Amazon’s union battle is an omen of future conflict

Amazon’s union battle is an omen of future conflict

Automation and monitoring is gospel at Amazon, not only in its massive retail logistics network but at head office too. An ongoing programme called Hands Off The Wheel has replaced white collar tasks such as making product orders. When it comes to its delivery network, it is installing cameras in vans that use artificial intelligence to check for drowsy drivers and other potential hazards.

Opposition to this is distinct from often-repeated fears that widespread automation and robotics will render humans obsolete and lead to mass unemployment. These concerns have existed for centuries, and have rarely been justified. Staff are typically assigned new roles where they accomplish things machines cannot.

But if anxieties that we will be replaced by robots have been overblown, Amazon shows us an alternative where we are managed by them.

The company is typically early to such practices; many others are following in its steps.

This is most evident in gig economy companies that outsource work to armies of non-employees using smartphone apps to complete tasks. Uber, for example, argues that its employment model allows drivers to be their own boss; drivers themselves say it feels as if the app’s algorithm is the one in charge.

Many independent artists and influencers who rely on social media for a living have found themselves worse off by a small tweak in a social network’s code that sends their audience plummeting. The more that data is collected and software improves, the likelier it is that the rest of us will have an element of algorithmic oversight in our own jobs.

In theory, being managed by software could be liberating and meritocratic: while bosses play favourites, we are all equal in the eye of the algorithm. In reality, it can mean being governed by incomprehensible decisions and processes.

There is, no doubt, more to Amazon’s union dispute than this. But the company’s embrace of automation had a part to play. It may be a glimpse at the future of work.

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