Robots have already taken over our work, but they’re made of flesh and bone

Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger in The Guardian:

1772Most of the headlines about technology in the workplace relate to robots rendering people unemployed. But what if this threat is distracting us from another of the distorting effects of automation? To what extent are we being turned into workers that resemble robots?

Take taxi drivers. The prevailing wisdom is they will be replaced by Uber drivers, who in turn will ultimately be replaced by self-driving cars. Those lauding Transport for London’s refusal to renew Uber’s licence might like to consider how, long before that company “disrupted” the industry, turn-by-turn GPS route management and dispatch control systems were de-skilling taxi drivers: instead of building up navigational knowledge, they increasingly rely on satnavs.

Fears about humans becoming like machines go back longer than you might think. The sort of algorithmic management we see in the modern gig economy – in which drivers and riders for digital platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo are dispatched and managed not by human beings, but by sophisticated computer systems – has its roots in a management theory developed by Frederick Taylor in the early 20th century. As a young man, Taylor worked as a shop foreman for a steel-making corporation in Philadelphia, where he diagnosed inefficiencies he saw as being products of poorly structured incentives, unmotivated and sometimes shirking workers, and a huge knowledge gap that rendered management ineffective. Managers, he proclaimed, knew too little about the workforce, their tasks, capabilities and motivations.

More here.