The present moment in the history of humankind corresponds to a time of complex changes and mixed feelings, characterised by confidence in our progress, as well as anxiety for what the future holds. As we watch history unfold in front of our eyes, it is important to slow down and analyse the series of important changes in the world of employment, as consequence of new technologies. It is during these times that a reflection about a new face of work environment in the age of automation is necessary.

Manufacturing #16, Bird Mobile, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, 2005 by Edward Burtynsky

Manufacturing #16, Bird Mobile, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, 2005 by Edward Burtynsky

It wouldn’t be incorrect to state that the creation of a technological underclass has become a reality. The introduction of machines to replace employees has been responsible for the disappearance of all sorts of jobs worldwide, from low-skilled to white-collar positions. As signalled in a 2013 study at Oxford University by economist Carl Frey and machine learning expert Michael Osborne, one third of the UK jobs are threatened by the next wave of automation. If this phenomenon represents a problem in developed countries, we can only begin to grasp what it would mean in a region such as the Global South, where social dumping is a common practice and inequality is the norm.

Education has been regarded as the best way to prevent unemployment in the age of new technology. Nevertheless, the “education vs. technology” hypothesis is insufficient to explain the effects of automation in the new world of labour. Moreover, the increasing availability of quality education has created a qualified workforce which encounters meagre job opportunities.

Robots assemble a Tesla Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP.

Robots assemble a Tesla Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP.

Large pieces of plate glass are unloaded by robotic arms in a factory in UK. Photo source: Getty Images.

Large pieces of plate glass are unloaded by robotic arms in a factory in UK. Photo source: Getty Images.

The rising inequality levels in the Global South provoke less participation and innovation in the local economy, which has direct effects on productivity and growth. If people in any given country are too busy with just surviving within an unfair system that pushes lower on the social ladder, how can they make time to invest in development? The problem lies partly in a lack of fair distribution of wealth, and less affluent people are always the victims of a global economy feeding on the suffering of others. Policy makers have a long road ahead in coming up with alternatives to mitigate the impact of automation. Governments should focus on protecting the rights of workers, ensuring that sufficient investment is directed to socially useful activities, such as adapting to change. Universal Basic Income is already being considered as a possible solution in Glasgow and Fife in Scotland.

Manufacturing #7, Textile Mill, Xiaoxing, Zhejiang Province, 2004 by Edward Burtynsky.

Manufacturing #7, Textile Mill, Xiaoxing, Zhejiang Province, 2004 by Edward Burtynsky.

Humanity is at a crossroads. Do we believe enough in mankind to overcome the fear of being replaced by machines? Will we work towards developing a societal project aimed to improve the lives of every single human being on the planet? It is safe to say that we still believe in our capacity to generate, to create, and most importantly, in the inherent qualities that make us human, and therefore irreplaceable. Inequality in the age of automation will remain the only man-made aspect of our reality, as long as we fail to prepare for a time of even bigger changes. The key might be in truly attempting to understand, and be convinced by Oscar Wilde’s words, as he wrote: “the true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.”

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Words: Astrid Scheuermann

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu

Cover image: Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005 by Edward Burtynsky.