Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work

A lot of corporate managers, especially in Silicon Valley, have a goal of replacing workers with automated machines.  The path to that goal is to make work as machine-like and automatic as possible..

I always used to feel sorry for telephone operators 25 years ago because very minute of their workday was monitored so that they always gave a specific automatic response.  Now this has become a pattern.

 Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs recently wrote about how this is becoming the new normal.

[A] feature in the Wall Street Journal … shows how new technologies are enabling employers to spy on a fictitious employee named Chet.

Chet’s boss knows what time he wakes up, because his phone detects changes in his physical activity.  

Chet’s whereabouts are tracked at all times, and his employer can watch him stop for coffee before work, and even knows what part of the building he is in and whether he has strayed into any “unauthorized areas.”

Image via Fast Company

The precise time he arrives at work will be logged, all of his emails will be read, and Chet’s work computer snaps a screenshot every 30 seconds so that the employer can verify that he is staying on task.  

His “phone conversations can be recorded, transcribed and monitored for rate of speech and tone,” his interactions with other employees are recorded and analyzed, and his company even tracks his fitness and can use it to adjust his benefits.

An accompanying Wall Street Journal article indicates that these kinds of employer surveillance techniques are increasingly common, and “there’s almost nothing you can do about it.”

And there are even more invasive possible techniques—I recently read an MIT Technology Review article called “This company embeds microchips in its employees, and they love it,” which I liked because nowhere in the body of the article itself is there any quote indicating that the employees do, indeed, “love it.”  

One of them says that you get used to it after a time, which I do not doubt.

Importantly, though, under the philosophy that Free Markets are fair, there is no actual language with which we can object to these things.  

Unless the employees are being kidnapped and enslaved, this is just “freedom of contract.”

If they didn’t want their employer screenshotting their workspace, or taking pictures of their penis in the company bathroom, they shouldn’t have signed a contract that allowed said employer “all possible latitude to do as they see fit to further the interests of the company.”  Sucks for you, Chet.

In the innocent-seeming paragraph about freedom above, then, we can see the seeds of something perverse and disturbing.

The belief that the state shouldn’t “interfere” in “voluntary transactions” actually means that your boss should get to do whatever they want, and there should be “nothing you can do about it.”  

We can see here exactly how workers can be talked into forging their own chains: A well-funded operation convinces them of the Philosophy Of Freedom, and then they find out too late that this just means they have no recourse when horrible invasive things are done to them at work, and every moment of their life is monitored by a powerful entity that does not care whether they live or die.

A reporter named Emily Guendelsberger, after her newspaper closed, got jobs at an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky, a call center in North Carolina and a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco, and wrote a book about it called On the Clock.  She said in an interview that what the three jobs had in common, besides low pay, was micro-management, which reduced the job to a series of rote actions.  She gave an interview about her book to New York magazine.

We’ve gotten so good at technology that can quantify workers’ job performance with metrics.

And since it’s pretty much the same everywhere, it’s difficult, especially for unskilled workers, to vote with their feet the way they used to be able to, and the way that classical economics says that they should be able to.  You know, if you don’t like your job, you go find another job, and then the previous job can’t find workers and it goes out of business.

Click to enlarge

But when the situation is the same at pretty much everywhere you go, you’re expected to be a robot — whether it’s mentally, like at Convergys or McDonald’s, where you’re supposed to suppress all of your anger and shame and rage when people treat you like garbage, or Amazon, where you have to really push your physical limits.  [snip]

But it’s not just Amazon: At other warehouses it’s as bad or worse.  I found that, at least among people who had had other warehouse jobs, they tended to find Amazon to be comparatively safe and comparatively well-paying.

The problem is that they hate being treated like robots, like where you’re expected to not need to talk to people all day or you’re expected to have to do this extremely monotonous, repetitive job without any sort of mental distraction.  [snip]

And at Convergys and McDonald’s, where you are in a customer-facing job, I think the coping mechanism that I ended up with and saw mirrored in my co-workers was that you just have to stop caring about the customers.

Because otherwise, it leaves you kind of vulnerable, that American work ethic where you make sure the customer has the best possible experience and you go above and beyond to give good service.

Micro-management is not limited to low-wage employment.  Physicians, nurses, college professors and school teachers find themselves more and more accountable to computer algorithms.

What makes corporate managers treat people like this?  Maybe because they think it is the price of economic survival.  Maybe because, as the Stanford Prison experiment showed, many people will become cruel tyrants given the opportunity and rationalization.

But maybe also because of fear.  Maybe certain elites fear they’d lose their power if the people they command were able to use their knowledge, skill and enterprise.


The Scale of What We’re Up Against by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs.

Low-Wage Work Is Breaking People Down, an interview of Emily Guendelsberger, author of On the Clock, for New York magazine.

Inside the hellish workday of an Amazon warehouse employee, a review of On the Clock for the New York Post.

Amazon’s Automation Overreach by Lawrence Whittle for Industry Week.

Universal Basic Income + Automation + Plutocracy = Dystopia by Caitlin Johnstone.



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5 Responses to “Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    Elites are idiots. Their power expands when they allow the people they employ to use their “knowledge, skill and enterprise”, as well as their creativity & enthusiasm to help the business grow & prosper. When elites treat people like robots & endeavor to every working minute into a robotic action, it only brings depression & despair to the working place. It’s the modern plantation IMHO

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vincent Says:

    Is this anything new? Scientific Management (Taylorism) goes back more than a hundred years see

    In the Sixties when I started work there were Time & Motion specialists whose only technology was a stopwatch, but they could have the results put on punch cards for analysis. Factories had clock in and out machines

    From what you say, attitudes have not changed, it’s just that the means available have become more deadly. As in warfare.


    • philebersole Says:

      Exactly. The means available have become more deadly. As in warfare.

      And Taylorism is no longer limited to the factory floor, just as war is no longer limited to the battlefield.

      And we now have a clearer idea of the end point to which all of this is leading, which is the dystopia described in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano – a society in which that majority of the population is economically redundant.


  3. Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work — Phil Ebersole’s Blog – Rexton digital Says:

    […] via Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work — Phil Ebersole’s Blog […]


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