The dystopian potential of new technologies on jobs (and how to overcome and resist)

In the last week I have given 2 presentations at events for Melbourne Knowledge Week on behalf of Humanities21 which promotes the study of philosophy, history and literature. One of the events was for the Disruptive Business Network and the other for Humanities 21 itself at Melbourne Museum in a panel alongside author and academic Dr. Tim Dunlop and hi-tech entrepreneur Alexar Pendashteh.

The topic for the events was AI and The Future of Work – broadly interpreted by speakers, including myself, as including robotics, automation, digitilisation and other forms of advanced technologies as well as artificial intelligence (AI).

The event at Melbourne Museum is available for viewing on youtube here.

In my presentations I propose that advanced technologies are having 3 distinct effects on jobs – replacement, fragmentation and enmeshment/integration. My ppt presentation is downloadable for viewing here but I give a brief narrative of the presentation below:

There is much made of the replacement factor of new technologies with many projections of major job losses. But I argue that this effect is not clear with countries such as Germany on the cutting edge of technical innovation and still a large workforce in manufacturing but which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world at just under 4%. The USA also has low unemployment around the same level as Germany but with massive social and economic dislocation, inequality and divides. The complex dynamics of job creation with the new spate of advanced technologies is discussed in a recent ILO post.

We need to understand then that there is significant fragmentation of jobs in train which is abetted by advanced technologies. This has been going on for at least 2 decades through workforce casualisation and the growth of various forms of precarious employment arrangements.

But it is taking new forms with the growth of online platforms which break traditional jobs down into tasks (which Professor Ursula Huws calls taskification). Advanced technologies facilitate the fragmentation of jobs in this way. It can happen in any occupation. Much knowledge work for example which has traditionally been the bastion of so-called ‘good jobs’ is easily amenable to ‘taskification’ as it can be done on-line, anywhere and anytime. It can also be done at a low cost both through intense competitive pressures within countries between workers or in competition with workers in low wage countries. (See my article for the Conversation for further analysis).

The third factor which I contend has a major effect on jobs is through enmeshment or integration of advanced technologies. My own research (see ppt for examples) shows how technologies are deployed for the surveillance and monitoring of workers and the intensification of work. Professor Michael Marmot in this 2016 Boyer lectures gave a good example of this in the case of one warehouse worker he interviewed. I have interviewed people in similar situations (as quoted in the ppt).

Increasingly workers are in settings including offices where all their activities are monitored or they are required to wear devices which keep track of all their movements. The monitoring and surveillance methods serve to prod workers to heightened levels of output and get rid of them if they can’t keep up. This is a profoundly dystopian effect which was well captured in the Arte France TV series, Trepalium.

Of course, there is much discussion and thinking about how these dystopian effects could be counter-acted. One of the primary streams at the present time revolves around universal basic income albeit a contested one. The UBI may be a solution if there is mass job replacement but as I argue this is not really the current scenario – or likely in the near future – which is more about how advanced technologies facilitate job fragmentation and integration for work surveillance and intensification.  There are also streams that focus on stronger unionisation, the restoration of occupational guilds and development of freelancer associations which would need to act collectively to demand workers’ rights and resist worker commodification.

Governments can play an important role in 3 areas within the ambit of current public policy. They can push for the strengthening of current labour standards around decent minimum wages, health and safety, security, and leave provisions. Governments can strengthen social protection systems so these do not force people to take precarious, low paid work or tasks as is currently the case (see my 2013  ILO conference paper here). Governments are also important employers in their own right and can play an important role in fostering good quality employment.However austerity measures have severely eroded this area of good jobs with flow on effects to private sector employment.

Clearly there is significant social upheaval in train at the present time with the growth of inequality and social divisions. Communities around the world need to understand the effects of advanced technologies on their work and on their lives. It is commendable that the OECD is holding a forum Bridging the Divides about these issues in Paris 6-7 in June (in Europe at that time I am able to attend). Such discussions with broad community involvement need to be held around the world.

There is finally and perhaps ultimately a need for the strengthening of humanities education. This is the education that gives people the critical thinking skills to understand what is happening and the knowledge of historical antecedents in times of technological change. It serves the´reinforcement of humanism (as opposed to human commodification).

Most importantly, humanities education provides people with the thinking skills to develop alternative models of living and working – and capacities to resist what is unacceptable!!

 

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