Computer Algorithms Are Killing Jobs and Narrowing Our Personalities
The history of industrialization is the separation of workers from their labor, and it continues today in the digital marketplace where online companies seek to replace human labor with algorithms.
Douglas Rushkoff is the host of the Team Human podcast and a professor of digital economics at CUNY/Queens. He is also the author of a dozen bestselling books on media, technology, and culture, including, Present Shock, Program or Be Programmed, Media Virus, and Team Human, the last of which is his latest work.
Douglas Rushkoff: What people have to remember is that the object of industrialism wasn't to make more stuff better and faster, it was to disconnect labor from the value they created. So if I have a shoe factory, I don't want to hire expensive shoemakers and cobblers in my business, I want to go to the Home Depot parking lot, find a bunch of undocumented aliens and pay them two cents an hour. So I'm going to teach them something that's going to take me 15 minutes to teach them how to nail one nail into the shoe and then pass it onto the next guy. The person who understands how this all works is actually my enemy.
So you fast forward to today when we implement digital technologies we try to do them in ways that get rid of people. We don't want employees. If you need human beings, well then how are you going to scale up? It has to be able to be an algorithm. The easy way to think about it is most people's first interaction with a computer was probably a telephone answering system. And sure, I understand a company has a human receptionist that sitting there. She's got a salary. She's got benefits. She's got a health plan. Get rid of her; put in a computer so people who call your company are going to have to take a little bit more time to get through all those menus, you're going to save a lot of money and it makes you look kind of high tech.
But while you save money everybody who calls the company now spends more time going through those menus. You've actually created more work rather than less. You've externalized the cost of your human receptionist onto everybody else. So then what do they do? Well now they all have to get computer operators because they have to externalize the cost to everybody else. So we all end up now spending more time and energy going through those menus than we did when we hired somebody, but because we're so biased against hiring, because a company's stock price will go up, if it can show that it's hired less people we end up perpetuating that system.
So when we implement digital technologies, in order to get people out of the way, in order to get them out of the company we end up really killing the only expertise we have. If you're using algorithms and big data to figure out your next product line rather than designers, what's your competitive advantage? The other company is using that same data and probably hiring the same big data analytics company to figure out the future trend. So now you've been turned into a commodity. No, you've got to reverse in a digital age. What you want is the most qualified people you can find so that your business actually can differentiate itself from all of the other automated algorithmic nonsensical platforms out of there.
What consumers have to understand is that there's a value proposition with everything that they use. They have to be able, and currently they can't, they have to be able to ask themselves is this platform creating value for me or am I creating value for it? Or is there an exchange that I'm aware of and I'm okay with? Do I want to run my social life on Facebook? Is this an exchange that I like? Do I like defining myself in that way? Do I like these radio buttons? Do I want to present myself to the world through this platform and am I okay with everything they know about to me? I don't know. Am I okay with me getting my news and information through a newsfeed that's algorithmically optimized to make me click on things, to narrow and figure out who I am? Am I okay living on a platform that's using past data about me to advertise and market a future to me that I haven't yet decided to go live?
If they know there is a 70 or 80 percent chance that I might go on a diet in a month, what are they going to do? They start filling my newsfeed with hey you're looking kind of fat. Something is wrong with you. And they're going to try to steer me to be more consistent with my profile, to make me a more predictable and cooperative consumer. I guess that's okay as long as maybe it was a diet and so they're going to encourage me to go on it, but what about the other 20 percent of people? What about what I might have done instead? What about that unpredictability that would've made me different from the next guy and let me innovate something; let me have a new idea; let me have a more interesting personal anomalous weird life. Well, maybe I'm okay to surrender that. Maybe I want to be more like the rest of my statistical profile. But at least I should know this. At least I should know that my Google search results are different from yours. Why? Because Google wants me to do something. Google wants me to be a certain way. Google wants to help me be the real me. But how do they know what the real me is? What's the algorithm they're using and to what end?
Every time you navigate an automated telephone menu — a recorded voice helping you do what a receptionist could help you with in half the time — you are experiencing an early form of digital industrialization. Today, more sophisticated algorithms are replacing human employees, further separating workers from their labor.
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