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Technology, work and power

In this video Jim Stanford questions some general claims often espoused about the effects of technology on work
You know, technology is not really anything new. Humans have learned to use tools to make our work more efficient for tens of thousands of years so I’m a bit puzzled by it, so much obsession with how the future of work is changing due to technology. Of course there’s some amazing technologies out there; the automation, the use of robotics, artificial intelligence, etc. etc. But workers really you know for ages have been grappling with the pros and cons of new technology applied to their jobs. I think that really isn’t changing that much.
In fact if we look at the aggregate economic data it’s not at all clear that on the ground level of our economy technology is actually changing that fast, business investment and capital spending has actually been surprisingly slow, a productivity growth has not suddenly picked up as it should if we were looking at widespread automation, in fact productivity growth has been pretty poor in most countries since the global financial crisis and if anything we’re seeing a growth of really low tech, kind of menial, badly paid jobs in many parts of our economy.
The other thing to keep in mind is that none of the aspects of how technology is changing our work world have been preordained we don’t live in a technologically determined world we still live in a world where the key decisions are made by human beings, including ourselves, our employers and governments, regulators, educational institutions etc. so I reject the idea that everything is beyond our control that it’s all technologically determined, it’s really up to us as a society to make the key decisions about what type of work we’re going to do in the future and how people who are doing the work are treated. So how is technology changing the type of work how does it change the quality of jobs?
There’s been a lot of fear about the impact of new automation and robots and so on on the number of jobs out there and I think those fears are a bit overstated because in fact the the whole process of automation has been much slower in practice than many people feared. I’m actually more concerned with the impact of technology on the quality of jobs.
I’ve seen lots of cases where employers are using digital technology automation artificial intelligence to really kind of intensify work, not fundamentally change what we’re doing but use technology as ways to try and get people to work harder, to work faster, to reduce the amount of so-called downtime or break time in between different tasks and so on, so I actually think that technology unless we manage it better will undermine the quality of work more than the number of jobs that are out there. What implications are there for workers in terms of how their jobs are monitored and the forms of control because of new technologies they encounter?
I’m really concerned about the misuse by employers of digital technology to intensify work and subject workers to more omnipresent surveillance and performance monitoring. We see all kinds of ways that bosses can use digital techniques to measure where workers are at any point in time, how long they spend in the toilet, how fast they’re performing their jobs and other measures of output and unless there’s some limits on employers ability to use technology that way we could see those limits from either legal minimum standards or provisions of collective agreements, employers are going to use this digital boss if you like a sort of a digital Foreman who’s looking over the shoulder of their workers at all times as a cheap and omnipresent way of trying to intensify production and boost their profits.
I think that is an affront to the privacy and the dignity of workers, nobody deserves to have somebody peering over their shoulder at every second whether it’s a real human being or an or a digital boss I also think it undermines the balance of power in workplaces and could even result in slower wage growth in the future, if bosses end up using this stick a digital stick to motivate and discipline their workers rather than the carrot of decent wages and good income and giving people a raise when their job is good, then I think we could see even slower wage growth in the future.
This is an example of how technology in and of itself is neither good, nor bad it all depends on the context and the rules and who’s making the choices for how technology is used, or misused and I think we need urgently both at the workplace level and the societal level to put better rules and standards in place so that we get more good uses of technology to truly boost output and improve quality and improve the ergonomics of work and and limit employers ability to use technology in negative ways.

Watch the following video interview with Prof Jim Stanford, Director of the Centre for WorkFutures. In this video Professor Stanford offers an invaluable critical insight into some of the claims of technology and issues of worker organisation and collective mobilisation around technology.


What are the ways in which workers can ensure that such developments are responded to more systematically in future.? Think about ways in which the technology discussed can be put to use in ways that benefit workers.

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Power, Politics, and Influence at Work

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