LONDON: This time it was meant to be different. Advances in computing were going to lead to smarter machines that could rival humans at thinking as well as doing; office workers would need to watch out for the sort of mass redundancies previously experienced in manufacturing.
For the moment, it looks as though these fears were overblown: Employment rates across the developed world are rising, redundancy rates are falling and productivity growth has slowed.
In December, the global unemployment rate fell to its lowest level for four decades. Clearly, we are not yet seeing workers displaced by more efficient machines.
This does not mean robots are irrelevant. The Canadian activist and documentary film-maker Astra Taylor recently coined the term “fauxtomation” to describe the gulf between the myth of a workless future and the reality — in which the amount of work to be done is greater than ever.
Technology may not have made the idea of workers redundant, she argues, but it has disguised the continuing importance of human effort.
Take McDonald’s. I can now order my burger using giant touch screens, pay for it on the contactless card reader and then saunter up to the counter to collect it.
This could be thought of as automating the work of a waiter; in reality, though, the company has convinced me to become an unpaid member of staff.
The tasks I do — inputting an order into the system, sorting payment and then collecting the food from the kitchen — are all jobs that would normally be done by someone earning at least minimum wage.
It’s the same when I use a self-service checkout at the supermarket, or check myself in and print out my own ticket for a flight. Technology has facilitated a shift in who is working, not eradicated it.
For the companies involved it makes sense. Instead of being abundant and easy to replace, workers are scarce. This version of “automation” reduces wage bills and allows them to sell products at a lower cost.
It makes sense for me too: I get through the airport more quickly, and while it may mean a few minor annoyances, I’ll trade those for a cheaper flight.
For Taylor, however, it also demonstrates the reason why the “rise of the robots” has been overhyped. The idea that human labour can be easily replaced makes workers afraid of losing their jobs and thus easier to exploit.
OVERLOOKED, UNPAID WORKERS
Technology, Taylor argues, contributes to an illusion that human effort can be simply substituted by machines — like the famous “ Mechanical Turk” machine that could supposedly play chess but in reality contained a hidden chess master, or the dumbwaiters in Thomas Jefferson’s mansion that relied on hidden slaves.
“Fauxtomation” fits into a tradition of unpaid work being overlooked — work such as caring for the elderly or children, often done by women, that does not appear in official measures of economic output.
The economist Diane Coyle argues that some of the extraordinary economic growth in the middle of the past century was probably due to women doing more paid work and less unpaid; if the latter had been valued properly in the first place, the postwar boom would not have been as large as it appears in the official figures.
Similarly, the recent slowdown in productivity growth may be due to a move the other way, as everyone starts producing more outside working hours, whether on laptops at home or at supermarket checkouts. And then there’s what Coyle calls “do-it-yourself digital intermediation” — online platforms acting as our bank tellers, estate agents and insurance brokers.
The benefits of these services getting cheaper ought to be reflected in higher spending elsewhere. But, Coyle argues, official measures of economic output are missing the value of our unpaid work, meaning the slowdown in productivity growth may not be as bad as it appears.
I appreciate a bargain, and I’m not averse to doing a bit of work to get it. But having spent one too many afternoons as my own travel agent ahead of a trip, I am beginning to miss the paid professionals.
Gavin Jackson is an FT economics reporter.
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.