Drones, Amazon & the future of labour relations

3 December 2013

A lot of fuss has been made over the announcement Amazon plan a drone-powered delivery service in the near future. Predictably, the proposals have been dismissed as little more than a publicity stunt, and they have a point – the logistical issues alone would make this little more than a novelty.

Also this week, Amazon have been in the news with a slew of articles and news reports on the working conditions of employees (particularly agency and temp workers, with it being Christmas and all) at one of Amazon’s distibution centres. The investigation is a good one, worth reading and highlights some of the problems (the lack of union representation being for me the biggest one). However, there is nothing uniquely evil about Amazon; they are not the first to exploit workers, and (although this doesn’t excuse their behaviour in any way) it’s certainly not comparable to the recent rise of slavery practices such as unpaid internships and Workfare.

Still, you see Tweets like this, and there is a point to them:

But I think the former story will end up being a more representative example of how labour relations are defined in the 21st Century than the latter.

Even if Amazon’s putative drones never make it, self-driving vehicles of some form will. Indeed, they already are a reality. Most people think they’ll revolutionise the car industry; I think they’ll undermine the delivery industry first. Fully automated, never fatiguing, possibly electric off cheap solar (if we ever get enough recharge points), and lightweight (what with no drive or passengers to harm in the event of a collision). Think of Adrian Hon’s deliverbots, and that might be what the future is like.

Self-driving takes a mundane but information-heavy task (you’ve got to pay attention to the road) and automates it. All the foundations are there to make this a reality – open-source embedded systems, cheap & fast networking, over-the-air connectivity and GPS; software able to handle voice recognition and visual recognition are no longer perpetually “a few years away” but are here now. This stuff is now so pervasive it will be quite difficult to uninvent.

This revolution in technology won’t just give us automated vehicles, moving goods in and out of warehouse, but inside, the staff will be replaced by robots themselves, picking products via automatic recognition and moving them about the place. It’s not just “blue collar” jobs – bots now write newspaper articles and trade stocks for us. Stephen Wolfram’s work teaching computers how to understand natural language could revolutionise how we program and the range of tasks computers could do in the future.

The 21st century threatens to automate mundane, service-oriented, information-heavy tasks in the same way the 20th century automated mundane, manufacturing-oriented labour-heavy tasks. That move from industrial to post-industrial wreaked havoc and left deep economic scars upon this country and others; the Left didn’t see it coming for too long, and when it did, much of it crossed to the other side, only for us to end up with even greater inequality and economic meltdown.

As we move from post-industrial to post-post-industrial (hey, it’s my blog, I’ll coin whatever neologisms I like), what will the Left do to avoid repeating the same mistakes? Millions of jobs will likely go, and millions of new jobs will likely replace them. Or maybe not – if everything gets automated it does raise the question: what anybody will actually do all day long? Should we even think about work as being normal, or such a defining part of our lives, any more? Maybe we’re close to Marx & Keynes’s vision of a leisured society empowered by automation than we think? Or maybe instead, having trained a generation to work in an information and service economy we’re about to wipe out any opportunities for them and let automation take over, leaving all but a tiny minority to fight over the scraps of Workfare and zero-hour contracts in a vastly unequal society?

The economic damage done to the move from an industrial Britain (particularly in the North) makes a mockery of neoclassical notions that labour markets are flexible and self-correcting; left to “market forces” the same structural damage will occur in the forthcoming upheaval. Can the Left get its head around the implications of information automation and a world where computers get as good at analogue as we do? The closest anyone has come to confronting the convergence of digital and analogue is the artistic movement known as the New Aesthetic, but the New Aesthetic maintains a deliberately detached facade (surveilling the surveillers, as it were) that avoids getting directly involved politics. Politics needs to provide more

To sum up, this is not a “Amazon workers, deal with it, you’ll be replaced with robots soon enough” post. What it is to remember, just as we look upon Amazon’s warehouse work using 20th Century labour relations as a framework, a revolution is happening that could redefine labour relations altogether for the 21st. The Left, if it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, should be learning about the technological changes to come, grappling with their implications and actively shaping how society manages them, making sure our future is spent exploiting these advances rather than be exploited by them.

An aside – I’ve dealt with one pillar of how information automation will have an impact, our relation with capitalism & work. There are probably two other pillars, one being our relation with the state – military drones, pervasive surveillance, etc. – and the other our relation with each other – how will a society full of Google Glass wearers behave with each other? – that are also deserving of equal attention from the Left, but that can wait for another blog post.

14 Responses

Max Parker

Very interesting, and it’s good to see an update to this blog, I’ve missed your commentary.

A related idea that one of my friends brought up is the concept that free market economics could be unsustainable. It seeks efficiency in labour, by reducing pay to the minimum necessary for survival (or lower), and by use of automation to eliminate people. Taken to the extreme, with automation increasingly introduced into white collar jobs, this will leave nobody able to afford any of the products of the free market apart from essentials.

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