Workplace Automation: Two Possibilities
As machines become more “intelligent” and agile, people are beginning to wonder what this will mean for the future of human jobs and lifestyles. Automation is increasingly discussed, with some observers afraid that it will mean mass unemployment, while others suggest the rise of the machines will make human life easier. Workers in the UK seem to be taking the former viewpoint, with employees committing sabotage against workplace robots to avoid being usurped in their jobs. According to a study by De Montfort University into automation, British employees have been less than thrilled to work with robotic co-workers.
“The UK seems to have a problem with diffusion and take-up of technology,” said Jonathan Payne, Director of the People, Organisations and Work Institute at the university. “We heard stories of workers standing in the way of robots, and minor acts of sabotage – and not playing along with them.”
Payne, however, told LN that neither he nor his department wished to support an alarmist viewpoint regarding the phenomenon.
The study compared reactions to automation in Norway and Britain; in the Scandinavian country, employees are more likely to give cute nicknames to their robotic counterparts and use the automatons to perform physically demanding or repetitive jobs that they would rather avoid. The difference in attitudes may result from the difference in workplace culture, such as union systems, cost of labor, and style of work performed. Some tensions arose in Britain, where employers were less likely than others to explain to employees the reasons they wanted to introduce robotics into the workplace. Workers evidently felt compelled to prevent a scenario in which their jobs would be taken by the machines.
At the same time, Members of Parliament on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee have warned that the UK could fall behind other industrialized nations due to its relative reluctance to automate. According to The Guardian, “In 2015, the UK had 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 131 in the US, 133 in Germany and 167 in Japan.”
Stateside, Walmart made news earlier this year by incorporating robot workers in stores to perform tasks like scanning shelves and scrubbing floors. The rollout received mixed reviews from human employees. Apart from the discomfort of being forced to work alongside and “train” their possible replacements, some claimed that rather than freeing up time for more creative or challenging tasks, they had been forced into more mundane and monotonous roles than before.
A Case Study in Inversion
As in Orwell’s 1984, words these days seem to increasingly mean the opposite of what we thought they did. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did a good job illustrating the inverted nature of modern life at a Georgetown University speech, saying:
“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences … We’re at another cross-roads. We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”
Much of the remainder of the address was spent justifying how and why the company can restrict content, including “misinformation” and “hate speech,” while simultaneously painting government and legal intervention in the company as repression of free expression. Ironically, reporters were barred from asking questions, although students were allowed to do so, and negative viewer comments were largely filtered out of the live stream during the event, due to the way the relevant algorithm is set up.
The address received less-than-stellar “reviews” in the press, but much of the criticism is based on the idea that Zuckerberg hasn’t gone far enough in policing content on the social media site to ensure freedom and quality.
Amazon and a Seattle Election
Election meddling has rarely been such a hot topic in US politics, and accusations have been leveled at tech platforms of allowing foreign influence and “fake news” to dictate who could rule the country. Even without the information-filtering aspect of Silicon Valley, these major corporations have grown so large they are beginning to wield considerable power over elections. Seattle officials are leveling accusations at Amazon of vote buying after the company invested a record-breaking $1.45 million into the city’s council elections. Amazon has contributed more to a Seattle election than any other single entity “in anyone’s memory,” Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, told The Seattle Times. This was done via donations to a political action committee (PAC) linked to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Amazon’s motivation seems to be to replace city councilors who supported a head tax whereby large corporations would have to pay a charge of $200 for every employee hired. The tax was shelved after objections and threats from major employers in the region, including Amazon. Nevertheless, it appears the company is attempting to reshape the council in an image more favorable to its bottom line.
“We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle,” Amazon spokesman Aaron Toso said in an email. “We believe it is critical that our hometown has a city council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety.”
Not everyone sees it that way. “One of the richest corporations in the world just invested an unprecedented amount of money to attempt a hostile takeover of Seattle’s local government,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of left-wing Working Washington advocacy group, said in a statement. “This isn’t just about Seattle, it’s about the 2020 national elections. Amazon is warning presidential candidates who say they share Seattle’s values that it will stop at nothing to protect its power and profits.”
Kshama Sawant, a councilor who voted against repealing the tax, called the move “a flagrant move to blow up Seattle’s democratic process.”
“This attempt of a hostile, right-wing takeover is utterly unconscionable,” The Socialist Alternative councilor added in a statement. “We cannot allow Bezos to buy this election.”
While Sawant may see the issue as one of left vs. right, perhaps it is more useful to observe the power of big business lobbying – no matter the political or economic inclinations of the people behind such power, they will use it to their own ends.
That’s all for this week from You’re Not Alone. Check back in next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.