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 inevitably changes. 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.

The invention of the wheel or the plow greatly reduced the amount of human input required to achieve our goals. For example, “although wheelbarrows were expensive to purchase, they could pay for themselves in just 3 or 4 days in terms of labor savings.” See Megan Gambino, A Salute to the Wheel, Smithsonian Magazine (Jun. 17, 2009), The printing press changed the way we learned, prayed, and enabled the spreading of information across continents at a substantially lower cost than previously possible. See Dave Roos, 7 Ways the Printing Press Changed the World, History (Aug. 28, 2019),

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). “According to the Council of Economic Advisers in 2016, 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour could have substantial parts of their work given over to automation.” See Andrew Yang, Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job, New York Times (Nov. 14, 2019),

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 early invention of the wheel and plow, and later agricultural revolution, allowed humans to generate ample food supply to build larger civilizations and cities. “After 1750...each agricultural worker produced more food, so the proportion of the workforce in agriculture other words improved agricultural production made the industrial revolution possible.” See Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England 1500-1850, BBC (Feb. 17, 2011), The Industrial Revolution and the printing press greatly reduced the price of goods by making mass production possible which in turn allowed for higher levels of consumption for the average individual. See Kerryn Higgs, How the World Embraced Consumerism, BBC Future (Jan. 20, 2021),

Now and the Future

Digitization Has Reduced Worker Autonomy and Privacy

The Internet and associated technological changes have revolutionized the way humans operate in the world and at work. Modern computing has the power to not only assist us in our pursuits, but also to monitor us and monetize us. 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. 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.

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), 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.

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. However, this feeling is not necessarily a new one. “The changing world of the Second Industrial Revolution also led to fears by social critics about the loss of freedom, autonomy, and independence that is replaced by boredom, repetition, and toil.” See Industrial Revolution 2.0 – Era of Mass Production, Medium (Jul. 16 2021),

Capitalists Do Not Willingly Work Less Productively

One issue in searching for a solution to these troubles is that the data and information gathered by employers from employees helps to make companies more money. Many of the concerns associated with the work changes during the Industrial Revolution are being echoed today, although to a greater degree. Then, 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 make improvements or reject technology. The workers recognized the flaws of their new condition and joined together in labor unions to fight for change. See Our Labor History Timeline, AFL-CIO,

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. We seem to be at the brink of another massive shift in the workplace due to automation. It would be wise to make the workplace about humans rather than about machines, data, and profit before it is too late.

At this moment, the American workforce seems poised to make real changes. In the midst of a lengthy pandemic, rising cost of living, and growing uncertainty about the future, we are seeing a “Great Resignation.” See Paul Davidson, Great Resignation: The Number of People Quitting Jobs Hit an All-time High in November as Openings Stayed Near Record, USA Today (Jan. 4, 2022), Companies need to change how they treat their workforce in order to attract and retain talent. As of last spring, “52% of [employees] were feeling burned out, and 67% believed that the feeling worsened over the course of the pandemic.” See Robin Ganzert, Four Key Tips for Cultivating a Positive Work Environment, Forbes (Jan. 4, 2022), Treating employees as humans, not data points, is a great place to start.

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r3 - 04 Jan 2022 - 19:18:59 - MichaelNicholson
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