Humans, Machines, and Employment

3 03 2013

A question raised in Norbert Wiener’s 1954 article entitled Men, Machines, and the World About – but not discussed during the last New Media Seminar – is how the symbiotic relationship between humans and machines may impact our working lives (or employment and equality more generally). With possible links to Marx’s notion of relative surplus value, Wiener discusses a new industrial revolution “that consists primarily of replacing human judgment and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine.” Another way to think about this idea is the transfer of knowledge from the worker to the machine, possibly rendering the worker jobless. A familiar example is the automated phone system. These systems have captured the basic knowledge of the operator and have externalized the cost (in time) of managing calls onto customers, whether they like it or not.

While there is much that could be said about the displacement of jobs by technology (or innovation), my interest here lies with the use of technology to enhance worker productiveness – not to be confused with labor productivity. Labor productivity is calculated by dividing an output by a factor of input (labor or capital), i.e., it is the amount of output per unit of input. In contrast, labor productiveness is a measure of the quality of being productive or the capacity for producing. Thus, labor productivity could be increased by a more productive worker (e.g., the worker’s skill has been improved), the use of more efficient technology/processes, or some combination of the two.

Martin Magnusson's DIY Wearable Computer

Martin Magnusson’s DIY Wearable Computer (image from: http://www.wired.com)

Wiener’s notion of cybernetics, like J. C. R. Licklider’s concept of human-computer symbiosis, points to a new frontier where worker productiveness could be greatly enhanced by the intelligent use of technology. Imagine a worker (white/blue/green collar) whose queries/questions are answered via a Google Glass type of technology that uses data processed and analyzed through a next generation version of Wolfram Alpha. While such a Star Trek-like device sounds intriguing, there are two questions that trouble me. Who will benefit (financially) from this human-machine symbiosis (if it can be called that) and is labor productiveness truly enhanced?

If the worker invests in the technology and is able to enhance his/her productiveness (i.e., knowledge and skills), he/she may be able to demand higher wages for the higher-skilled work being performed. However, there are myriad assumptions behind this statement. The most significant is perhaps the assumption that the technology is actually enhancing the productiveness of the worker, rather than enabling a worker to perform at a higher level due to the data/processes/etc. embodied in the technology – i.e., the knowledge and skills of the worker are largely unchanged. In fact, at an extreme, the worker’s skills/ability could decline has he/she becomes more reliant on the technology to do more of the thinking. Further, if the augmentation technology were owned by the employer, the worker would likely be paid less over time as the technology/capital begins to do more of the actual work. Just as automated phone systems displaced operators, higher-skilled workers could be displaced by lower-skilled workers using skill-augmentation technology to the benefit of the capitalist. Finally, if an augmentation technology were capable of operating in the ‘formulative’ (i.e., idea creation) domain of innovation, whoever owns that technology will be at the leading edge of the market and wealth.

To me, these questions are fascinating, extremely important, and warrant far greater consideration than I am able to provide here.

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