Each time there is a wave of technological change, similar questions are raised about the future of work. Pessimists fear that robots will take all the jobs, leading to mass unemployment and a population too poor to buy the products of the new automated factories. Meanwhile optimists hold out seductive visions of a world with leisure and plenty for all, where automation frees us from routine chores, so everybody can release their creativity.
The pessimist view comes easily to victims of change. If your income depended on looking after horses then you would have seen the coming of the automobile in the early 20th century as a direct threat. Even if you had a crystal ball that enabled you to see how many jobs would be created in the auto industry in the future, you might have still thought: ‘So what? How does that help my family?’
History shows us that each new wave of technological innovation both destroys and creates jobs. The trouble is that the new ones tend to be created for different people, in different parts of the world, and under very different working conditions from the old ones. The job of an assembly-line worker in Detroit in the 1920s was very different from that a rural stable-hand in Somerset, just as work in a washing-machine factory was different from that of a laundry-maid.
New machines may eliminate some old jobs but new ones are needed to mine the raw materials, make and assemble the components, and maintain them, as well as designing the next generation or robots, drones or 3-D printers. But there are also unintended consequences. Who would have guessed that some of the earliest adopters of mobile phones would be drug dealers, fraudsters and pimps, that one of the earliest commercial uses of the Internet would be for pornography, or that drones would be used for smuggling contraband into prisons? As society struggles to keep up with these new forms of technology-enabled crime, more new jobs are created – to deal with cyber-fraud, remove unwanted content from social media sites and other functions our grandparents would never have dreamed of.
They may be right about the disappearance of many familiar jobs, but pessimists are surely wrong when they speculate that robots will bring permanent mass unemployment. But might the optimists be right in thinking that artificial intelligence can take the back-breaking toil out of mundane tasks releasing time for more satisfying activities?
The evidence suggests that technology is failing to deliver these benefits, with technology used, not to shorten but lengthen the working day, with expectations of round-the-clock availability.
Neither are machines taking over the boring and repetitive activities, leaving the more creative and satisfying ones for human beings to carry out. Often it is cheaper to use human labour for the most mundane tasks, as evidenced by the growth of online platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Clickworker that enable a dispersed human workforce to carry out micro-tasks deemed not worth automating, such as labelling colours, verifying fuzzily-scanned numbers or clicking ‘like’ on corporate websites.
Human labour is also used in warehouses, with workers instructed via headsets where to run, with every action timed and monitored. A visitor from another planet watching them at work might think that humans are servants of the technology, rather than technology serving the people.
Being monitored and paced digitally is not unique to manual workers or casual ‘click workers’. Nurses, teachers, truck drivers and software developers are just a few of the workers who have to work to numerical ‘performance targets’ and log their working time using online ‘apps’.
How is it that apparently liberating technologies seem to enslave workers ever more tightly to the demands and rhythms of the global economy? We must ask who is developing them and for what purpose.
The corporations that dominate that global economy have somewhat contradictory needs. They need a stream of new ideas to help them stay one step ahead – and to provide these ideas they need bright, motivated, well-educated creative workers. But once these ideas have been implemented, then the best way to stay competitive is to cut costs to the bone, minimise responsibilities to a permanent workforce and find workers who can be deployed efficiently to provide only the tasks that are needed.
Digital technologies make it ever-easier to manage these ‘just-in-time’ processes. But the flexibility they offer is all too often just for the employers. For workers, it may mean being unable to plan ahead because you never known when that smartphone will ping, summoning you to the next task.
Are we entering an era when the majority of workers will be ‘on call’ in this way? Or is there still time to harness the new technologies for the benefit of people rather than profit?