The impact of automation on work is a much-covered topic in the UK media and it’s becoming increasingly referenced on the political stage too.
For every article that says automation will steal our jobs there’s another that focuses on the positives of machine learning and artificial intelligence in creating new opportunities.
In September, the BBC wrote about a newly-published report from the World Economic Forum that set out how robots will displace 75m jobs globally by 2022, but create 133 million news ones. Critically, it also highlighted that computing will free up workers for new tasks.
Removing mundane, tedious tasks from work is one of the most-touted benefits of the automation era. If we get shot of admin and repetitive work then just think what we could achieve with all that extra time.
And yet it seems all that extra time might be sucked up by the impact of automation on our personal lives.
The burden of shadow work on the consumer
Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column recently highlighted ‘shadow work’ — a concept first used in relation to economics by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich in the early 1980s to refer to unpaid labour.
Burkeman points to self-checkout machines as an example of how automation is driving an increase in shadow work in our personal lives, moving tasks from workers to consumers themselves.
We can draw comparisons too to researching and booking our own holidays without going through a travel agent or printing off our own boarding cards at an airport. Lots of little tasks that put the onus on us as consumers doing more of the work.
A consumer world without human contact
I’ve always generally welcomed the self-service nature of shadow work, which on the face of it gives me a feeling of convenience and control as a consumer. I can research, shop and purchase in my time, on my terms.
But then a comment in Burkeman’s article made me reconsider: “I will resist to my dying breath the notion that there’s anything normal about a world in which buying groceries from a multinational corporation entails a procedure that involves no human contact.”
Can I imagine being a consumer in a world where no human contact is ever required? Just about. Automation-driven technologies like virtual chat assistants and chatbots are far from sophisticated today, yet advancements will continue at a pace.
Perhaps the key question is: do I want to be a consumer in a world with no human contact? No, I don’t think I do. Because human consciousness — our awareness, thoughts, ability to experience and feel — is something that I believe thrives when we are part of a community and that human-to-human interaction is fundamentally important.