Review: The Automation debate

Phil Jones . Work without the Worker. Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism (Verso 2021)

This readable and informative book explores the  abusive nature of crowd-working platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and its emulators.  Here under the banner of ‘technological progress’,  extreme forms of exploitation have developed and a  new generation of  ‘micro-workers’ has emerged.  Forced to fulfil the needs of big tech,  labelling data and annotating images, in many cases contracted only for the length of a given task, most lack any sense of participating in a collective labour process, knowing little about the exact nature of the product they are contributing to. On pitiful earnings, (an average of under $2 a day) some cannot guarantee they’ll even be paid.

As the title implies, many of an estimated 20 million, who toil away in South America, East Asia and the Indian Sub continent are no longer ‘workers’ in the traditional sense. Yet as the gig economy continues to expand in countries like the UK, increased numbers of those highly educated but underemployed,  are using ‘click-work’ (according to the Financial Times approaching 12% of the working population) to supplement incomes.

 A significant section of the book devotes itself to the ‘automation debate’.  Rather than  robots  ‘stealing our jobs’,  Jones follows Aaron Benanav  (1) in concluding that  the growing ‘reserve army’ of labour  is the consequence of the collapse of manufacturing profits and growing ‘deindustrialisation’  from the 1970s which ’not only spelled the end of a model of growth but failed to produce a new one’ (p22). Forcing those surplus to requirement  to take any work they can get to make ends meet.

Also following  Benanav, Jones takes a swipe at  the  left-wing ‘post-capitalist visionaries’ (2)  ‘who argue that the technological conditions for a better world are already here’ (p105). Rather than relying on  a ‘wish list’ of technologies  ‘the clearest horizon of a new world can be found in the struggles of the dispossessed’ (p105).  Very different in  orientation from those represented by organised labour, these range from blockades  to organising through ‘wageless’ support networks .

It ‘s certainly true that replacement of workers by machines  does not take place in the way that  the technocrats of Silicon Valley assume (3)   Instead, automation might happen in bursts, or not at all, as firms grapple with investment decisions, seeking to restore profits, or close down completely.  And it would seem obvious that introducing labour saving technology will be significantly slowed, if there are plenty of cheap workers ( and particularly the ultra cheap workers Jones describes). In the UK, as elsewhere, significant parts of the manufacturing sector comprise highly labour intensive sectors like food processing and clothing, but turn up at an automobile plant on the otherhand and the effects of robotisation cannot be denied.

Yet most would agree that the extension of automation and AI should play a positive role  as  part of a  radical programme of political change and decarbonisation. But while commentators like Srnicek and Williams (4) and more recently Aaron Bastani  (5) argue for Fully Automated Luxury Communism,  Jones is more cautious. ‘Bullshit’ and dangerous work should be eradicated, but there would still be jobs machines cannot do as well as humans, but also work needed to ‘forge the social ecological bonds that sustain human happiness’ (p107). He foresees a society where ‘necessary’ work can be shared around and where people trained in a highly skilled profession would still be required but that this would not be their only role or activity. Platform work organised around different principles could also  provide more ‘flexibility and  motivation’ compared with the current system.

  1.   Automation and the Future of Work  (2020)
  2. See Paul Mason’s Post Capitalism (2015)
  3. See for example, Martin Ford’s  Rise of the Robots (2015)
  4. Srnicek and Williams Inventing the Future ( 2015)
  5.  Bastani  (2020)

2 thoughts on “Review: The Automation debate

  1. A good book on AI that Jane Lethbridge recommended is Helga Nowotny’s overview ‘In AI We Trust, Power, Illusion and Control of Predictive Algorithms’ (Polity just published).

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