Robot Bosses

Vox took an interesting position on the whole robots-taking-jobs quandary.

Utopian or dystopian?

“In the utopian vision, technology emancipates human labor from repetitive, mundane tasks, freeing us to be more productive and take on more fulfilling work,” they wrote. “In the dystopian vision, robots come for everyone’s jobs, put millions and millions of people out of work, and throw the economy into chaos.”

They go on to reference relatively new technologies that track workers. For at least a decade software has been available to track remote workers. Point of sale systems had surveillance tools in place before that. But there are new technologies that track workers behavior more precisely, and many of these tools showed up during the pandemic.

Automatic tracking tools can tell when people are about to get within 6 feet of one another, for example. The object is to help workers maintain social distance, but they can also catch people hanging around and chatting instead of being in their workstations.

Vox writes with horror about “one engineer” whose computer has software which photographs him every ten minutes or so to make sure he’s on task. This is certainly true for the 18 million freelancers who have registered at Upwork, and has been for many years. Employers use this type of software routinely in place of physically walking around the facility looking over workers’ shoulders. It’s probably not worth being horrified about.

What really bothers Vox?

Not to single Vox out or anything, but none of their examples really seem worth the horror. Factories speed up the line and thereby force workers to speed up. Sometimes they disable safety mechanisms so they can go faster and meet the requirements of — and here’s the point.

It’s not the robot overlords demanding that the poor humans work faster. As Vox points out, it’s the humans who set this stuff up.

And it is absolutely not anything new. Remember Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory?

The difference may be that a different population experienced this during the pandemic. Factory workers, information workers in the gig economy, and nannies on nanny-cam may not get much sympathy. White collar workers who’ve been accustomed to flexible lunchtimes and freedom to chat as much as they want in the break room — they may get more sympathy. Or feel freer to express outrage.

One thing’s for sure: it’s not the robots’ fault.

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