As ro­bots take our jobs, we need some­thing else

It’s un­ten­able to let salaried work de­fine us. In the fu­ture, what we do for so­ci­ety un­paid should be at least as im­por­tant

Gulf News - - Opinion - Ge­orge Mon­biot is a Guardian colum­nist. By Ge­orge Mon­biot

Why bother de­sign­ing ro­bots when you can re­duce hu­man be­ings to ma­chines? Re­cently, Ama­zon ac­quired a patent for a wrist­band that can track the hand move­ments of work­ers. If this tech­nol­ogy is de­vel­oped, it could grant com­pa­nies al­most to­tal con­trol over their work­force.

Last month, the Guardian in­ter­viewed a young man called Aaron Call­away, who works nights in an Ama­zon ware­house. He has to place 250 items an hour into par­tic­u­lar carts. His work, he says, is so repet­i­tive, an­ti­so­cial and alien­at­ing that: “I feel like I’ve lost who I was. My main in­ter­ac­tion is with the ro­bots.” And this is be­fore the wrist­bands have been de­ployed.

I see the ter­ri­ble story of Don Lane, the DPD driver who col­lapsed and died from di­a­betes, as an­other in­stance of the same de­hu­man­i­sa­tion. Af­ter be­ing fined £150 (Dh765) by the com­pany for tak­ing a day off to see his doc­tor, this “self-em­ployed con­trac­tor” (who worked full-time for the com­pany and wore its uni­form) felt he could no longer keep his hos­pi­tal ap­point­ments. As the philoso­pher Byung-Chul Han ar­gues Dig­i­tal Tay­lorism, split­ting in­ter­est­ing jobs into tasks of mind-rob­bing monotony threat­ens to de­grade al­most ev­ery form of labour. Work­ers are re­duced to the crash-test dum­mies of the post-in­dus­trial age. The ro­bots have ar­rived, and you are one of them.

So where do we find iden­tity, mean­ing and pur­pose, a sense of au­ton­omy, pride and util­ity? The an­swer, for many peo­ple, is vol­un­teer­ing. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the NHS, and I’ve re­alised that there are two na­tional health sys­tems in the UK: The of­fi­cial one, per­form­ing daily mir­a­cles, and the vol­un­tary net­work that sup­ports it.

Ev­ery­where I look, there are no­tices posted by peo­ple help­ing at the hos­pi­tal, run­ning sup­port groups for other pa­tients, rais­ing money for re­search and equip­ment. With­out this sup­port, I sus­pect the of­fi­cial sys­tem would fall apart. And so would many of the pa­tients. Some fas­ci­nat­ing re­search pa­pers sug­gest that pos­i­tive in­ter­ac­tions with other peo­ple pro­mote phys­i­cal heal­ing, re­duce phys­i­cal pain, and min­imise anx­i­ety and stress for pa­tients about to have an op­er­a­tion. Sup­port groups save lives. So do those who raise money for treat­ment and re­search.

Wit­ney in the Pink

Last week I spoke to two re­mark­able vol­un­teers. Jeanne Chat­toe started fundrais­ing for Against Breast Can­cer af­ter her sis­ter was di­ag­nosed with the dis­ease. Un­til that point, she had lived a quiet life, bring­ing up her chil­dren and work­ing in her sis­ter’s lug­gage shop. She soon dis­cov­ered pow­ers she never knew she pos­sessed. Be­fore long, she started or­gan­is­ing an an­nual fash­ion show that over 13 years raised al­most £400,000. Then, ly­ing awake one night, she had a great idea: Why not dec­o­rate her home town pink once a year, re­cruit­ing the whole com­mu­nity to the cause? Wit­ney in the Pink has now been run­ning for 17 years, and all the shops par­tic­i­pate: Even the butch­ers dye their uni­forms pink. The event raises at least £6,000 a year.

“It’s changed my whole life,” Jeanne told me. “I eat, live and breathe against breast can­cer ... I don’t know what I would have done with­out fundrais­ing. Prob­a­bly noth­ing. It’s given me a pur­pose.” She ac­quired so much ex­per­tise or­gan­is­ing these events that in 2009 Against Breast Can­cer ap­pointed her chair of its trustees, a po­si­tion she still holds to­day.

Af­ter his trans­plant, Kieran Sandwell do­nated his old heart to the Bri­tish Heart Foun­da­tion. Then he be­gan think­ing about how he could sup­port its work. He told me he had “been on the work tread­mill where I’ve not en­joyed my job for years, won­der­ing what I’m do­ing”. He set off to walk the en­tire coast­line of the UK to raise money and aware­ness. He now has 2,800 miles be­hind him and 2,000 ahead. “I’ve dis­cov­ered that you can ac­tu­ally put your mind to any­thing ... what­ever I come across in my life, I can prob­a­bly cope with it. Noth­ing fazes me now.”

Like Jeanne, he has un­locked un­ex­pected pow­ers. “I didn’t know I had in me the abil­ity just to be able to talk to any­one.” His trek has also ig­nited a love of na­ture. “I seem to have cre­ated this fluffy bub­ble: What hap­pens to me ev­ery day is won­der­ful ... I want to try to show peo­ple that there’s a bet­ter life out there.” For Jeanne and Kieran, vol­un­teer­ing has given them what work once promised: Mean­ing, pur­pose, place, com­mu­nity. This, surely, is where hope lies.

So here’s my ou­tra­geous pro­posal: Re­place ca­reers ad­vice with vol­un­teer­ing ad­vice. I’ve ar­gued be­fore that much of the ca­reers ad­vice of­fered by schools and uni­ver­si­ties is worse than use­less, shov­ing stu­dents head-first into the ma­chine, re­in­forc­ing the se­duc­tive power of life-de­stroy­ing cor­po­ra­tions. In fair­ness to the ad­vis­ers, their job is be­com­ing al­most im­pos­si­ble any­way: The en­tire in­fra­struc­ture of em­ploy­ment seems de­signed to elim­i­nate ful­fill­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing work.

We should keep fight­ing for bet­ter jobs and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions. But the bat­tle against work­place tech­nol­ogy is an un­equal one. The real eco­nomic strug­gle now is for the re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth gen­er­ated by labour and ma­chines, through uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come, the re­vival of the com­mons and other such poli­cies. Un­til we achieve this, most peo­ple will have to take what­ever work is on of­fer. But we can­not let it own us.

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