Automation: friend or foe?

The last 150 years have seen the greatest technological advancements in the globalised world. The last 15 years have seen the most far reaching, individualised, uses of machines and automation ever. We are already living in the ‘robotic revolution’. We can either be fearful of this, trying to stave it off; or we can embrace it and find ways to leverage the use of machines to enhance the quality of our lives. With technological advancements comes challenges for the organised labour movement, but it is up to us to use these advancements to our advantage.

‘The smart phones are very rigid with the tasks they set. You need to do what they say.’ These words were spoken with trepidation by a homecare worker recently when describing how her assignments are allocated on each shift. In a world where care work is supposed to be the last bastion of human interaction and discretion, those who work in this area are now beginning to feel that they’re losing their autonomous caring ability because of how automation is used to mechanise their work.

We are already living in a world of automation – from self-service petrol stations to pay on demand TV and film. This is a very different world from ten years ago. And many people already believe that they are absolutely required to follow the machines’ instructions – self-service checkouts barking orders that you haven’t bagged an item properly, or lifts asking you questions – because some of their own autonomy has already been depleted by these machines.

People’s biggest concern with automation is the technological unemployment which is likely to be created. Particularly in the unskilled and semi-skilled workplaces, it is easy to see how this might and likely will happen. With the advent of driverless cars, drones and 3d printers it is quite easy to imagine a future whereby we buy an item from Amazon by simply printing it at home, or it is printed in a warehouse and delivered to us via drone.

However, it is also a concern for the professions. Software has already been developed which can do the job of an accountant or a pharmacist and there has even been software developed which predicts a judge’s decision in around 64% of cases tested.

Nevertheless, there is another aspect to this concern: workers behaving as robots. Since Ford’s assembly line was developed in Detroit in 1913, workers all over the world have been continually forced to become ‘more productive’, i.e., work faster and more robotically. Whilst mass factory life no longer exists in Britain, it does in other parts of the world e.g. phonemakers, Foxconn, employing around 1.4 m workers worldwide. And even in Britain, if we look at call centres, the principle of the assembly line is not a million miles away.

Now, machines should surely be welcomed to replace these jobs, or at least alleviate some of the increasing pressure on people’s productivity levels. But, that depends on how this is done and the question posed by union leader, Walter Reuther, to Henry Ford remains: ‘How will people afford to buy these items if they are out of work?’ Furthermore, whilst technology can bring more choice and freedom, it can also be used as a means of control and is only available to those who can afford it. Therefore, there is an underlying class element to the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. There remains a paradox between this technology, a lot of which was originally developed for military purposes, and the fact that people around the world, including in Scotland, can’t access broadband internet never mind use a raspberry pi.

As washing machines made it easier for women to do household washing in a physical sense, they still reinforced a lot of gender norms and actually increased isolation as communities of women were no longer gathering at the steamy. A robot is surely not a replacement for stimulating group conversation, is it?

According to an academic paper ‘Robots, men and sex tourism’ by Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars, we should soon expect the windows of Amsterdam’s red light district to be filled with robots. In their paper, Yeoman and Mars said: ‘In 2050, Amsterdam’s red light district will all be about android prostitutes who are clean of STIs. The city council will have direct control over android sex workers controlling prices, hours of operations and sexual services.’ This article is not the place to delve into the pros and cons of such technology, but instead to begin thinking about how our social interaction, or lack thereof, will change with the fourth industrial revolution.

Of course, when machines replace collective human interaction or base level intimacy people are not actually getting real human contact. In Tokyo’s electronics district, a cuddle café was opened in 2012 where customers can pay to spoon a stranger. Again, without getting into the sexist overtones of these particular cafes, it is very telling that in the world’s most advanced technological sphere young people are paying for staff to simply just pat them on the shoulder in some occasions. Will this technological revolution push humans to pay for the slightest human contact?

Whilst the labour movement in Britain, USA and Europe is only beginning to get to grips with the ‘new’ precarious industrial environment, with successful and semi-successful campaigns such as Fight for $15 and Better than Zero emerging from a new politicised generation, companies are, of course, a step ahead.

We already have self-service McDonalds and a prototype of self-service pub has been developed, called Pour My Beer. It is easy to imagine these being, at very least, semi-popular in a few years.

Where does all this leave our ‘new’ union strategy for organising the precariat? We urgently need to get up to speed on exactly what technology is out there and how it can be used. Corporate firms have consultants providing them with finest details of how they can use technology to both cut costs (i.e. labour) and become more effective and dynamic by using some of the technology to their benefit. Meanwhile, we are left out in the cold.

So, not only do we need to get up to speed in order to ‘save jobs’ or diversify skills, but we should also be putting this technology to good use. Imagine using virtual reality to train reps by simulating negotiations with the boss or the organising of a strike. We could use advanced software to conduct real time power analysis or even assess whether a job is socially useful or not.

Interestingly, whilst those on bogus self-employed contracts are often atomised and work in isolation from each other, they are using technology to their advantage. Without naming names, workers with a famous delivery company are using WhatsApp to voice their concerns directly to managers and to organise with each other without fear of immediate repercussions. The veil which social media provides is useful in this instance.

There is a view that people want to work and offer their labour to the economy which will be hindered by automation. However, is that really the case? How many people really want to exploit their labour? Instead, don’t people want to contribute something valuable to society?

The steam engine is probably the single biggest industrial feat to advance human social development. However, without the educational labour involved in educating James Watt, this wouldn’t have happened. And this is perhaps what we can say is humankind’s unique value: ideas, concepts, imagination and feeling – at least, for the moment.

Nonetheless, we hear cynics shouting ‘imagination doesn’t pay the bills!’ – which is, of course, true and is also why the ideas around universal basic income must be tested immediately. This discussion is moving forward in Scotland and should be welcomed as one way to alleviate potential problems this new digital age may bring.

But the conversation, and indeed strategy, needs to go a lot further, particularly in the global labour movement which is also being squeezed by the other ‘minor’ issues of the alt-right and climate change. The cure for cancer, the innovator of something we have not even imagined yet, and the creators of a better society are likely locked out of this technological revolution, or soon will be, by increasing inequality in the world brought about by automation, weak infrastructure, outdated taxation systems, unequal globalisation and climate change.

The plans for dealing with these power struggles require a more dynamic way of thinking and organising. Simply demanding ‘£10 per hour minimum wage’ or ‘let’s build more social housing’ is not going to cut it alone. It doesn’t raise people’s expectations any more than it does give them a strategy for implementing them. Therefore, our labour movement has a responsibility to pro-actively plan for the future world of work (or unemployment as the case could be) for those who will soon know the future of fully automated luxury communism or barbarism to update Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum.

Sarah Collins works with Scottish Union Learning to support Better than Zero (http://www.betterthanzero.org).

Note: The Jimmy Reid Foundation, our sister organisation, published a paper of the same title and on many of the same issues by Unite Scotland in late April 2017. It can be viewed @ http://reidfoundation.org/scrutiny/automation-friend-or-foe-working-paper/

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