Call it Work: Change is coming, but who benefits?

Coworking, clickworking, crowdworking – the mere fact that these words have entered our everyday vocabulary shows how much digitalisation has already changed the world of work. But what do these changes really mean for the world of work: perhaps we will have more flexibility, but does this really leave us better off? And will everyone get to enjoy these “benefits” or only a select few? These are just a few of the questions that the Call it Work track at re:publica TEN addressed.

On Day 2 of the re:publica, Andrea Nahles, the German Minister for Work, participated in a “town hall” meeting on the subject of Work 4.0, a German government initiative encouraging dialogue around the subject of the future of work. As Minister Nahles noted at the Town Hall, everyone is talking about the technologies that are transforming our workplaces, but far fewer are talking about what this actually means for the work itself. For example, will this era of digitalisation bring about the possibility for more customisable working hours for all types of workers, not just the so-called “digital natives”? Other topics raised by participants included the laws surrounding co-working spaces, how to encourage more firms to hire people with disabilities, and how the government ought to respond to the potential of machine learning and ever-powerful algorithms to transform – and possibly eliminate – millions of jobs.

The so-called sharing economy is becoming more and more powerful each year, bolstered by the popularity of upstart companies like Uber and AirBnB. But as these companies grow, their respect for democratic values tends to shrink. In his keynote entitled “How Platform Cooperativism Can Unleash the Network”, Trebor Scholz, Associate Professor of Culture and Media at The New School in New York, noted that the term “sharing economy” has become a misnomer – the sharers themselves are being shared, and the benefits they reap are being quietly sheared away – rather than shared fairly – by the corporate owners of these companies. Scholz's main alternative to buying into this system is that of platform cooperativism. Why is it a given that we have to use these Silicon Valley-driven platforms to make use of sharing services? Instead, Scholz says, we can embrace the technology and concept behind them and then rip out their corporate heart, replacing it with organised cooperatives to power the service. Homemade platforms can be a key to unlocking community value and community wealth.

On Day 1 and Day 3, re:publica partner Microsoft Deutschland hosted three sessions on the changes that are certain to ensue from the “shift changes” that technology is triggering in the world of work. In “#Schichtwechsel: Hilfe, die Roboter kommen – Bedrohung, Invasion oder Chance?” (“#Shiftchange: Help, the robots are coming – Threat, invasion, or opportunity?”), Juliane Leopold led a discussion with Sabine Bendiek (Microsoft Deutschland) and Stefan Heumann (Stiftung Neue Verantwortung). Robots and machine learning may change many aspects of work drastically, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the case that these changes leave us worse off or eliminate jobs. Bendiek noted that such innovations can completely revolutionize the field of medicine and allow for improvements in diagnoses and treatments. However at the end of the day, it's still a human who makes the final decisions as to what to do with this information. Still, it is important to be realistic. Some sectors will indeed see a loss of positions as a result of increased automation in the workplace. Banking, for example, is likely to be strongly affected, Heumann noted. What is key to responding to this is making sure that companies and governments are already aware and thinking about this possibility.

With Big Data in the workplace, employers can collect and analyse information about their employees at a scale previously unfathomed, raising concerns about how employees' behaviour will change in response to it, as well as ethical considerations of how this data can and should be used. The Hans-Böckler-Stiftung-presented session on “Big Data und Arbeitnehmer: Zwischen Selftracking & Corporate Panopticon” (“Big Data and Employees: Between self-tracking & corporate Panopticon”) featured a discussion between Andrea Kocsis from ver.di and Andreas Dewes from QuantifiedCode, moderated by Johannes Kleske. Kocsis raised concerns that increased tracking technology in the workplace can lead the creation of “human robots” whose only job is to complete the tasks assigned to them in the precise manner explained to them, without any need for human innovation. For Dewes, the reliance of algorithms to reach conclusions based on collected data can be problematic from a transparency perspective: Algorithms themselves are not by default neutral and can indeed be biased. Moreover, it can be hard to know why an algorithm reached the conclusion it did. This presents challenges to employers who may need to justify the decisions made based on an algorithm. Ultimately, as workplaces and work practices change and become more technology-reliant, the human factor remains nevertheless a critical part of the world of work that can't be ignored. Their rights will need to be protected, ideally through a comprehensive scheme to ensure data privacy for employees.

Thanks to the internet, there are more opportunities than ever for workers to find short-term, flexible job opportunities. But this flexibility comes at a price, as discussed by panelists Steven Hill, Christiane Benner, Sarah T. Robert and moderator Max Hoppenstedt in the session “Crowdworking Behind the Screen – Clickworking & Labor Rights.” Due to the advent of clickworking, we find companies with amazing employment disparities, such as the freelancing platform Upwork: their approximately 250 full-time employees – who presumably are afforded standard labour protections and rights – oversee some 10 million freelancers who use the platform to find work and who do not receive such protections. The system is set up so that shareholders in companies like Uber, Amazon's Mechanical Turk or Upwork get to reap all of the rewards while assuming none of the risks. These are instead borne by the freelancers and temporary workers who take on this uncertain work. Possible means through which this situation can be improved are by stronger advocacy from unions on behalf of clickworkers, as well as projects (such as Turkopticon) to make it easier for these at-risk workers to share information among themselves on which employers do not pay fairly or should otherwise be avoided.

This is just an overview of some of the highlights of this track. To see what else the track has to offer and to see more videos and hear more audio clips from re:publica TEN, see the Call it Work page here.

Photo Credit: re:publica/Gregor Fischer (CC BY 2.0)