environments for some gains in efficiency.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        The benefit is usually in the form of both high accuracy saws, and assembly jigs. Lay all the precut lumber in a jig, that holds it all still and in spot, then run around with a nail or screw gun to put it all together.Report

  10. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    On apartment projects here in So Cal, most of the lumber is machine cut in the factory and assembled onsite; some projects use prefabbed walls which are then assembled.

    Its like we mentioned on the other thread, where some jobs are automated or offshored while some aren’t.

    Rebar installers, for example, place every single rod by hand, no different than a century ago; Except for premade cages, which are made in a shop. Glaziers on the other hand, were largely eliminated with factory made windows after WWII; Except for storefront windows which are assembled on site.

    What this means then is that the cost of the finished building is lower than it would have been in earlier times;
    Except it requires a fraction of the number of laborers. The pool of labor hasn’t shrunk- we have as many hands today as we ever have, but less use for them.
    The few who are still needed earn a higher wage in some cases, a lower one in others.

    So the social terrain becomes wildly uneven and jagged.

    The laborer making the sink is a virtual slave in Bangladesh earning just barely enough to eat;
    The laborer making the kitchen cabinets is in Mexico earning just above subsistence;
    The laborer hanging the drywall is an immigrant earning minimum wage, maybe;
    The laborer framing the walls is one of the few left making a middle class wage;
    The laborer welding the steel is a union worker making a very good income.

    A century ago, all of these laborers would have been here in America and would have been able to afford to rent the finished product; today only a fraction of them can.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Seems to match what I said above, the lower the skill set required, the more likely the job is going off shore or getting automated. It isn’t about the jobs, it’s about the skills of the workforce. Americans are getting to be too expensive to be unskilled employees.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        There is no skill high enough to escape automation or offshoring.

        Literally every single job can, at some unpredictable moment, be married to software that allows someone from the 3rd World to do it at a fraction of the cost.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Depends how you define “skill”, no? Can we build robots with a simulated breath that will fool and calm crying babies? One that knows which children need tough love and which need soft encouragement and what to do when one of the former is having a day that turns her into one of the latter?

          Can we program robot therapists? Can robots develop trust?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            If we have enough robots, why would children need tough love or soft encouragement?Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              Cuz they remain human? Or are you assuming we breed only to feed our robot overlords?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I don’t understand how those questions answer mine.

                (Not that I’m against answering a question with a question. Far from it! But I prefer to have those questions lead to obvious answers.)Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                @jaybird

                I suppose my first question was an answer-posed-as-“Isn’t it obvious?”-type question and my second question was tongue in cheek.

                I guess my real question for you is why do you think after a certain number of robots are made that children would CEASE to need either of those things?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Let’s say that it’s not obvious.

                I mean, if I were to say that there’s no shortage of children being raised without either right now, would you disagree?

                Because there’s no shortage of children being raised without either right now.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                @jaybird

                Good point!

                For a moment though, let’s focus on child care professionals and not parents. Many of whom, despite being “professionals” are failing their charges.

                I guess the question is, what standard do we have for our robots? Do we want them to be the best of the best? It is being said here that robot craftsmen are better than human craftsmen. But if the best we can do with robot childcare workers is that they are on par with the bottom 50% of human childcare workers, where does that get us?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                But I prefer to have those questions lead to obvious answers.

                Ahh, so THAT’S why you answer questions with questions, eh? Because answering questions with question-answers lead to obvious answers. Until now that wasn’t at all obvious to me. 🙂Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, it’s a fairly old rhetorical device. I’ve seen it play out a handful of ways.

                “Here’s a question?”
                “Well, what about this?”
                “Oh, I see that your question makes me requestion my assumptions.”

                “Here’s a question?”
                “Well, what about this?”
                “Here’s an answer to your question. So here’s my original question?”
                “Well, what about *this*?”
                “Here’s an answer to your question. So here’s my original question?”
                “Well, what about *THIS*?”

                And, of course, the ever popular
                “Here’s a question?”
                “Well, what about this?”
                “You’re a dick.”Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I think it’s easier and clearer to make your view explicit, actually. I mean, if you assume people are smart enough to figure out that the question has an obvious answer, why not trust them to see that answering the question in the way you do is entirely obvious, ya know?

                Adding: unless it’s less than obvious, of course. I’ll let you sort out the conditions under which that applies.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

            Can we program robot therapists? Can robots develop trust?

            Not yet, but consider this scenario:

            We develop software that allows a therapist in Bangladesh to interact in virtual space with a patient in California and the algorithm diagnoses a malady, issues a medical prescription which is filled by an automated pharmacy, overseen by perhaps one minimum wage technician, and the therapist is merely the monitor to check for errant outcomes. Thus two highly skilled and well paying jobs are reduced to sub-minimum wage.

            This is “deskilling” where we still have a human in the loop, but the skill level is greatly reduced.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Would people who cannot afford a therapist under the current system be able to afford one under the one you’re proposing here?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                I dunno-
                What do they do for a living?
                Can the therapist in Bangladesh afford one?
                Can the cabinet maker in Mexico?
                The drywall hanger in Los Angeles?

                Can the unemployable former human therapist who now works as a barista?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                This is weird.
                If we were discussing something like medical care that was going to be made more available to more people, we’d see the point as being the people who were getting the medical care and the medical care that they’d be getting.

                Asking “but what about the neurosurgeons that wouldn’t have middle class lifestyles?” would be seen as a less vital question.

                Personally, I’d be happy if we could replace doctors with those machines in the Elysium movie. I wouldn’t particularly care if it meant that neurosurgeons would have to get jobs as baristas.

                But, of course, therapy ain’t brain surgery.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I’m going to confess to being a little bit confused.

                What I will say is that in asking my questions/raising my objections, my intention is not to advocate for the well-being of childcare providers or therapist. Rather, it is to potentially identify fields that do not necessarily lend themselves to automation or outsourcing or whathaveyou. If a VR therapist is as good as a human therapist OR if VR therapist of sufficient quality can make therapy more available to more people, I’m all for it. Likewise, if we can create robots that can offer better childcare than humans or at least offer quality-enough childcare to families/children who might not receive childcare or only subpar childcare, party on!

                I just wonder if any of that it possible. It seems more likely that it would be in the former than the latter case. Maybe I’m biased but I think about all that goes into my work and I really struggle to see how that can be done by a non-human of one kind or another. Then again, I can barely work my iPhone so what do I know about what is possible technologically speaking?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                What’s weird is that the circularity appears unnoticed.
                A low skill worker was replaced by a machine;

                No worries, we will train him in a higher skill, like, oh, a neurosurgeon.

                The neurosurgeon has been replaced by software;

                No worries, we will train him in a lower skill like a barista!Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                It just might be the case that some societies have attained post-scarcity status, and if so then a GBI or somesuch is sorta logically entailed by the prevailing theory.

                And I say that conceding that all the displaced working-class moochers and looters would have won, by attrition as well as logic, the economic war at that point.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                When the point of providing a service is because people need it, that makes sense.

                When the point of providing a service is because it provides a good living to people who provide that service, everything is topsy turvy.

                The point of teaching should not be giving teachers jobs.
                The point of policing should not be giving policepeople jobs.
                The point of medical care should not be giving doctors, nurses, receptionists jobs.

                I appreciate that idle hands are the devil’s worship but if we are going to be having sinecures out there, why not have them in jobs that aren’t for some ostensibly higher purpose?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Completely agreed.
                My point is to refute the idea that automation only threatens low skill tasks.
                Automation is in fact pushing us to a jobless economy, yet we have no way of grasping how to deal with this.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I’m a former unix guy who watched my job outsourced to Singapore (who is now supporting windows boxes).

                I was outsourced slowly enough (kicked from this job to that one as jobs were outsourced) to watch my Singaporean comrades themselves outsourced to Malaysia and then my Malaysian comrades outsourced to India.

                I watched the Singaporeans complain about the Malays stealing their jobs and then, later, watched the Malays complain that, sure, the Indians were cheap, but there was NO QUALITY there!

                All that to say: outsourcing, automation, and I are familiar with each other. We’ve met.

                At this point, I’m wondering what the goal is. Is it some kind of eternal stasis where our grandchildrens’ lives are recognizable to us? Or is it to help, somehow, get to the next major leap (and make our grandchildren look at our stories the way we look at stories about WWII)?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                I’d be curious to see a study of how many companies who offshored labor (any labor) did it because it truly made the company profitable again (i.e. if we don’t do this, we’ll be bankrupt inside of 5 years), and how many did it to appease the prognosticators of Wall Street (concern solely with the almighty shareholder)?Report

              • A company I worded for back in the aughts told us in so many words that we were establishing a development center offshore because that would impress investors. It was literally not important whether we got any useful work out of it.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Smartest people in the room, eh?Report

              • Then conventional wisdom is that if an administrator can support M Unix/Linux boxes or N Windows boxes, M is much higher than N. I’m curious if that’s your experience.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                It’s kind of apples and oranges for me. When I worked with Unix, I was part of a large (20ish people over three shifts) team that handled hundreds of Unix boxes. Like, more than six hundred.

                Now I am part of a team of 3 (one shift) than handles about 40ish windows servers.

                I don’t know how to compare meaningfully.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                The gross arithmetic there would seem to favor Unix (600/20 = 30; 40/3=13).

                Back in the day, the argument was always that between telnet/ssh and being able to do everything from the command line, Unix was easier because of less physically touching the machine and more scripting. I always said that MS would eventually re-invent remote management, so that advantage would be reduced.

                Working on cartogram software (and now 3D prism maps) over the last three years, I have been somewhat surprised at the large number of command-line-only software packages that continue to be actively supported.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Automation is in fact pushing us to a jobless economy, yet we have no way of grasping how to deal with this.

                Plausible, but that progression assumes advances in AI that are (AFAIK) currently theoretical. We got a long way to go before machines take over the higher skill jobs.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                It’s already here.
                Technology has made engineers, attorneys, and physicians much more productive than they were, which means you need fewer of them to produce the same output.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Remember, I work in this field (engineering software). I agree that our wages are stagnant (the reasons why are, IMHO, complex enough to defy simple fixes) compared to our ability to produce. That is a tangent, however.

                I don’t think the number of engineers has declined much, primarily because automation has made us more productive, which means we can tackle larger, more complex, and more numerous problems (assuming engineering scut work is all automated, which it isn’t, not by a long shot).

                One of my favorite complaints from non-engineers is how long it’s taken the JSF to get done. Surely there is more than a measure of Military-Industrial waste happening, but there are also very real engineering challenges. The RFP for the JSF was a monster, requesting features and performance targets that had never been combined before, mainly because the design process needed modern computers before we could even try.

                People look at how fast & furious companies made combat aircraft back in the 50’s-70’s and wonder why we can’t do that today, and the reason is that those designs not only plucked all the low hanging fruit, but they were also the equivalent of a ’68 Charger. Good lines, robust, power out the wazzoo, and about as concerned with fuel efficiency. Half the designs were more about proving something could be done than it was building a good aircraft.

                I’ve said this before, but lots of industries are bumping up against design ceilings, while waiting for other fields to make advances.

                Hell, think about architecture. Think about what kinds of structures you could design and have a hope in hell of adequately analyzing back in the 70’s & 80’s versus today? Has the demand for architects & civil engineers fallen as of late, because I hear tell that construction forecasts are still pretty good. So yeah, we could have software that a person could use to request plans for a code compliant stick frame home or addition, which means your intern or first year can be tasked with helping on projects the software can’t handle, because it’s a whole new idea, never been tried before, and hence no one knows how to write software to analyze it easily.

                And this is the crux of it. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, software can, at best, handle or improve some engineering scut work, but AI capable of being fed some geometry and materials and returning a reliable analysis isn’t even on the drawing board, much less one that can develop the geometry by itself. And absent some very significant breakthrough on the AI front, or valid solutions to some Millenium challenges, my son will likely be facing age related retirement before it’s a concern.

                Now, if our primary education system continues to progress as it has, the likelihood of automation clearing out the majority of low skill jobs and leaving us with a large glut of structurally unemployed people is a very good possibility, which is a big part of why I support finding a path to GBI/UBI/something.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                “The point of teaching should not be giving teachers jobs.”

                I agree, @jaybird . If I indicated otherwise, I was unclear.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                No, you train the lower skill worker to repair the machines, or to program them.Report

              • It takes many fewer people to maintain the machines than were replaced, or the machines wouldn’t have been introduced.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Given, my point is that the line worker doesn’t necessarily get promoted to neurosurgeon.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                So how many peoples life ambition is to repair or program automation equipment?Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Does everyone get to realize their life ambition?Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                That’s a good question, but the wrong question I think. Is your life/work ambitions to be realized in a automated market, or a non automated market?

                Chip cannot trade his paintings/drawings to a automation machine, but to another person making handmade hats? That’s a possibility.

                I don’t consider automated markets, on the whole, are sustainable in many areas. There is probably a threshold were people start to trade in markets that better align with their preferences.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Purely automated markets could conceivably become so efficient that they’ll be forced to idle through lack of demand. Hyundai has a fantastic automated plant here in the US (it has line workers, but there are large sections of the line where the only humans are there to keep an eye on things). Hyundai can only sell so many cars in a year, so it’s possible for a plant to be forced to idle if it hits it’s max production for the given demand. Idling a plant costs a lot of money. If automation continues, it’ll be interesting to see how things change.

                Do large factories go idle? Of does the means of production take on a new form?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                I think you have mistaken me for one of those people who encourages kids to find their passion/dream and get a job doing that.

                I have passions that include gardening, photography, wood craft, video games, etc. I’ve paid the bills by being a janitor, mechanic, stone cutter, hotel clerk, IT God, engineer, and now software developer. Occasionally my passions intersect with my careers, but when they do, it’s a happy confluence, not a targeted outcome, yet I’ve found a way to be happy.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                It is also worth pointing out that often times our professions allow us to pursue our ambitions. Maybe you trudge away a tolerable-but-well-paying job with good hours that situates you to go on photo safaris twice a year. If that is what works for you, we should celebrate those who find that path.

                @joe-sal
                My comment was probably more flippant than was justified. Quality of life matters. I just think we sometimes get tunnel vision when it comes to work and people wrongly assume they should love every part of their job.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                Huh, I didn’t find the question flippant at all, and quite salient.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I think it risked being read as, “What are these sad sacks complaining about? Buck up and be happy you aren’t a cripple!”

                Which wouldn’t have been a charitable reading (and not the way in which you read it) but, well, this is the internet.

                So, yea, I think your question is a fair one and shouldn’t be dismissed as it seemed like I might have been doing.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                A lot of people are not finding a way to be happy. Is that about the job or the market?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                False dichotomy, perhaps it’s about the person.Report

              • Avatar Joe Sal says:

                I’ll easily give you about 12% on ‘it’s the person’ in job satisfaction, after that I start questioning the parameters.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Let me rephrase; person, job, market is a three legged stool. It’s not about one thing, it’s about how all three interact.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              Seems reasonable. I’m still curious how childcare and other services that are predicated on direct human contact/interaction would be automated.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Human contact is the cheapest commodity of all.

                There are 7 billion humans on the planet, and when 4 billion of them are replaced and looking for something to do with their days, how cheap will even the most highly skilled human interaction become?Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                So humans doing human work… Not robots… Yes?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                For some reason this thread is reminding me of Harry Harlow.

                Which is depressing, even tho that may be on me.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Offshoring, sure, although as many have learned, cheaper labor does not always mean equivalent quality as the required skill level goes up. Automation, however, is a stretch right now and for the foreseeable future. Unless we have some pretty significant breakthroughs in AI, creativity and troubleshooting complex problems will remain a human endeavour. A computer program can design and build a structurally sound building, but it’ll be a while before one can fashion it with a unique aesthetic. And software doesn’t make intuitive leaps in reasoning yet.

          And to be honest, in our fields, we should be glad a lot of the grinding effort our predecessors had to engage in is done by computers today, leaving us more free to explore new ideas, rather than crunching numbers over & over.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

            They will never replace the unique creative artistry of a drummer!
            ***********
            In the field of architecture, perhaps 1% of all buildings constructed have any need for “aesthetic” value. The rest are simply engineered structures that have a simple wrapper of adornment which can and most often is, designed by the lowest wage person in the architects office.

            Did anyone here know that? That in the practice today, very, very few people in an architecture office actually do anything remotely resembling “aesthetic” tasks.

            This is because the aesthetic task, the conceptual artistry, consumes about 10% of the billable hours, at the very front end of the project.
            The remaining 90% of the labor is consumed by the technical tasks of constructing a virtual model, ensuring that it conforms to code, is coordinated with the engineering trades and so on.

            It isn’t much different in any other field either. How many people involved in the making of a Hollywood film are exercising highly “creative” skills, versus technical ones?

            In the videogame field?
            Automobile industry?
            Furniture making?
            Food production?
            Garment trade?

            There just isn’t enough demand in our world for as many “aesthetic” or “creative” hands as we have available.

            And there never was and won’t ever be.

            This isn’t pessimism, or a dour view of humanity.

            Instead, I assert that viewing aesthetic creativity as the pinnacle of human endeavor, the thing that we should all aspire to is itself a parochial blindness. It assumes that manual labor is not satisfying or that it doesn’t have a value beyond the end product.
            It assumes that every object contains a high percentage of aesthetic labor, when in fact objects contain very little compared to technical labor.

            I do watercolor painting in my spare time, and love the aesthetic creativity of it.
            But I don’t call myself an “artist”, because I prefer to think of myself as a craftsman, or more precisely, a “draftsman” which is a term as archaic as my Victorian style shirt.
            I love the manual labor of painting and drawing, and reject painting software not because it can’t do what I can do (because it actually can, and probably better!) and I don’t do it in hopes of making money (because I already have a job I love)but because the act of drawing a pencil or brush across the paper gives me satisfaction.

            There is no market for my creative labors. The world of Etsy is awash in amateur artwork, and a lot of it is very very good. But only a tiny fraction is commercially viable.
            There will never ever be a world in which more than a tiny handful of artists can sustain themselves financially.

            And the more automation we have, the cheaper art will become.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              “The more automation we have, the cheaper art will become.”

              The idea is that the basic goods of life will become so cheap that it won’t matter that art is cheap as well, because you won’t need to sell your art to survive.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Yes, that’s wonderful.

                Assuming of course that the cost of living falls faster than wages.

                But has it been?

                Look at the topic of this post, housing.
                Has automation made the cost of housing cheaper, comensurate with the stagnation in wages? Do we spend a smaller fraction of our wages on rent and mortgage than we used to?

                No, because while some goods like garments have been massively affected by automation and offshoring, the place where you live has been affected only slightly.
                Automation and offshoring can’t create a larger supply of land.
                Further, our consumption can’t keep pace with the increase in production
                Suppose I picked a time in history when auto workers were half as productive as today.
                Do cars cost half as much? Do we consume twice as many?

                Suppose again we say that the surplus auto workers get retrained into a higher skill likengineering, safe from being automated.

                But automation attacks the higher skilled jobs as well.

                In part because now the surplus of low skilled auto workers has been transformed into a surplus of engineers, but also because automation makes engineers themselves more productive, creating a further surplus of labor.

                Ok, so let’s assume finally that with all this wealth we simply give everyone a UBI, allowing everyone to consume twice as much stuff for the same amount of cost, and we employ everyone productively.

                But isn’t this just government surplus cheese, on a colossal global scale? Where we are exhorted to consume faster and faster so as to destroy the surplus?Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        Not to mention, there are some things that can be standardized (a sink, a mirror, a door, etc.) and some things that can’t ( a custom sink, a custom mirror, a custom door, etc.) at that point it really becomes one of transportation. Is it easier to make on site, or in a factory, and how far away can that factory be and still be cost effective?Report

  11. Avatar Kolohe says:

    So what do these homes mean to home buyers? In the Boston area, traditional construction would run $300/square foot. This pre-fab home runs $240/square foot. That’s a savings of $180,000. Of course, at $720,000, this is still an expensive home, but obviously the math scales in both directions depending on the size of the home.

    There’s probably also some oolies because they’re building in Bumblefritz, New England that make the labor economic calculations complex. You build something in Boston or Portland or any other decent sized population center and you have a labor pool that works on the site everyday and then goes home. If you’re in the boonies, though, and you’re doing ‘traditional’ construction, then it matters who is paying to transport and/or lodge & feed that labor pool for everyday they are onsite. Reducing person-hours becomes much more an economic incentive if you’re also paying costs of person-days (and you’re not some s***hole like Dubai where the workers themselves need to cough up the cost of transport, food and lodging at the job site).Report