Redefining Work

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of technology in work.

It started when I read this New York Sunday Book Review ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’. Barbara Ehrenreich ties together two related works to talk about shifts in what work means. Rise of the Robots details how robots are replacing human workers. It’ll only get worse in the alarming future, as “technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment.” Job eliminations, in combination with the 2008 financial crisis, mean less work for the young, the unlucky, and the laid off. The second text, Shadow Work, is about how menial work is being newly divvied up. Bagging groceries once kept human workers busy. Now, there are no more low-level workers of this sort, but everyone gets a piece of the (menial) action: “[w]e take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared.” In addition, those robots that are taking our jobs are now adding insult to injury by giving us work to do, such as creating endless passwords (and after you’ve forgotten, recreating them) so that we can book our own travel tickets online.

Ehrenreich’s point with her review is simple: menial work is shifting hands. That labour is being redistributed in new and existentially horrifying ways shouldn’t be news to anyone in librarianship, a field that is undergoing so much transformation. Why I like Ehrenreich’s review is that she ties together the rise of our future robot overlords with the disenfranchisement of the young and underpaid. It’s all a part of the same mess where work is socially constructed and in flux.

At one point, Ehrenreich makes a wry comment about how her job could be automated,: “It’s impossible to read “Rise of the Robots” — for review anyway — without thinking about how the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.” It’s then that I realize she, like me, has had a long career somewhere considering the absurdity of this thing we call a job. Who hasn’t? When you get that first job making burgers, it all seems like so much to do about nothing. Writing book reviews might be more fulfilling but it’s still vulnerable to sudden obsolescence.

Of course, it isn’t appropriate to just say of menial work that it’s silly and meaningless when there are people’s lives at stake. It reminds me of this classic Kids in the Hall sketch which actually does a great job of capturing the tragedy of the decline in assembly line work in America. What most wageworkers of this sort do isn’t spectacular.

If all of this is a little bleak – and it is – consider this. Before the rise of the modern wage labourers didn’t exist as they do now. At least, according to Ivan Illich in his essay “Shadow Work,” the origin of for the title of the lately reviewed book. Before the modern age wage labour was considered lower than beggary (9). Personally, I find some comfort in the fact that wage work, now so important, is a fabrication as much as any other. According to Illich, through the rise of wage-labour: “work [became] presented as the stone of wisdom, the panacea, the magic elexir which transforms what it touches into gold…. this is the
fundamental position of classical economists from Adam Smith and Ricardo to Mill and Marx” (112-113). Work was transformed and elevated, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

I say that this is comforting because it’s a stark reminder that we as a species make work. This means that we can remake it any way we like. We can even unmake it by handing off the lowest of low work to the robots. Work may no longer be necessary, and if that sounds terrifying because people do need to earn money to eat, remember that we make those constructions, too.

What I say is: give the lowest, and crummiest, and most degrading work to robots who can do it better, faster, and easier, and won’t die of boredom in the process. Let them have it, and give them the shadow work while we’re at it. Technology can bring us so many wonderful new things – let free time and creative work be among them. That doesn’t mean that I’m in favour of unemployment, or of the kind of shadow work that preys on the most vulnerable even within technological webs. Instead, I’m in favour of making work meaningful again, or even making something better than work. And technology has to be an integral part of the strategy for doing so. Can we have both meaningful labour and everything else?

Technology can’t be a panacea, either. But it can be a tool for creating meaning, for transforming what is old and outmoded to be new and better. Down with flipping burgers. Up with the (time-saving apps and global communication and automation of plant work) robots.

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One thought on “Redefining Work

  1. Very interesting post, but what about robots who will eventually develop consciousness and need more fulfillment than flipping burgers? That’d be the day when they decide to rebel and take over humanity as our overlords. Back to flipping burgers we go.

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