“Our Automated Future:” How the future of work isn’t so unfamiliar

This isn’t the first time in American history machines have threatened to forever take the jobs of their human counterparts, and it’d be valuable to remember just how difficult those technological transitions have been in the past.

As Alexis Madrigal reminded us at a panel on “Our Automated Future” on Thursday in San Francisco at the Economic Security Project’s CASH Conference, the bloody, tragic growing pains of the 19th century industrial revolution resulted in a workforce that actually became physically shorter over the course of the 1800s. These workers, thrust into an environment of unforeseen technological advances and subpar working conditions, were underfed, overworked, and miserable.

The panelists at the CASH Conference reminded us that, despite the prevailing narrative, this moment in human history isn’t totally unique. Society suffered through the growing pains of an industrial revolution, and emerged from the morass with positive policy changes to deal with the ramifications of this new world.

But just as the policymakers of the early 20th century introduced overtime laws and safety standards, the same influencers of our current era must begin to reckon with the best ways to address the current, unique issues our internet-tinted reality presents. Policymakers must cope with the surveillance of big data, the economic value of a robot workforce, and the ubiquity of the gig economy.

With such a wide range of variables, a basic income could be a way to buffer against some of the suffering that previous waves of technological unemployment have had on the working class.

At the panel, various experts on the future of work shared their theoretical solutions for this brave new world. Madrigal spoke to the difficulties of organizing workers in an increasingly fragmented working universe. Whereas, for example, dock workers of the past kept each part of their process in a single space, the increased specialization and outsourcing of various tasks has the unintended consequence of pushing workers physically further apart. Without the solidarity borne out of close quarters, the power of their once-strong unions has diminished.

While we often think of the internet connecting a disparate workforce, the gig economy faces an even tougher organizing environment. As Tim Hwang — Director of Ethics and Governance of AI Fund — pointed out, the nature of the Uber platform, for example, makes it nearly impossible for drivers to find one another to express grievances and, consequently, organize around a common set of issues. Hwang spoke to the lack of a common identity for workers to organize around. Where once your vocation may have been key to your identity, naturally aligning workers with common views and goals, the new reality of the gig economy is much murkier.

Natalie Foster, co-chair of the Economic Security Project, noted the difficulties of these platforms but also pointed to the newfound power of technological process, highlighting the Facebook groups of tens of thousands of Starbucks baristas as a model for a futuristic town square or watering hole where organizing can happen en masse, instantly.

Andy Stern, the former president of the SEIU, pressed the panel to consider the necessity of policy change.

“I don’t see how things can change without government intervention,” Stern said. He pointed at the implementation of a transaction tax and workers compensation as potential reforms.

The panelists even entertained the idea of a “robot tax,” an idea that San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim floated in August. In Kim’s estimation, robots taking human jobs would be taxed, with the revenue generated being distributed to job training programs and community college tuition.

Foster called the robot tax “a good meme,” but acknowledged the potential conversations over what constitutes a robot could become a little murky. Stern dismissed the focus on robots, arguing software, really, ought to be the issue of focus.

All acknowledged, however, the importance of acknowledging the lessons of the past to cope with the challenges of the future.

“We do know two things,” Stern said. “That in the past, jobs have come back. And two, it was a really painful transition. So, if nothing else that we have said, we need to account for that.”