Exploring the Future of Work

During the Fall 2021 semester, I had the pleasure of teaching an honors course with Prof. Daniel Sui (Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at Virginia Tech) that focused on the future of work. The course was designed to expose students to the wide variety of research that is undertaken at Virginia Tech on this topic (see the list below). The news article below provides some insight into the course and what the students thought of the experience. We are planning to offer a version of the course again during the Fall 2022 semester.

The list below provides an overview of the subjects covered by our guest speakers during the semester:

Humans, Machines, and Employment

A question raised in Norbert Wiener’s 1954 article entitled Men, Machines, and the World About – but not discussed during the last New Media Seminar – is how the symbiotic relationship between humans and machines may impact our working lives (or employment and equality more generally). With possible links to Marx’s notion of relative surplus value, Wiener discusses a new industrial revolution “that consists primarily of replacing human judgment and discrimination at low levels by the discrimination of the machine.” Another way to think about this idea is the transfer of knowledge from the worker to the machine, possibly rendering the worker jobless. A familiar example is the automated phone system. These systems have captured the basic knowledge of the operator and have externalized the cost (in time) of managing calls onto customers, whether they like it or not.

While there is much that could be said about the displacement of jobs by technology (or innovation), my interest here lies with the use of technology to enhance worker productiveness – not to be confused with labor productivity. Labor productivity is calculated by dividing an output by a factor of input (labor or capital), i.e., it is the amount of output per unit of input. In contrast, labor productiveness is a measure of the quality of being productive or the capacity for producing. Thus, labor productivity could be increased by a more productive worker (e.g., the worker’s skill has been improved), the use of more efficient technology/processes, or some combination of the two.

Martin Magnusson's DIY Wearable Computer
Martin Magnusson’s DIY Wearable Computer (image from: http://www.wired.com)

Wiener’s notion of cybernetics, like J. C. R. Licklider’s concept of human-computer symbiosis, points to a new frontier where worker productiveness could be greatly enhanced by the intelligent use of technology. Imagine a worker (white/blue/green collar) whose queries/questions are answered via a Google Glass type of technology that uses data processed and analyzed through a next generation version of Wolfram Alpha. While such a Star Trek-like device sounds intriguing, there are two questions that trouble me. Who will benefit (financially) from this human-machine symbiosis (if it can be called that) and is labor productiveness truly enhanced?

If the worker invests in the technology and is able to enhance his/her productiveness (i.e., knowledge and skills), he/she may be able to demand higher wages for the higher-skilled work being performed. However, there are myriad assumptions behind this statement. The most significant is perhaps the assumption that the technology is actually enhancing the productiveness of the worker, rather than enabling a worker to perform at a higher level due to the data/processes/etc. embodied in the technology – i.e., the knowledge and skills of the worker are largely unchanged. In fact, at an extreme, the worker’s skills/ability could decline has he/she becomes more reliant on the technology to do more of the thinking. Further, if the augmentation technology were owned by the employer, the worker would likely be paid less over time as the technology/capital begins to do more of the actual work. Just as automated phone systems displaced operators, higher-skilled workers could be displaced by lower-skilled workers using skill-augmentation technology to the benefit of the capitalist. Finally, if an augmentation technology were capable of operating in the ‘formulative’ (i.e., idea creation) domain of innovation, whoever owns that technology will be at the leading edge of the market and wealth.

To me, these questions are fascinating, extremely important, and warrant far greater consideration than I am able to provide here.

New Papers in The European Financial Review

Nicholas Ashford, Robert Ashford, and I recently published two articles in the European Financial Review that extend some of the ideas we have discussed previously in our textbook and related papers.

Addressing the Crisis in Employment and Consumer Demand: Reconciliation with Environmental and Financial SustainabilityThe earning capacity of ordinary people can be enhanced by some combination of two contributions; wages earned through employment, and money earned through the ownership of productive capital. The latter includes ordinary investment from wage savings that people might make through the purchasing of stocks, bonds, and property; changes in ownership structures of businesses, employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), and enabling people to acquire capital with the earnings of capital based on binary economics. This article focuses on employment and the restructuring of work to enhance the contributions and productiveness of labor – as opposed to increasing labor productivity by enhancing the productiveness of physical capital.

Broadening Capital Acquisition with the Earnings of Capital as a Means of Sustainable Growth and Environmental SustainabilityThis article expands on the first by taking an explicit look at increasing earning capacity through the ownership of productive capital. The article focuses on the binary economic approach and explains how this approach can enhance not only the capital earning capacity of poor and middle-class people, but also the demand for employment and the prospects for achieving environmental sustainability. The binary economic approach envisions an implementation of an ownership-broadening system of corporate finance that would require no taxes, redistribution, or government command. Corporations would be free to continue to meet their capital requirements as before, but they would have an additional, potentially more profitable, market means to do so.

During the Spring 2013 semester, Robert Ashford will join other scholars at Virginia Tech to take part in a seminar that will debate how a binary economics approach could lead to sustained and sustainable economic development.

Ashford Talks About Our New Book

Nicholas Ashford recently created five short videos in which he explores many of the core issues we raise in our textbook Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State (Yale University Press 2011).

The best order to view these five video clips are 4, 5, 1, 2, and 3.