The Digital Revolution and the Future of Work

A version of this post appeared on CMSWire.


Vice President Joe Biden recently wrote an article for the Boston Globe in which he highlighted statements he’d made at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He emphasized five guideposts for protecting the middle class during the digital revolution:

  1. Education
  2. Protecting worker’s rights
  3. Modernizing Infrastructure
  4. Supporting progressive tax code
  5. Expanding access to capital

Redundant Work or Redundant People?

Technologists like myself often find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to justify the progress of the digital revolution with hard costs, aka reductions in head count, aka reductions in employees, aka the posing of the question: “Who can we fire?”

Not every technology decision is made based on eliminating jobs. And anyone who’s been in this industry very long knows that the big systems that were supposed to save the company millions of dollars by replacing lots of expensive human beings often need even more expensive human beings to babysit them. (Expensive systems, just like certain highly paid employees, can tend to be divas.) Even so, the value of automation technology is that it can replace manual processes. In many instances those manual processes were once performed by real people.

A PWC study, “The Future of Work: A Journey to 2022,” found that across an international group of 10,000 respondents, 66 percent believed technology would improve their chances of getting and accomplishing their job. Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, is less optimistic.

Cited in “A World Without Work” from the Atlantic’s July-August 2015 issue, McAfee believes that we are entering a point of acceleration where automation and digitization will begin to displace human labor at an exponentially increasing rate. The Atlantic article goes on to report: “In 2013, Oxford University researchers forecast that machines might be able to perform half of all US jobs in the next two decades.” The article’s conclusion? In areas where technology had massively disrupted jobs, the displaced workers remain chronically underemployed.

Yet many of the benefits of the digital revolution come from removing the most redundant, wasteful, and just plain annoying elements of work and commerce. The majority of adults in America spend most of their time working. If technologists can remove the idiotic elements of work, that will go a long way toward improving the quality of life of a large proportion of the employed population.

A Different Approach to Work

The big concern is that automation often replaces some of the most vulnerable members of the population: the undereducated, low income, or those who’ve reached the end of their working prime but not yet of retirement age. And if machines doing more and more of the work is the long-term trend, then the low waterline will continue to rise and less of us will be needed to get the job done.

We have no examples in the current American landscape for what an alternative to work might look like. How can we provide meaningful work that meets the needs of human dignity and supports the structures of community and family upon which we depend?

In a new economy, new needs will almost certainly arise, but we will need to exercise more than the virtues of innovation and optimization. We will need to develop compassion and empathy: compassion to direct our efforts toward the broader needs of the world, and empathy to help us see the value and worth in people who might otherwise appear to be simply needy.

Work can and should be about more than profit. We all need to make money. But we cannot and should not squeeze all of the potential profit out of a company at the expense of the human beings who comprise that company—nor the ones for whom it exists.

As technologists we should remember this and model it in our companies. Make good products that serve our clients and give our shareholders value.

And we should also remember why we were attracted to technology in the first place. It was invigorating. It gave us life and turned on our critical thinking and analytical capabilities. We were attracted to the difficulty of the problems, but we stayed because we loved what we could contribute.

One of the great opportunities presented by the digital revolution is that in the transforming of the economy we can imagine how to invite more people into work in which they can find joy and opportunities to contribute.

Rich Medina
Lane Severson
I’m a Practice Leader, managing relationships with Doculabs’ West Coast clients to improve information management and security.