Technology, Standards and Democracy

Submission to Select Committee on the Impact of Technological Change on the Future of Work and Workers in New South Wales
by Dan Nahum and Jim Stanford

Workers in most industries and occupations worry about the effects of accelerating technological change on their employment security and prospects. New digital technologies are being applied to an increasingly diverse and complex array of tasks and jobs – including artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which can exercise judgment and decision-making powers. Some studies suggest that as many as half of all jobs may be highly vulnerable to automation and computerisation in coming decades. The NSW Legislative Council has established a Select Committee to examine the impact of technological and other change on the future of work in NSW. The Centre for Future Work has lodged a submission.

Concerns about technological unemployment are not new. Workers have long worried what will happen to their jobs when machines can do the work faster, cheaper, or better. But the historical record shows that technology has not produced mass unemployment or impoverishment – although dislocation and adjustment to technological change can be severe for some groups of workers, and some regions. The impacts of technology are always filtered through social and political processes; competing sectors of society naturally endeavour to protect and advance their own respective interests, as technology evolves. Will technology be used to enhance mass living standards and make work more efficient and pleasant? Or will it be used to enrich a small elite, while undermining the economic well-being and political rights of the majority? The answer depends on how technology is implemented, managed, and controlled, and whose interests prevail as the process unfolds.

Employers tend to implement particular kinds of technology, in specific ways, to enhance their power and profits: not just to boost output, but also to intensify work effort, monitor and discipline workers, and restructure the terms of employment. These negative trends are not inherent outcomes of technology itself. Rather, they are the result of power imbalances in employment relationships, in the context of an economy that is shaped and directed by the profit-maximising actions of private firms.

In our submission, we discuss several reasons why the impact of technology on both the quantity and quality of future employment is indeterminate, and highly dependent on the policy choices that are made as the process of labour market evolution unfolds.  While some workers will face heightened risk of job loss due to new technology, we nevertheless firmly reject the notion that work in general can somehow ‘disappear’ – even in sectors which seem ripe for the application of labour-saving or labour-replacing technologies. And we reject the implication that workers will somehow be ‘disposable’ in a brave new automated world. The reality is that productive human labour, broadly defined, is still the driving force behind all production and value-add. This is true even in an economy utilising automation and other technology-intensive methods of production. We must be aware of the risks and challenges posed to workers by accelerating technological change, but without resigning ourselves to a dystopic high-tech future in which workers have no power, no agency, and no security. Instead, our response to the challenges posed by technology can be grounded in a complete and balanced assessment of the threats and opportunities associated with new technology.

The submission is organised as follows:

  • ‘Technology and Work: What changes are at play?’ identifies changes – and continuities – in the world of work in which technology plays a role.
    • This includes a subsection, ‘Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace’ on the incidence of this type of surveillance by employers in – and beyond – the workplace, using results from the Centre for Future Work’s 2018 survey on the incidence and impacts of such surveillance.
  • ‘The Macroeconomic and Social Context for Technological Change’ considers the broader political-economic factors contributing to how we use and regard technology in the workplace. Many of the changes often ascribed to technology are better identified as social or political matters, mediated through or exacerbated by technology.
  • ‘Technology and the Quantity of Work’ discusses technology’s impacts on the quantity of work available. We note that the uptake of technology by employers is in fact surprisingly lower than what many analysts have predicted – further evidence that technology’s effects on the work of work are mediated by social and political factors.
  • ‘The Technology of Production and the Organisation of Work’ further teases apart the distinction between technology as a discrete set of tools, and the social organisation of work, such as precarious employment. There is an interaction and overlap between the two but consideration of the set of challenges under this Select Committee’s Terms of Reference is lent more rigour by identifying the distinctions, too.
  • We present recommendations seeking to support the goal of maximising the benefits of technology, while reducing and ameliorating its social costs.
  • The submission concludes by reiterating that it is not technology specifically, but rather our systems of laws, institutions and social expectations overall that will determine the future of work.

We are hopeful that this Select Committee can contribute to developing a strategic understanding of, and leading legal framework for, changes in the nature of work and the labour market. These issues have increased in importance in the context of the economic crisis, and the resulting weakness in the labour market, associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Full submission