The Law and Political Economy of the “Future of Work”

Brishen Rogers

How will new advanced information technologies impact work? This is a major focus of public debate right now, driven by widespread fears that automation will soon leave tens of millions unemployed. But debate so far has tended to neglect the relationship among technological innovation, political economy, and the law of work. This is a major omission, since the automation of particular tasks doesn’t just happen. Rather, it takes place under laws that are subject to democratic oversight and revision – and with different laws, we could encourage a radically different path of technological development, one in which workers have a real voice, and in which they share consistently in technology-driven productivity gains.

Take two upcoming transformations that we’re all familiar with: the automation of some kinds of driving and some kinds of fast-food work. Within a few years, truckers, delivery drivers, and taxi drivers may be able to use an autonomous mode consistently on highways. Later on, they may be able to do so on major suburban and rural streets. But given the wide variation in road quality, humans will likely need to pilot vehicles in residential areas and on city streets for some time to come. And given the wide variation in building structures that delivery robots would need to navigate, humans will almost certainly need to complete deliveries in many instances.

Similarly, in fast food, ordering kiosks are already displacing cashiers, but not in their entirety. Some customers are unable to use the kiosks, including the 70% of McDonalds customers who use the drive-through. Sometimes the kiosks will break down, and sometimes orders won’t be processed appropriately, and thus workers will need to step in. Food preparation may also be automated in part, but given the fine motor control and tacit knowledge required for cooking, it has proven resistant to full automation. Like the transformation in driving, then, this change will likely be gradual and iterative. Technology will augment human capabilities rather than replacing humans wholesale, and workers, companies, and consumers will need to adapt over time.

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