Who benefits from technological change?
Urvashi Aneja imagines four alternative futures for work in the global south.
Artwork: Catalina Velásquez
Artwork: Catalina Velásquez
From 3D printed smart homes to music composed by Artificial Intelligence, emerging technologies are undoubtedly going to disrupt the future world of work. Will the robots take our jobs? Or will we have more time for leisure? Who will be the winners and losers? And how can we be prepared? Too often, conversations about the new digital economy are characterised by ‘technological determinism’ – a sense that technology will autonomously and necessarily deliver progressive social change. However, technology trajectories are rarely neutral – they tend to reflect and serve specific interests. Left to market forces alone, they are likely to exacerbate existing inequities in the world of work.
Technology trajectories can and should be steered by societal choices and public policies. Speculating or building scenarios for a range of plausible and preferable futures allows us to identify the choices we need to make today to secure a better tomorrow. Let’s imagine four different scenarios – hypothetical, yet not implausible – for what the future of work might look like for countries and people in the global south.
Will the robots take our jobs?
Will we have more time for leisure?
Who will be the winners and losers?
1. Technocracy Rules
Large-scale adoption of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence results in the loss of jobs across numerous industries – from janitors and factory workers to flight attendants and animation artists. Some people are able to adapt by re-skilling, but for most, particularly those towards the middle or end of their careers, the pace of change is too fast. Women are particularly susceptible to technological unemployment – many occupy entry-level positions, which are the most vulnerable to intelligent automation. Tremendous financial gains accrue to large technology companies and a highly educated elite; inequality is at its highest. The growing mismatch between the availability of work and those looking for jobs leads to the widespread use of AI based systems for hiring and performance review, and workplace surveillance becomes commonplace. Many workers turn to digital platforms to look for gig-work, but fierce competition drives down wages, and poor regulation leaves workers vulnerable to harsh customer-rating systems. Most young people are engaged in invisible and menial tasks such as image recognition and data categorisation for AI startups in industrialised economies. The availability of cheap digital labour has meant that the pace of innovation and invention is faster than ever before; as a result, a cure for most major lifestyle diseases has been found and space exploration has become easily accessible to the elite.
2. Equity First
The threat of large-scale technological unemployment leads governments to restrict foreign investment by large technology companies and levy high taxes on domestic businesses employing robotics and AI. Growth and innovation suffers, but anxiety about large-scale job displacement is alleviated. State investments in rural infrastructure, including basic digital infrastructure and quality education and healthcare, increase significantly. This not only reduces the stress on already saturated urban areas, but also creates new employment opportunities in these sectors. Perhaps the biggest game changer is the focus on women – care work is finally recognised and remunerated and this allows women to have financial independence as well as seek new education and employment opportunities. Widespread internet connectivity enables hyper-local sharing economies to grow in urban and rural areas, and profits are shared equitably across workers. A four-day work week is introduced to distribute available jobs more evenly and enable greater time for leisure. Growing pressure from consumer groups also pushes business to commit to meet sustainability targets. Many startups and entrepreneurs emigrate to foreign countries, and concerns about brain-drain are on the rise.
Artwork: Catalina Velásquez
Artwork: Catalina Velásquez
3. AI for All
Governments and citizens have collectively articulated national innovation policies that are linked to societal goals, and the development and deployment of advanced technologies is made to align with these goals. Professions considered dangerous, demeaning and dirty are the first to be automated – manual scavenging and mining are the first to go. Much new innovation is directed toward augmenting existing initiatives for education, healthcare, and environmental management; the growth in these sectors creates multiple new employment opportunities for youth entering the workforce. Businesses are mandated to adopt circular economy principles i.e. to design out waste by creating products optimised for reuse. To compensate for jobs that have been lost to automation, a four-day work week is introduced, alongside limits on the hours worked per worker. Large-scale manufacturing shrinks, but dispersed manufacturing, made possible by 3D printing, has revived many rural and artisan economies. The platform economy continues to grow, and is regulated to facilitate new forms of employee ownership and social protection. Heavy taxation of data-driven technology companies is used to deliver minimum welfare benefits to citizens, creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and experimentation. To compensate, and fuel further social innovation, privacy requirements are relaxed and citizen data is traded on a data marketplace.
An acute water crisis cripples the global economy. Traditional manufacturing businesses come to a stand-still, unable to access steady power supply; many jobs are lost, but numerous new ones are created as persistent power shortages result in machines for basic automation being replaced by cheap manual labour. Business in the new digital economy also suffers, as data centres around the world start over-heating; manufacturing of electronic components and digital devices slows down drastically, as many natural resource pools have been steadily depleted. The digital economy is further crippled by attacks on cyber-infrastructure – government and financial databases are the first targets, affecting the already vulnerable parts of the population the most. For most, gig-work becomes a necessity but poor regulation of platforms puts workers at further risk, particularly with a collapse in government funding for social security schemes and quality education and healthcare. Informal and illegal employment is rampant, and women retreat further into various forms of unpaid care work. With the threat of large-scale social upheaval looming, governments readily adopt mass surveillance technologies. Internal policing and cyber-security budgets increase substantially, and the defence and security industries become the largest employers. Employment numbers are high, rule of law is efficiently maintained, and the constant monitoring of citizen behaviour has enabled more efficient rationing of limited natural resources.
'What is the future we want and how do we get there?'
These four scenarios present hypothetical and exaggerated futures for countries in the global south. The future of work we want is probably some patchwork of these scenarios. None are perfect and all involve trade-offs, yet some choices are certainly more desirable than others. A ‘business as usual’ approach may lead us closest to a ‘technocracy rules’ scenario, characterised by both high growth and high inequality, in which the needs of labour become secondary to the needs of capital. Many jobs will be lost, and the new opportunities created will be available to only a small elite. The pace of innovation and invention rapidly accelerates but only the highly educated and elite are able to leverage new opportunities; the expected trickle-down effects are slow and uneven. For most others, gig-work, contractual work and informal work are likely to become the norm, characterised by increasingly precarious employment conditions.
Alternatively, the growth of a surveillance state, attacks on critical cyber-security infrastructure, breakdown of social cohesion and natural resource scarcity could all be triggers for steering toward a ‘fracture’ scenario; one in which poverty and social instability are at their highest, and employment opportunities are plentiful but restricted to furthering the national security objectives of the state. The ‘equity first’ scenario suggests that decent work is possible even without technological innovation, though at significant cost to entrepreneurship and invention. The ‘AI for all’ scenario paints a picture of high growth, productivity, social cohesion and leisure, but one in which individual needs risk being subsumed under broader national goals.
What is the future we want and how do we get there? How do we ensure an equitable distribution of technology gains in the future world of work? What kind of choices are available to us and what are the coping strategies we need to adopt? Innovation trajectories must be made to align with broader societal needs. Automating dirty, demeaning or dangerous jobs, such as manual scavenging or coal mining for example, might be more socially appropriate than replacing human resource managers with automated systems or introducing driver-less cars, particularly in economies with an abundance of labour. With gig-work likely to increase, regulation must play a role in steering digital platforms – the Ubers and Amazon Mechanical Turks of the world – toward safeguarding worker rights and enabling access to social protection mechanisms. New social safety needs will need to be introduced through public policy – from the redistribution of income and working hours to investments in quality and affordable education and healthcare. The future world of work is unlikely to be the same across social contexts and social groups – some economies and peoples will be better poised to leverage new opportunities, while others risk being further left behind. For many people in the global south, it is the present of work that is an urgent concern. Millions still lack access to basic services – from electricity to education – and finding meaningful work remains aspirational for most. Techno-imaginations of the future must not distract from securing the present.
About Urvashi Aneja
Urvashi Aneja is Founding Director of Tandem Research, an inter-disciplinary research collective based in Goa that generates policy insights at the interface of technology, society, and sustainability. She is also Associate Fellow at Chatham House. The above piece is based on Tandem Research’s recent report, Work 2030: Scenarios for India.
Artwork by Catalina Velásquez
This piece is part of Life Rewired Reads, a selection of essays commissioned in response to Life Rewired, our season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything. barbican.org.uk/liferewired