As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, for the next four weeks, we will publish the responses to a different question.
2. Why, despite the automation of so much labour, are many people working longer hours than ever before? What should be done?
The use of automation, and technology more broadly, has a long history in the context of work. People interact with their environment in a variety of ways, from the simplest tools to vastly complex technology. The introduction of new technology has augmented work in various ways, holding the potential to reduce how long tasks take or to greatly ease the process. In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century the working week would be reduced to 15 hours, while living standards would greatly rise. However, not only has Keynes’ prediction not come true, but people are now tending to work even longer hours than before.
To make sense of this false promise of technology it is important to understand that technology is introduced for specific reasons. The design of technology is far from neutral and progress does not follow a linear path to innovation. Rather, the kinds of technology that are developed come out of current social relations, often according to the needs of those with power and money who see these technologies as profitable investments. In the workplace, technology is not only introduced in order to increase productivity however. In the case of early machine automation, it has been shown that methods of automation that increased managerial control became preferred even over more productive options. Technology offers new ways of management to control, monitor, supervise, and speed up work, beyond traditional practices.
‘…the most dystopian outcomes of technology are going to be realised, with automation only serving to benefit the few owners and continuing to fail the majority of us.’
Technology in the work place is thus shaped by the needs of capital and management, and this goes some way in answering the question as to why it is currently failing to deliver on the promise of shorter working hours. Automation, understood as the act of using technology to replace rather than augment workers, represents a qualitative step forward in the transformation of work. This change could be negotiated at a workplace level or in wider society. However, like the introduction of previous forms of technology, there is little sign that this is going to happen. Moreover, the evidence currently points to it being used against workers to prevent or head off workplace conflict. A good example of this is the recent automation of cargo docks. While it has been discovered that automated docks are currently less productive, they are still being introduced, with the effect of undermining the collective power of workers and trade unions.
This use of technology against workers not only transforms workplaces, but it also shapes what kinds of future innovations are possible. However, the fact that technology is being shaped by capital is the result of struggle, albeit one that is currently quite one-sided. Questions of technology urgently need to be posed at multiple levels: in the workplace itself, within industries, and across society. Otherwise, the most dystopian outcomes of technology are going to be realised, with automation only serving to benefit the few owners and continuing to fail the majority of us.
‘Questions of technology urgently need to be posed at multiple levels: in the workplace itself, within industries, and across society.’
It should also be remembered that as different technology has developed, the general level of skills and knowledge that workers possess has greatly increased, while workers are also more connected than ever before. This means that the potential to realise better uses of technology (along with different kinds of technology) is also increasingly withinin reach, beyond only reducing the working week. A good example of this can be found with Uber. The introduction of the platform means that workers increasingly do not have direct contact with a boss, communicating directly with customers via an app. The company, like many other iterations, uses technology to extract rents from those they claim are self-employed workers, but in the process they make their ownership seem increasingly less necessary. An alternative to this could be platform cooperatives, in which the money made on the platform is shared between those who actually do the driving, delivering, or other activities from which these companies profit. This would go beyond reducing working time to also creating new forms of workplace democracy.
Dr. Jamie Woodcock is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and his current research focuses on digital labour, sociology of work, resistance, and videogames. His most recent book Working the Phones (Pluto, 2017) is an ethnographic study of working conditions in call centres in the UK. He has previously worked as a postdoc on a research project about videogames, as well as another investigating the crowdsourcing of citizen science. Jamie completed his PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and has held positions at Goldsmiths, the University of Leeds, the University of Manchester, Queen Mary, NYU London, and Cass Business School.