Work Futures Weekly | Hostile to the Unfamiliar

| Anaïs Nin | Industrial Robots | Robots as Bosses | AB 5 Reversal | Remedy for Turnover | Labor Law Is Broken | Buzzwords | A New Way of Work |

Photo by Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash

Beacon NY 2020–03–01 | I took a two-day trip to Montreal which kind of blew a hole in things, but that’s a great town.

The Quote of the Week

It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.

| Anaïs Nin


Robots aren’t taking our jobs — they’re becoming our bosses | Josh Dzieza outlines how AI is becoming first-line management for hourly workers:

On conference stages and at campaign rallies, tech executives and politicians warn of a looming automation crisis — one where workers are gradually, then all at once, replaced by intelligent machines. But their warnings mask the fact that an automation crisis has already arrived. The robots are here, they’re working in management, and they’re grinding workers into the ground.

The robots are watching over hotel housekeepers, telling them which room to clean and tracking how quickly they do it. They’re managing software developers, monitoring their clicks and scrolls and docking their pay if they work too slowly. They’re listening to call center workers, telling them what to say, how to say it, and keeping them constantly, maximally busy. While we’ve been watching the horizon for the self-driving trucks, perpetually five years away, the robots arrived in the form of the supervisor, the foreman, the middle manager.

These automated systems can detect inefficiencies that a human manager never would — a moment’s downtime between calls, a habit of lingering at the coffee machine after finishing a task, a new route that, if all goes perfectly, could get a few more packages delivered in a day. But for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves of respite and autonomy, and as these little breaks and minor freedoms get optimized out, their jobs are becoming more intense, stressful, and dangerous. Over the last several months, I’ve spoken with more than 20 workers in six countries. For many of them, their greatest fear isn’t that robots might come for their jobs: it’s that robots have already become their boss.

In few sectors are the perils of automated management more apparent than at Amazon. Almost every aspect of management at the company’s warehouses is directed by software, from when people work to how fast they work to when they get fired for falling behind. Every worker has a “rate,” a certain number of items they have to process per hour, and if they fail to meet it, they can be automatically fired.

The platforms underlying these first-line manager bots scale up non-linearly, so they are the CFO’s dream come true. But for the workers running as fast as they can on the automated treadmill, it’s a faceless stress prison where everything is geared to running the machine faster, faster, faster. And the machine parts that give out are the human beings putting consumer goods in plastic bins.

The final solution will be when they can deploy robots to make the beds and pack the Amazon boxes, which is just around the corner. But in the meantime, the humans are wearing out under the strain.

People can’t sustain this level of intense work without breaking down. Last year, ProPublica, BuzzFeed, and others published investigations about Amazon delivery drivers careening into vehicles and pedestrians as they attempted to complete their demanding routes, which are algorithmically generated and monitored via an app on drivers’ phones. In November, Reveal analyzed documents from 23 Amazon warehouses and found that almost 10 percent of full-time workers sustained serious injuries in 2018, more than twice the national average for similar work. Multiple Amazon workers have told me that repetitive stress injuries are epidemic but rarely reported. (An Amazon spokesperson said the company takes worker safety seriously, has medical staff on-site, and encourages workers to report all injuries.) Backaches, knee pain, and other symptoms of constant strain are common enough for Amazon to install painkiller vending machines in its warehouses.

A very good piece that ranges into call centers and knowledge-worker monitoring. I’ll leave you with one thoughtful line:

Every industrial revolution is as much a story of how we organize work as it is of technological invention.

Go read it.


Apropos of that, in Crazy idea but hear us out… With robots taking people’s jobs, can we rethink this whole working to survive thing?, Thomas Claburn reports on new research in France that shows companies adopting industrial robots leads to less work for people:

The adoption of industrial robots in France makes manufacturing businesses more productive and profitable but at the expense of jobs, according to a recent paper presented by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, non-profit, non-partisan research organization in America.

In a paper titled “Competing with Robots: Firm-Level Evidence from France,” economics professors Daron Acemoglu (MIT), Claire LeLarge (University of Paris Saclay), and Pascual Restrepo (Boston University) analyzed 55,390 French manufacturing firms to study the economic impact of robot adoption.

Within that data set, 598 French companies deployed industrial robots between 2010 and 2015. The researchers found, as they expected, that firms adopting robots shed jobs as they became more profitable and productive. They also created jobs internally, but those gains were more than offset nationally by job losses among competitors who were unable to keep up with the early adopters.

“Overall, even though firms adopting robots expand their employment, the market-level implications of robot adoption are negative,” the paper says.

In 2017, Acemoglu and Restrepo conducted a similar analysis in the US and found in that instance robots were depressing wages.

This latest research argues against the notion that automation technology will create more jobs than it will destroy.

Depressing wages in one study and the number of hours of work in another. Please connect the dots.

AB 5 Author Proposes Legislation Easing Impact on Freelance Journalists | Hollywood Reporter | Katie Kilkenny reports on major revisions to the AB 5 law’s impacts on freelance writers, photographers, and editors:

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is responding to freelance journalists’ repeated criticisms of her gig economy law with new legislation.

The author of AB 5, legislation that aims to crack down on companies that misclassify part-time workers as independent contractors, revealed on Thursday that she is working to nix the prior law’s 35-”submission” cap for freelance writers, editors and photographers in a bill working its way through the California legislature this year, AB 1850. Her latest amendments to AB 1850 make clear that a contractor does not and cannot replace an employee role.

The new amendment to AB 1850 also requires that a freelancer’s contract states rate of pay, the time by which the contractor will receive payment and what kind of intellectual property rights the contractor has to the work. Freelance writers have often complained that publications pay them for their work late; typically, a freelance writer does not have rights to their stories published at a major outlet.

The new AB 1850 amendments also require that companies hiring these contractors must allow them to work for more than one business, and that the majority of the work the contractor performs cannot take place at the hiring company’s office. Gonzalez’s office adds that journalists and hiring entities must satisfy the following AB 5 requirements to keep their independent contractor status: that the contractor works through a “sole proprietorship” or other business; that the contractor has a separate location from a hiring entity’s office in which to do their work; that the contractor has a business license for work performed after July 1, 2020; that the contractor is able to set or negotiate their own rates; and that the contractor is able to set their own hours outside of “reasonable” business hours and project completion dates.

If passed, the legislation will go into effect January 1, 2021.

We have to wait a year for this necessary recast of AB 5 to go into effect? I bet that if the bill passes businesses will operate on the obvious assumption that no one will be prosecuted if they immediately start operating on the 2021 model.


The remedy for high turnover | Augusto Giacoman and Deniz Caglar make the case that in service industries, where employees frequently quit, upskilling frontline managers and redesigning the hiring and onboarding processes can help ease the pain.


Why Are Workers Struggling? Because Labor Law Is Broken | Emily Bazelon provides a great recap of centuries of labor battles and law.


The Fault Lies Not In Our Buzzwords | But in ourselves, that we are buzzlings | Stowe Boyd

A Manifesto For A New Way Of Work | We need a revolution in our thinking about business, and how we organize ourselves to accomplish work, as individuals, networks, and businesses | Stowe Boyd (2015)


Somehow, working or making phone calls in a tiny phonebooth does not strike me as inducing happiness.