Law in the Internet Society

Shaping Productivity: How Technology Makes Us Work for It and Why We Should Care

-- By MichaelNicholson - 19 Oct 2021

History and Background

Technological Change Drives Workplace Change

In times of major technological change or advancement, the way we work and interact with our workplace will inevitably change. The Industrial Revolution is a clear, and most often cited example of this; however, it is not the first time that technology has radically changed the way humans work. For example, the invention of the wheel or the plow greatly reduced the amount of human input required to achieve agricultural or mechanical goals. The printing press changed the way we learned and enabled the spreading of information across continents at a substantially lower cost than previously possible. However, while the digitization of the workplace has certainly reduced the human input required for certain productive outputs (to our individual and collective benefit), it has also pushed us often more than we have pushed it. The digitization of the workplace for all its benefits has produced massive costs to the individual and to society, most notably the reduction of privacy, the increase in worker dissatisfaction, and the instability of full employment (due to threats of automation or outsourcing).

Technology Should Improve the Human Condition, Not Degrade It

While technology is intended to help humans achieve more, it seems logical that it also should do so with the goal of improving the human condition. The wheel and the plow allowed for massive improvements in the ability of humans to generate resources and develop advanced societies. The printing press allowed those who may have never been given an opportunity to learn to read the words of some of the brightest minds from anywhere in the world. The Industrial Revolution greatly reduced the price of goods by making mass production possible which in turned allowed for higher levels of consumption for the average worker. Additionally, it simplified work in order to make work accessible for more people even those lacking specialized skills. Admittedly, it would be unfair to fail to acknowledge that the Industrial Revolution had its flaws as well (child labor, dangerous workplaces, exploitative employers, etc.).

Now and the Future

Digitization Has Reduced Worker Autonomy and Privacy

These relatively simple technological advancements (in comparison with the massive revolution that has occurred over the past 50 years) may have changed the world, but they did not necessarily change the way humans operate as a species. The Internet certainly has done just that. Modern computing has the power to not only assist us in our pursuits, but also to monitor us and monetize us. Rather than reduce human labor input, computers and the Internet have changed human inputs. We have become less independent thinking and intrinsically motivated and become more reliant upon and subservient to computers. This has changed the way we work in several crucial ways. Primarily, we have become intertwined with the technology that allows us to complete work in a way that is difficult to measure. Where our privacy begins and ends is increasingly difficult to define as a result.

For example, Microsoft now has the ability to use its programs to track organizational productivity by allowing employers to track the activity of employees. See Richard Speed, Privacy Campaigner Flags Concerns About Microsoft’s Creepy Productivity Score, The Register (Nov. 26, 2020), Rather than improve the lives of employees, technology like this serves to monitor employees and change human behavior to improve productivity. Rather than reduce the level of human input to achieve organizational goals, the technology alters human input to require more engagement with work and less privacy. In a very different manner, this has seemingly reduced the need for human skills in even the most advanced industries. Formerly skilled positions at banks and law firms often now consist of plugging formulas into Excel for endless hours letting the computer do the work. This may also explain some of why workers feel less satisfied in their work in recent years.

Concerns About Remote Work and Work-Devices

This is particularly important in the remote workplace made common due to COVID-19. Employers now have the ability to monitor workers at their own homes. Workplaces that use Zoom can even see into the homes of its workers. This raises many additional privacy concerns. Who else may be able to gain access to this information and for what purpose?

Similarly, even before the pandemic many workers used company-provided cellular devices or laptops. Now, many people use personal cellular devices or laptops for work. With both of these types of devices, it is natural to question the boundaries over what is personal and what is professional. When can an employer track these devices? There are many different troublesome “edge cases” in this space such as: a personal computer used for work in the office; a personal computer used for personal purposes in the office; a work computer used for work at home; and, a work computer used for personal purposes at the office, etc.

Capitalists Do Not Willingly Work Less Productively

One issue in searching for a solution to these troubles is that the data gathered by employers from employees helps to make more money. When assembly lines maimed children, when long hours in the factory caused lung diseases, when workers were underpaid due to the intentionally low skill nature of their work, factory owners did not willingly revert to the old ways. These workers recognized the flaws of their new condition and they joined together in labor unions to fight for change. Perhaps workers today must do the same. Unfortunately, far too many people are either blind to the real dangers of the modern digital workplace or too ignorant to care to change their condition. However, we seem to be at the brink of another massive shift in the workplace due to automation and this will bring with it additional struggles for workers, particularly long-term unemployment. It would be wise to make the workplace about us rather than about machines, data, and profit before it is too late.

Wouldn't it be appropriate to cite some useful sources for the reader in this comprehensive history of work from the wheel to Amazon? The history is really this draft's central contribution; the rest is summed up in the idea that "perhaps" (perhaps?) workers should have unions. But you could condense the potted history significantly if you would just link to the sources you relied upon to learn it, after which the next draft's great improvement would be to consider the problem you are choosing to write about.

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r2 - 05 Dec 2021 - 14:31:58 - EbenMoglen
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