People desperately want to know whether technology and machines are going to take work away from them – but this question should be reversed: Who will work in the Digital Age, the world of Work 2.0?
by Sergiusz Prokurat
In 1811, when it was reported that Ned Ludd had infamously destroyed stocking frames in industrial Britain, workers were convinced that machines would take their jobs away from them. However, it turned out that there was more than enough work, both for machines and for people. Economists reassured that workplaces would be created bountifully – and it has been so over the past 200 years. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter labelled these changes as creative destruction.
Many people seem to think that automation is something for the distant future, meanwhile, the process is ongoing right before our eyes. Supermarkets are a good example, where staff are being traded in wholesale for so-called self-service checkouts. Obviously this is done to reduce costs. Machines are still far from perfect, but we can expect them to be increasingly reliable and supermarkets are in for large savings thanks to them.
Man vs. Machine
Barring some unexpected changes, everything points to the further robotization and informationalization of the entire space in which we operate. Experts from the International Federation of Robotics reckon that 2014 will be as equally fruitful for robotics as 2013. Computers are everywhere right now. Simple business processes are increasingly automated, with IT specialists and programmers working in nearly all large companies.
In the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, changes are occurring fast enough to surprise even sector analysts. Automation and robotics are becoming the as-of-yet undiscovered factor transforming our society – but is this transformation for the better?
Robots and algorithms are becoming better at building cars, writing articles, translating. There was a time when these tasks were done by humans. So how will we, humans, make a living? The answer to this question lies in the list of jobs which computers can do. If a machine can do something, it is just a matter of time before it will be doing it cheaper than a human.
“Dancing with Robots,” a report published by the American think tank Third Way, sheds light on the problem of “disappearing” jobs. The authors of the report find that two conditions have to be met for a task to be done by a computer. First, the information: the information necessary to conduct the task has to be gathered in a form understandable to a machine. Second, the processing: information processing necessary for executing the task in question has to be possible to note in a set of rules. The first condition is a question of advanced interface (sight, hearing), the second is a question of information processing – a process similar to human thinking. But can and will machines think like us?
Now there aren’t any which can. However, applications, software, machines and robots have acquired abilities such as speaking, listening and learning. We still haven’t noticed that technological change is accelerating geometrically. The calculations of a German mathematician, Martin Grötschel, show that between the years 1988–2003 the efficiency of computers in basic arithmetic operations has increased 43 million times.
Upgrading to Work 2.0
The labor market is changing as swiftly as our reality. Today work is being upgraded to version 2.0, where people cooperate and at the same time compete with machines. Work is carried out by people sitting on chairs and gazing into their monitor all the time. Their minds, bodies are informational, flexible, and based on multitasking. They work part-time, sometimes 15 hours in a row, sometimes on a Sunday, often remotely.
A worker who engages in Work 2.0 is only remunerated for success – i.e. delivering the product, service and not for the actual work done measured in hours. The worker bears the costs of the equipment he uses, of the insurance taken out on the effects of his work, of continuous education, of the effects of his illnesses.
The how, why, when and where of work has never been so open to individual interpretation as now.
The world is entering a phase where an increasing number of workers have to be independent, creating their own brand through social media and proving that they can generate added value for enterprises. Employers who want to outdo their competition will have to employ people who will help them build a competitive edge on the market. This means that the demand for creative workers is rising, for workers who can keep up with the changing trends on the market and, most important of all, think independently. Companies in fact want creative workers, workers 2.0.
Work 2.0 takes place in the digital world, where work isn’t based on the strength of muscles or machines, but on knowledge. Thus, the most significant wealth of a company is the intellectual capacity of its employees – their creativity and knowledge matter more than resources or capital. The observed changes mean shifting to a new paradigm in organizations and management.
The bygone era of mainly industrial production was material and analog. This applied to products, money, invoices, documentation and forms of communication between workers. Meanwhile, the new economy is digital. Products and services are increasingly digitized at the time of their creation, becoming available on a global scale. This is great news – it gives the economy the ability to produce more goods and services.
The internet has created a new world, both dangerous and attractive. The fetishization of technology, innovativeness, creativity and creation takes place online. $25 – this is how much, according to Ed Herr from Herr Food Inc., a pack of fries would cost us, if it were produced using methods from 60 years ago. In 1946, when the company was starting out, producing each pack involved ten times more workers than today (which in economics is known as the labor intensiveness of production).
The productivity of work increases with the adoption of new technologies. Of course this means that there are fewer jobs, but profits are higher. We might be on the verge of a fantastic new era… if we all manage to enter into its heydays.