Are Robots our Future Workers?

By Kristin Sander.


Forty-three smartphones are installed in a tripod, arranged in five rows. Every phone shows the hands of an actress performing different types of work with invisible tools. The pictures are showing a wide variety of movements. From household tasks, like filling the dishwasher or making coffee with a coffee machine, to working tasks such as registering goods with a barcode reader, clicking on a computer keyboard or sewing with thread and needle. In short: tasks everyone knows from his or her everyday life. This video installation called “The Invisible Handjob of the New Economy” by Ayatgali Tuleubek is part of the Annual Autumn Exhibition 2018 at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo.


“The Invisible Handjob of the New Economy” by Ayatgali Tuleubek. Photo: https://www.hostutstillingen.no/2018/ayatgali-tuleubek/

The smartphones are placed in a large stand, a visual design inspired by the setting and the aesthetics of the so-called click-farms. These enterprises are mostly based in third-world countries and hire people who generate likes and comments on social media, click on advertising links or perform rudimentary work. The operators are working under unfavourable conditions and are paid poorly. To earn one US Dollar, they have to generate 1,000 likes or need to follow 1,000 pages or persons on Twitter. They are sitting in front of one of these tripods shown at the exhibition and are operating hundred smartphones at the same time (Arthur, 2013). But nowadays, more and more workers have been replaced by machines. It creates a refusing relation between a human and the machine and is intermingling the roles of the two. The machines perform the work of a human, so that on the other side of the network, the computer thinks it is a human.


In the past, machines had a ghostlike existence and were not self-moving or even autonomous. In the late twentieth-century, the machines increasingly seemed more alive (Haraway, 1985, p.11) and “made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines“ (Haraway, 1985, p.11). In our current times, machines and robots are replacing and threatening human jobs. Due to automation, today significantly less people work in industrial sectors than in 1997 (Rockstroh, 2013, p.2). Industrial robots replaced trivial work since they are less expensive and more flexible in the long term. But not only easy tasks are replaced, even jobs one thought to require humans are supplanted by a digital version of human intelligence (Rockstroh, 2013, p.2).


The movements shown on the smartphones are mostly trivial jobs. Not only people living in third world countries are doing such jobs, people all over the world are working in places such as a supermarket or as a cleaning lady. They are earning money to support themselves and their families. As it has already happened in the clicking farm industry, this work will disappear and machines, algorithms and robots will automatically overtake these tasks. In a wide range of supermarkets, the checkout has already been replaced by a self-checkout. Instead of five cashiers, there is only one person checking if everything is fine.


Many workers are becoming redundant. The new technologies are changing the job opportunities and certainly not in a positive way in all areas. Since the 1980s, computers have overtaken middle-class paid jobs like clerical work and bookkeeping. Because of this replacement, higher-paying jobs required creativity. At the same time, lower-paid jobs like working in a restaurant have become more popular as these low-skills jobs are nearly impossible to replace. What happened was a polarization between the highest- and lowest-paid jobs and a diminishment of the middle-class (Rockstroh, 2013, p.2) Some people view this development without any concern. Technologies has always deleted certain jobs, but on the other hand it has also provided new jobs in different areas (Rumberger, 1984, p.7) Most of the jobs are high-skills jobs in the computer-related industries (Rumberger, 1984, p.11)


The title of the video installation is a pun. “The invisible hand” was quoted by Adam Smith in 1776. It is a metaphorical expression to subscribe the unconscious support of the common good. In a free market society, the selfish acting of the purchaser and the sellers seems like an invisible hand. However, the power of the economy is based on a variety of hands (Narveson, 2013, p. 201). All the forty-three movies included in “The Invisible Handjob of the New Economy” show jobs workers are doing with their hands. But in the new economy, robots are overtaking these tasks. Consequently the balance of power changes. There will be a new invisible power controlled by the robots and machines. A handjob can be seen as a metaphor for being unproductive. You meet your own needs without doing anything for it. The same thing happens with the robots. Machines are overtaking the jobs and humans will be superfluous. It seems to be a disturbing future that questions our transience.


References

Arthur, Charles (2013). How low-paid workers at click farms create appearance of online popularity. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/aug/02/click-farms-appearance-online-popularity


Haraway, Donna (2006). A cyborg manifesto. Science, technology, and socialistfeminism in the late twentieth century. In S. Stryker, & S. Whittle (Eds.), The transgender studies reader, 103-118.


Narveson, Jan. (2003). The" Invisible Hand". Journal of Business Ethics.


Rotman, David (2013). How technology is destroying jobs. Technology Review, 16(4), 28-35.


Rumberger, Russell. (1984). High Technology and Job Loss.

OSLO FORM LAB 2018