Confronting the Robots

The age of automation is unlikely to lead to a utopian world of play, but with the right interventions it doesn’t have to mean a proliferation of “crap jobs” either, argues Peter Fleming.

When comedian cum activist Russell Brand was recently asked about the liberating possibilities of technology, he unwittingly touched a nerve: “yeah, when are all these robots going to get off their fat arses and start doing our work for us so that we can laze around and have more picnics?”

It is a good question. Shouldn’t this dazzling new generation of machines be pulling their own weight by now?

The reason they’re not has something to do with the uneasy alliance that automation has formed with employment in the 21st century. Therein lies the problem. If we seek to develop policy initiatives that encourage fairer, more just workplaces then we should not dwell too long on the technology side of the equation. That is a red herring for reasons I shall soon discuss. But this is precisely what’s happening in current thinking on the issue.

Imagining a fully-automated future has become very popular. Books on the topic are best-sellers. University researchers grab headlines when they announce, as the Oxford Martin School recently did, that half of all jobs will be computerised in the near future. Ted Talks abound with the notion.

The narrative seems to fall into two camps. You’re either a techno-optimist or techno-pessimist. The optimists discover in automation the long awaited coming of a jobless society. Freedom from the tyranny of work. Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism exemplifies this positon, as do arguments for ‘fully automated luxury communism’. Big advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics are to be rejoiced; so long as new social institutions are built to positively complement this post-work future (that’s the catch, of course). The bubbly title of Fererico Pistono’s book gives us a flavour of the prognosis. Yes, robots will steal your job … but that’s OK. You will survive and be very happy.

The techno-pessimists deliver a bleaker message. Innovations like Google’s driverless car will render millions of people unemployed with no new jobs picking up the slack. Jerry Kaplin’s Humans Need Not Apply and Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots predict a dire, jobless future. We’re not just talking about manual work but skilled occupations that many thought were beyond the reach of robots: doctors, journalists, academics, pilots and scientists.

Both variants fetishize technology and too hastily proclaim the end of work. As machines imminently threaten to rule the globe, work has not disappeared. On the contrary. Employment figures in the UK and the US easily demonstrate this. But the jobs that do result tend to be precarious, insecure and underpaid. That’s the dark side of the trend we need to appreciate. Automation might even deepen the ideology of work currently gripping our society, not release us from it, fuelling a “crap jobs” revolution in the UK, US and elsewhere.

Take the rise of call centres. They epitomize occupational computerisation. It was even predicted back in the 1990s that call-centres would completely replace customer service providers of the all-too-human type. But it never happened. There are now one million people employed in call centres in the UK and 2.2 million in the US. The global workforce is huge. The reason why is simple. Customers can’t do without a living person on the other end of the phone when they need help to decide if their bank account has been hacked. Needless to say, the pay and conditions are atrocious in this line of work.

Another example is airline pilots. The arrival of fly-by-wire and automated flight systems didn’t do away with the need to have pilots in the cockpit. Someone’s got to be there in case something goes wrong. But the work itself has seen a steady deterioration in pay and conditions. One budget airline even uses zero-hour contracts. It’s no longer struggling university students working part-time at McDonalds who has to put up with them.

The mechanization of work proliferates “crap jobs” indirectly too. For example, Amazon and other online bookstores were blamed for the sad decline of local, community based retailers. That included a loveable army of autodidactic employees who seemed to have an in-depth knowledge of every book ever published. Nonetheless, the change had a knock on effect elsewhere. In the UK, for example, the online sales boom gave rise to what I call White Van Nation. There are an estimated 4 million commercial vans on British roads. Many of these delivery vehicles are operated by self-employed drivers on zero-hour contracts. Minimum wage laws don’t apply to the self-employed. Nor do drivers receive sick pay or pension contributions. For this reason we must not let the next new Uber-app blind us to the dirty, polluting and underpaid work that is ultimately required to ensure your Chinese takeaway arrives safely.

There is another way of looking at it. Let’s turn the question around for a moment. Isn’t it surprising that more jobs haven’t been automated given the technological leaps and bounds we have witnessed of late? I think there is a good reason for this. It is now cheaper to employ people rather than install/maintain machines in supermarkets, petrol stations and so-forth. That tells us how bad the world of work has become. Living, breathing people are undercutting robots.

It is important to note that the jobless future thesis has been around since the dawn of capitalism. Sure, many occupations have certainly vanished because of mechanization. But steam power didn’t end the reliance on living labour and AI probably won’t either. What has changed, however, is the way sophisticated technologies are now paving the way for millions of “crap jobs” to flourish. Even occupations that were once prestigious are increasingly characterized as degrading, stressful and undesirable by those that hold them.

Having said that, the basic idea of a future with much less work is still worth holding onto. Not only less, but better work, jobs that don’t turn making a living into a nightmarish ordeal, as it has for so many today. Technology alone won’t get us there because it’s wedded to the perpetuation of the work ethic. Best we concentrate on the socio-economic policies that have allowed the “crap jobs” revolution to thrive.

Where should we start? First, a genuine universal living wage must be seriously considered. It makes economic sense (tax credits and other meagre forms of assistance simply subsidise tight-fisted employers). Second, personal debt (especially among students) needs to be tackled because it has allowed millions of people be entrapped in jobs that previous generations would have considered some sort of punishment. Debt-cancellation is a must. Third, zero-hour contracts ought to be phased out, as they have been elsewhere. And let’s not even mention the brutal cost-of-living crisis that has unfairly beleaguered millennials among others.

Remedying the quiet, seething disaster that is unfolding in the employment sector today demands a focus on causes. Namely, prescriptions linked to a rather extreme version of neoliberal capitalism that only works for … well … those fortunate enough not to have to worry about work. Only when those problems are redressed might technology be viewed in a progressive light again. Hastening a beautiful utopia of play? Perhaps. Anything but the deepening hell that is now the likely prospect for future generations to come.