The Fourth Industrial Revolution, as the World Economic Forum coined the accelerated use of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and other forms of automation, is a phenomenon stoking a massive transformation in technology and the realm of work. The impending social changes that these new technologies will provoke – a vast replacement of human labor by machines – has created both immense excitement and anxiety.

Great automation expectations

Tech entrepreneurs, business consultancies, investors are coming to assure us that thanks to the millions of new jobs created (an estimated 58 million net new jobs in the world economy as the World Economic Forum projected), the benefits and added value to the global economy will far outstrip the risks.

It is predicted that millions of people will be relieved from strenuous, boring, monotonous tasks, such as data entry, payroll, cashing, certain accounting and administration functions and so on, in addition to the millions of toilsome factory jobs that are to be performed by machines in the new coming era. They emphasize the potentials of reskilling and retraining. But how will workers displaced by technology acquire skills potentially much more complex than their current capabilities? Will assembly line workers become data analysts? No, they say, but it is foreseen that each one of us affected will be taking one step upwards on the echelon of job skills, and therefore everyone will be able to carry out higher paying, more skill-intensive, more satisfying, and less mundane work.

The optimists emphasize the historical precedents in the large-scale utilization of technological advances when machines replaced human labor for the production of commodities. They see the vast increases in efficiency, the far lower costs of basic consumer goods, and the freed up human labor for new industries, which together propelled both economic growth and the satisfaction of mounting human appetites. For them, this history of technological transformations in workplaces is one of “creative destructions” as Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter used the term, where each breakthrough carries a new, more prosperous state of existence after destroying the old structures. Just like when humankind switched from horse carriages to motorized vehicles, the new freed-up time and possibilities enabled mobility and leisure like never before and finally streets were not smelling from horse manure anymore. The next transformation is just ahead of us with self-driving cars, when traffic anger is sublimated into entertainment so all we need to do is enjoy the ride.

Shared concerns

Others ring the alarm bells, pointing to the ramifications of large-scale exploitation of artificial intelligence and machine learning, emphasizing the novel aspects of the forthcoming technologies: that new machines have been made to acquire and refine human cognitive and sensory capabilities and master the tasks by weaving together those distinct capabilities more seamlessly than ever before. They emphasize the difficulty of obtaining and maintaining human agency and control over the new tools and point out the inadequacy of our legal and social frameworks to curb the negative externalities and to keep owners of technology accountable.

It is much less the number estimates of job losses and gains that the pessimists are concerned with (that diverge a great deal anyways), but they see the real threat of automation in a growing schism between those for whom automation generates large productivity gains (who either own or create the new technologies) and those who cannot participate in creating them but who have to adapt to what the fast changing circumstances dictate. Like the syndicated taxi driver who first switched to become a contracted Uber driver but whose very work is now threatened by elimination due to self-driving cars. This is what they call job polarization, whereby middle-skill routine jobs, like production, manufacturing, and operators are replaced by automation, while the very low-skill (e.g., janitors) and high-skill (e.g., software engineers) jobs are retained. Equally fearsome are the examples of how new tech and algorithms may threaten people through the control and monitoring systems that track, assess and report every minute of employee’s work time, as in Amazon’s fulfillment centers where even firing can be automated in case productivity quotas are unmet.

Is the anxiety over the current wave of automation substantiated or is it only a misplaced fear-mongering by neo-Luddites? Will mass automation be the real leap forward to an era of human liberation from toil and more leisure time or will it unsettle societies and workforce previously unseen in the industrialized age?

What is work about?

The promise of automation has always been the liberation from monotonous, repetitive work, that is seen as an antidote to creative pursuits. Some people, like for instance Ray Kurzweil and his colleagues at the Singularity Hub, are infinitely optimistic that the freed-up time will unleash innovation and creative endeavors like never before. They project that automation and AI can even be the final revolution before the ideal society of Karl Marx’s utopia becomes a reality “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished…to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.” In this vein, the optimists urge the planning of the new society of the machine age, the world where no one is obligated to work to generate the means to survive but food, water, shelter, education, healthcare, energy together with universal basic income is provided to them. Unfortunately, Marx himself never revealed more about what this utopian future would look like or how that would actually be made work. In the optimistic visions that perpetuate Marx’s snippet of utopia, the question of how we get to such futures, and what social institutions and economic arrangements would make this work are always petty questions to be decided at a later point in time by some indefinite others.

The quantity of jobs is not so much the core issue of automation and the real human concern, but the argument is better placed when it centers upon the quality of work as the principal matter of technology and work. It matters a great deal what kind of questions we ask and whether these questions set off from wishes and utopian visions or if they derive from our true observations of the human person and the human condition.

Since the onset of human civilization, work has always been associated with strenuous effort, toil, and sacrifice. It is a part of the human predicament that working requires a great deal of our physical, mental, and even emotional capacities. Until the industrial age the dependence on and vulnerability to the natural environment and processes made the chances of success of work (be it farming or even commerce) highly uncertain. But with industrial development, risks could be greatly reduced thanks to a number of novelties in the process and organization of work besides machines. 

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

One such departure from previous modes of organizing work was the division of labor, that has remained one of the most important and defining aspects of modern-day work. Division of labor did not only simplify the organization of work. By trenching into highly repetitive tasks, it facilitated the replacement of work by other trained individuals or when the moment was ready, by automated machines. Industrialization has changed most dramatically the process of work and thereby modes in which people utilize their skills at the workplace.

Work, process and meaning

A job, any job becomes meaningful when we have agency, control, and involvement in the entirety of the process of creation. Like the craftsman or the farmer who see the becoming of their creation from material to craftwork, from seed and soil to produce. People lose their sense of meaning in current day jobs, especially in large hierarchical organizations, like big firms or public institutions, because they have no overview of the product and gain only a fraction of the satisfaction that is inherent in work: the feeling of serving or being useful to others, the engagement of one’s full capacities for the creation of something that others value. This may well explain the result of the Gallup world poll that measured “engagement” at the workplace with the result that 85% of employees showing signs of weariness in their jobs.  Moreover, the overstretched division of work often leads to the multiplication of inconsequential and pseudo-jobs, especially in administrative, communication and marketing roles (if you have not worked in one, you surely know someone who has).

It is imperative that we ask the right questions about technological change and the deployment of new machines and softwares at the workplace. Do new technological innovations adopted in the workplace serve to complement or enhance human skills or do they serve to replace them? Do the new tools help people reconnect in with the process of creation or will it lead to even more fractured and repetitive types of work? Does the new process help the individual employee acquire a better agency over the process of production from material to delivery? Does the new job contribute to their users’ sense of purpose or is it a distraction?

This is of course not to say that people who work in large organizations cannot or do not gain such satisfaction. This is especially not the case with managerial positions where there is an opportunity to bring a task from zero to the creation of something new with a team. But the more the job is fractured, the more it is devised to draw only on a limited set of human capacities, the more unlikely is the sense of fulfillment. And the more only one set of capabilities are required, the more the job is likely to be automated.

Conclusion

On the social level, it would be foolish to place hopes into techno-optimistic visions and the promises of a distant utopic future where value is not derived from work anymore, where new technologies unleash creativity by relieving us from all effort and sacrifice. A future without work is not undesirable because we possess some masochistic strain that would make us strive for constant sweating and pain. A future without work is undesirable because it would come at an unfathomable price in state authority, control and bargaining over just redistribution.

Technology is not a redeeming force, and new technologies always come at a price. Innovations can be helpful tools but their more far-ranging social benefits can only manifest if they can be made to fit in with our values. We need  realistic assessments of emerging technological innovations and their rightful places in our lives. Only then can we work out the right social tools to embed technological novelties into our shared conceptions of the good life.

Featured photo by C D-X on Unsplash