Questions for robots

Eighty years ago, Keynes famously predicted that within a century people would need to work no more than three hours per day. High living standards aided by technological breakthroughs would give human beings satisfying, minimal work and plentiful leisure, while robots and machines took over menial and repetitive labour. Less than twenty years before Keynes’ prediction is set to expire, reality has turned out quite differently.

Across the global North and South, those lucky to have jobs are working long hours. Factories across the global South, in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere, run around the clock with workers often clocking in for shifts over 12 hours at a time. Even the average US worker today works more hours annually than a medieval peasant. Western European countries, long considered social democratic bulwarks against the regime of relentless work, are not far behind and legislation shortening working time is under attack, despite stagnant employment.

Despite these trends, the argument that robots are set to make workers obsolete is still here. The technology revolution that finally fulfills the promise of labour-saving technology is always just around the corner. It is thus no surprise that today there are those who argue that this time the changes are real: technology is finally ready to displace workers like never before. Move over, cheap labour from the global South, there’s a new competitor in town in the race for the bottom. The bogeybot du jour has a white collar, takes its subsistence wage in watts and won’t even think about signing a union card.

Nevertheless many of the evangelists of the most recent coming revolution remain optimistic. While they admit that the initial shock will be painful for some, including more white-collar workers, they hold out the hope that the right mix of policy, whether around education or taxes, will see workers happily through to the other side of a coming transformation. For the time being, a significant portion of the recent press about robots has focused on the short-term pain rather than the long-term gain.

Authors haven’t been kind to the coming automatons, focusing on their role in the “hollowing out” the middle of the income distribution and an emerging crisis of mass unemployability. Indeed, the world has experienced significant restructuring over the past several decades: stagnant real wages, rising income disparities, mass youth unemployment, the rise of precarious labour – the list is long. Rapid technological development that has progressed in step with these negative changes has naturally raised the question of whether the culprit behind these changes is not technology itself. Are robots killing jobs and putting workers into greater misery?

Finally, a number of progressive critics sceptical of the true impact of technological transformation have also entered the debate. For each dramatic argument in favour of the conclusion that robots and technology are the source of greater worse outcomes for working people, there are two arguments against. We, rather than the robots, are to blame. The solution, however, is eerily similar to that offered by the evangelists: policy tweaks around taxes, education, intellectual property or the like.

All of these positions rarely focus on what is unique about the political economy of technology today. Either robots are causing, or are set to cause, dramatic changes in employment and living standards by virtue of a simple calculations of costs and benefits or they are not causing these changes, in which case the reasons for these trends are external to technology, which operates at arms-length to the real mechanisms of economic transformation. Neither of these is adequate: technology does have an impact, but this impact is intensely caught up in broader capitalist dynamics. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what we need is a better understanding of the political function of technology within the context of present economic transformations. There is a web of complex and sometimes contradictory interactions between technological progress and the continued growth of capitalist social relations.

Here are just a few of the questions that should be front and centre in our thinking about technology:

  1. What is the disciplining role of technology today? The threat of the unemployment line has long been the stick brandished by companies facing worker demands and technologically-induced obsolescence has been a big reason that this stick has been effective. Technology can effect change in working conditions in a range of ways that go beyond simple displacement. For example, will the emergence of technology that could potentially automate typically white-collar tasks in higher-skill, higher-wage sectors change the dynamic of power throughout the working class?
  2. To what extent does contemporary technology foster cooperation? Increased cooperation has been one of the key contradictions in the use of technology for capitalist production. Capitalism treats people fundamentally as individuals and relies on atomization to keep resistance at bay. Ironically, large-scale machine production brought masses of individuals together and demonstrated viscerally that cooperation is a necessary part of human existence. The mirror of the capitalism of the factory was the everyday communism of the shop floor. Is this kind of everyday communism replicated or supressed in technology based on robotics and IT?
  3. What is the role of technology in reorganizing or cementing a global distribution of production and consumption? Much of the uptake in high technology has happened in the new production centres of East Asia. How is technology implicated in the battle of American capital and the American state to maintain its relative global hegemony?
  4. How is technological change implicated in the environmental devastation produced by capitalism? This is especially relevant to resource economies such as Canada. Labour-saving changes, especially those driven by data and IT, often appear as immaterial. Every byte of data has a physical location somewhere; the production of everything digital starts in the hands of miners and ends in the hihg-tech landfills that litter and toxify the global South. What is the role of technology in mediating capitalism’s ecological crisis?
  5. What is different about and specific to information technology? Technology has allowed us to store amounts of information unimaginable only years ago. Indeed, the amount of information produced daily is staggering. Much of this information ends up in enormous databases designed to track habits, create profiles and analyze traits, and these databases, public or private, are increasingly a source of great value. How are we implicated in the production of information and value outside of our working time? Is information technology a tool in the commodification of new sphere of life hereto outside capitalist production and consumption? Most generally, the role and stature of information as a central commodity within contemporary capitalism is ripe for exploration.
  6. What is the impact of technology on the sphere of caring labour that has largely remained outside formalized work relations but is necessary to sustain those relations? Technology impacts not just the factory and the office, but also increasingly the home. How does technology change the gendered nature of different kinds of work? How do we move beyond the Roomba and look under the rug of technology in the home?
  7. What is the transformative potential of new technology (I have some thoughts on this here)? Technology is not an autonomous force that enters into the economic sphere from an outside nor is it the result of fully purposeful directed action from the inside. Those who focus on the extent to which policy and not technology is responsible for worsening labour conditions often ignore some of the radical transformational aspects of new technology and how these are intimately tied to broader transformations in capitalism. On the other hand, those who focus on the impact of technology on work are liable to romanticize technological change and view it as an autonomous force, again ignoring its political and economic context. Instead, changes in capitalist dynamics are key to understanding the impact of today’s technological changes on human labour and the potential these changes hold for the liberation or further immiseration of workers.

These are the types of questions about technology to which I want to return in the future. That or my electronic doppelganger will do it for me while I’m at the beach sipping Mai Tais. I’m not counting on it though.

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