Visions of the ‘future of work’ have been captured by corporate behemoths

Beware the wolves in sheep’s clothing – the power and politics driving the “future of work” conversation is anti-worker by design. The labour movement needs to steel itself for the fight of a lifetime – and the time is now, argues Alice Dawkins.

Dec 07, 2020, updated Dec 07, 2020
Communities - not a handful of tech giants - should guide the future of work. Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Communities - not a handful of tech giants - should guide the future of work. Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

A noble effort to stay up-to-date with tech issues is prompting leaders across sectors and the political spectrum to unwittingly normalise narratives spun out of public relations machines of tech companies into policy direction.

Across an ever-expanding canon of articles and speeches, “automation”, “machine learning”, and “robotics” are breathlessly offered as necessary, ubiquitous, and inevitable components of our future.

What’s missing is the caveat that these tools are proprietary, immature, and, in many cases, not fit for purpose.

We have plenty of indications already about the tech industry-driven “future” – micro-targeting, chatbots, facial recognition, auto-filled forms and searchbars, and personalised newsfeeds all sit in the domain we could loosely designate as “AI” applications.

We should have the critical skills to realise that these features are far from working optimally, reliably, or predictably. Many of these applications merely create new issues rather than resolve enduring ones. Algorithmically-driven content personalisation might get you relevant content quicker, but the trade-offs involved in the underlying logic are rapidly surfacing. A great deal of tech’s growth strategy relies on mythologising its transformative potential and, in doing so, creating solutions in search of problems, rather than the other way around.

Let’s not forget – the livelihood of thousands of Australian workers and their families are at stake here. Widespread automation is not a policy to make on the run, nor is it a direction to take without serious and thoughtful community consultation and collective work. Not everything should be automated, and some tech just shouldn’t be built. We don’t want to have to tell our children we sent half of their jobs into artificial obscurity based on some shiny tech marketing materials and grandiose promises made by ambitious executives.

As the sun sets on the rubble of the “it’s like Uber for X” era, South Australia can lead by championing “small tech”, driven by the public and meaningfully accountable to it.

The tech titans and their unwitting disciples may be convinced we’re at the end of history, but these are old issues dressed up with glossier terminology. Workers have faced technological transition before. We need to be smart about identifying expertise in resisting managerial mumbo-jumbo, and scaling those methods. Retail workers weathered the storm of the self-checkout machine, mining workers rode the first wave of remote machine operation years ago, and transport workers are staring down the barrels of the tech sector’s “smart city” showreel.

The critical difference this time is the concentration of wealth and influence into a small number of bullish companies, whose aggregation of informational, financial and political power renders them more powerful than most nation-states.

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Silicon Valley’s vision of the “future of work” is little more than a sales pitch for their own products. Taking directions from the tactics of big tobacco and big pharma, big tech has a war-chest in the order of billions of dollars to spend on public relations and government lobbying.

One of these battles recently played out in real-time in California, where a coalition of ride-hailing giants undertook a $200m (USD) “scorched-earth” campaign to avoid classing their drivers as employees. The fact that these companies elect to spend millions of dollars on consulting fees to public relations advisors and lobbyists rather than provide their essential workers with a living wage, unemployment benefits, and sick leave, should tell us all we need to know about their anti-social business model.

The key point for policymakers and regulators is that we’ve seen this movie before – many times. Technological change redistributes power, facilitates new industries, and rewards early starters with enormous wealth. As laboured as analogies to the robber barons of the railroads boom may be, that story tells us that permissionless innovation and unmitigated growth strategies have a use-by date, and accountability is inevitable.

We have only a short window of time to inject a pro-worker direction into the so-called future of work conversation, before the status quo is entrenched through rushed decisions.

We don’t need to be monitoring workers via webcams, keystrokes, motion sensors, and wearable devices. We shouldn’t be supporting companies that prioritise speed and customer convenience over workers’ safety – with ride-hailing and e-commerce as standout offenders. And we absolutely shouldn’t send thousands of people into retraining and reskilling before rigorously testing if job-threatening automation alternatives actually work, and reflecting as a society if they’re necessary and desirable additions.

As public investment in tech innovation increases, governments have a tremendous opportunity to course-correct and back next-generation tech companies who practice sustainable business models that give back to, rather than extract from, the community.

As the sun sets on the rubble of the “it’s like Uber for X” era, South Australia can lead by championing “small tech”, driven by the public and meaningfully accountable to it.

And as the technological transition tide continues, we need to swiftly make space for scrutinising tech determinism, and ensure that workers are in the room when decisions are made.

It means insisting that high-tech enthusiasts be specific and granular about what their tools can actually do – and what they can’t.

It means asking hard questions about the theory behind tech-driven economic recovery proposals. Even machine learning boosters concede that creative skill is one thing their robots don’t have – we need to be confident and courageous in imagining the future we can build for our children and grandchildren.

Alice Dawkins is a recent Schwarzman Scholars graduate. She works for the Minderoo Foundation, which powers the ‘Future Says’ global project established earlier this year. She has written this article in a personal capacity. 
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