Studying the history of technology brings to the forefront common myths during the industrial revolutions: a) the hypothesis of the quantitative replacement of human labor with that of machines, b) the hypothesis of the qualitative degradation of labor due to the introduction of new technologies, c) the hypothesis on the post-industrial society. The said hypotheses were not confirmed by empirical data.
Research and survey-research show that labor is not being statically replaced by machines but that there is a dynamic and expanded reproduction of the need for skilled labor. Historical and economic data confirm that there is no inherent contradiction between technological change, full employment and well-paid jobs. On the contrary, the hegemony of the long-standing hypothesis about the replacement of labor by machines constitutes a lever of pressure against workers resulting in an increase in inequalities. Current inequalities arise from an unequal distribution of productivity gains between companies and workers.
The mythology of Silicon Valley argues that the particularly high profitability of the digital oligopoly companies is simply a consequence of technological innovation, such as the gradual replacement of human labor by machines and algorithms. But the reality looks completely different. Even behind the most advanced artificial intelligence technologies, there is intensive human labor. Consequently, the particularly high profitability of the Big Tech is due to, on the one hand, their oligopolistic position offering them a privileged exploitation of particularly profitable markets, and on the other hand, to production cost minimization due to new methods of labor exploitation. Overall, the speakers’ speeches brought to the forefront three types of inequalities that characterize work during the 4th industrial revolution:
1. Inequalities between companies of the digital oligopoly and workers during the 4th industrial revolution
2. Inequalities between workers resulting into
a) pronounced income inequalities and
b) limitations in the ability to communicate and collectively organize for the protection of workers and the demand for better employment conditions
3. Inequalities between states, given that industrial revolutions cause the rearrangement of worldwide division of labor resulting into the establishment of production centers and peripheries, as well as important inequalities regarding the terms and conditions of employment thereat.
During the discussion and questions from the audience, various directions of complementary nature were examined in regard to tackling the said inequalities and challenges. The European Union has an active role to play in supporting employees through legislative and other initiatives. The most important ones are the following:
The establishment of a strong legislative framework that will promote the protection of workers against abusive practices and will ensure a fair distribution of wealth through well-paid jobs.
The limitation of the Big Tech oligopolistic power with the aim to abolish the abusive enclosure and privatization of data and information limiting the capacities of value production and the levels of economic democracy in the digital market. In this context, it was proposed to establish a regulatory framework and policies in favor of value creation initiatives (including cooperative companies) through practices of Commons Based Peer Production (CBPP).
Tackling of inequalities between the center and the periphery in the field of new technologies by elaborating industrial policies at the Union level that will address intra-Community inequalities and the consequences thereof on the standard of living of the population and on the technological sovereignty of the less developed EU economies.
On November 3rd, 2021, the Institute for Alternative Policies ENA organized the online event “Work during the 4 th Industrial Revolution: Conditions for a Sustainable and Fair Transformation”.
The event responded to the great interest shown in the said subject during the international hybrid event on the 4th Industrial Revolution held last July, in Athens, in the framework of the FORCE project (Fourth Industrial Revolution: Challenges & Opportunities for Europe) implemented by ΕΝΑ.
The event examined key-issues that will determine the future of labor in the post-pandemic era:
The following renowned academics and specialists answered to the said questions:
The following experts also delivered speeches during the event:
The discussion was coordinated by Yannis Eustathopoulos, Coordinator of the FORCE Project and the Observatory of Sustainable Development of ENA.
Firstly, Mr Tympas placed the subject of the event in a historical context reminding the audience that the computer -the information machine- would allegedly give birth to the “post-industrial society” and the end of industrial revolutions through an ‘information revolution’. In other words, the post-industrial society would be a “society of information” that would put an end to industrial labor.
Therefore, in order for the 4 th industrial revolution to be “industrial”, it must involve some industry and some machines. The 4 th industrial revolution machines are related to artificial intelligence. In particular, artificial intelligence consists of a specific category of software-programs called “algorithms”. These algorithms are very different to those based on logic and mathematics. Their particular characteristic is that they are formed by the availability of big data.
According to Mr Tympas, usually it is not clarified whether artificial intelligence constituting the 4th industrial revolution refers to a machine or to the generalized networking of machines. In any case, the 4 th industrial revolution is defined by some artificial intelligence machine, therefore defining also the relation and the future of labor during the 4 th industrial revolution. Mr Tympas continued presenting various widespread myths (“hypotheses”), both in the past and nowadays, regarding the impact of technological developments on the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of labor:
According to Mr Tympas, this ideological hegemony was a prerequisite since the 1st industrial revolution onwards for the continuous industrial revolution, i.e. the extended reproduction of the capitalist mode of production as the latter is based on the extended reproduction of machines (of fixed capital).More specifically, the ideology of digital technology AI is based on a selective demonstration (of numbers) and concealment (of humans).It is based on the black boxing of the interior parts of the machine related to analog labor (variable capital) and to the relevant presentation of only one exterior part pointing out the digital (fixed) capital. But these two parts are indivisible in use.
Based on the above, Mr Tympas concluded that the starting point for a sustainable and fair transformation of labor in the context of the 4th industrial revolution is the detachment from the ideology that supposes that an intelligent-digital machine replaces skilled-analog labor. This ideology, that is not confirmed neither from a historic nor a sociological point of view, makes possible the extraction of value, the levels of which have made today’s society not sustainable. Therefore, a prerequisite for social justice and social sustainability is the emancipation of workers from this hypothesis by utilizing surveys-studies showing that no static replacement of labor by machines is taking place (e.g. artificial intelligence that are based on algorithms using big data) but a dynamic and expanded reproduction of the need for skilled labor. The introduction of computers resulted in the loss of professions that demand skill, but also in the creation of new ones, where a greater number of workers are employed.
In conclusion, Mr Tympas highlighted that all the above dictate further and targeted research to be conducted, and quoted an excerpt from the recent report by the three-member team coordinating the MIT Task Force ‘The Work of the Future’. Mr Tympas noted the fact that the MIT president chose David Mindell as a member of the team, who is Professor of History of Technology and author of the book «Our Robots, Ourselves»: “Yet, if our research did not confirm the dystopian vision of robots ushering workers off of factory floors or artificial intelligence rendering superfluous human expertise and judgment, it did uncover something equally pernicious: Amidst a technological ecosystem delivering rising productivity, and an economy generating plenty of jobs (at least until the COVID-19 crisis), we found a labor market in which the fruits are so unequally distributed, so skewed towards the top, that the majority of workers have tasted only a tiny morsel of a vast harvest. Four decades ago, for most U.S. workers, the trajectory of productivity growth diverged from the trajectory of wage growth. This decoupling had baleful economic and social consequences: low-paid, insecure jobs held by non-college workers; low participation rates in the labor force; weak upward mobility across generations; and festering earnings and employment disparities among races that have not substantially improved in decades. While new technologies have contributed to these poor results, these outcomes were not an inevitable consequence of technological change, nor of globalization, nor of market forces. Similar pressures from digitalization and globalization affected most industrialized countries, and yet their labor markets fared better. History and economics show no intrinsic conflict among technological change, full employment, and rising earnings.»
According to Mr Smyrnaios, the intensification of the use of the Internet is taking place in the context of a globalized and deregulated economy that favors economic concentration and pushes digital companies to an even more intensive exploitation of users and workers aimed at maximizing their profitability. Therefore, in recent years, the Internet has become a field of fierce competition between colossal multi-national companies for the control of digital tools and profits generated from them.
Firstly, Mr Smyrnaios examined the conditions that allowed the emergence of an Internet oligopoly as well as the strategies implemented by the latter. Then, he analyzed changes in the field of labor in a digital environment using the theoretical example of Digital Labor. Internet oligopoly as an emblem of digital capitalism in 10 years, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (GAFAM) became bigger than companies-symbols of industrial and financial capitalism, such as oil companies and banks. GAFAM is therefore the iconic oligopoly of modern digital capitalism. The mythology of Silicon Valley argues that the particularly high profitability of GAFAM is simply a consequence of technological innovation, such as the gradual replacement of human labor by machines and algorithms. But the reality looks completely different. Even behind the most advanced -allegedly- Artificial Intelligence technologies, there is intensive human labor, and therefore, exploitation. Consequently, the particularly high profitability of the GAFAM and others is due to, on the one hand, their oligopolistic position offering them a privileged exploitation of especially profitable markets, and on the other hand, to the production cost minimization due to new methods of labor exploitation.
The Internet giants have benefited indeed from the deregulation of markets and the subsequent financialization of the economy in the last decades. Utilizing the technological convergence, the lack of effective regulation and the availability of huge financial resources, and given that a great part of their activity consists of the production of other goods, the oligopolistic Internet stakeholders managed to limit and control competition through practices such as setting up new technological obstacles to the entry of competitors, the illicit use of intellectual property, the non-interoperability of products and services, the abuse of dominant position, cartels, etc. The main strategy of the aforementioned companies is to cover a full spectrum of services, software and digital structures required in order to link demand and supply of goods and services. In other words, the digital oligopoly’s target is to gradually replace all other market mechanisms with information mediation offered by its platforms. At the same time, the Internet oligopoly takes full advantage of the sharp decrease in transaction costs in the digital economy in order to maximize its profitability. The increasing digitization and internetization of the economy strengthened transactions via market mechanisms during the production process to the detriment of hierarchical and bureaucratic cooperation within the company. Information mediation between the demand and supply of labor has become the central mechanism that allowed the logic of subcontracting to spread throughout all levels of the production process. Production was divided in multiple stages executed by different units (companies as well as individual workers, even by consumers or users) without any geographical or other limitations, that are coordinated by one center via digital tools and networks, which however does not directly own these units. The tendency to divide the production process via subcontracting and outsourcing projects has become characteristic of the economy as a whole, and even of the traditional industry. However, the Internet oligopoly implements this strategy to the greatest extent.
The ability of the Internet oligopoly to accumulate huge profit at a relatively minimal labor cost is due to its ability to exploit in the most effective way the new forms of labor developed in digital markets. The said new forms of labor are now being studied by social sciences as a whole with common characteristics under the general name of Digital Labor. The concept of Digital Labor originates from a watershed publication by Tiziana Terranova, titled “Free Labor”. She was the first to define unpaid activities, such as the creation of webpages, the modification of software, the participation in email lists and forum, as a form of free labor. But the advent of companies such as Uber and services such as MTurk by Amazon linked the concept of Digital Labor to more traditional services, e.g. transport. The form and structure of labor in these sectors are quickly transforming in the context of digital economy to the extent that the terminology relating to them is not yet crystallized (online gig work, crowd work, crowdsourcing, on-demand work, etc). As Mr Smyrnaios pointed out, the exclusive focus of Digital Labor on the economic exploitation of Internet users’ activity as “free labor” gradually gave its place to the analysis of digital labor as a continuum of unpaid or/and badly paid precarious productive activities performed by social groups with different characteristics (simple users, employees of subcontracting companies, freelance workers paid per piece) whose main common point is that they are at the service, indirectly or directly, of online platforms. Empirical research shows that digital labor is quickly increasing and spreading into various professional sectors. We could classify various types of digital labor into four categories to which correspond equivalent platforms:
1. First, creative and technological work that requires high skills and can be executed
online from anywhere in the world, such as graphics or programming (the most famous platform connecting supply and demand for this type of labor is Upwork).
2. Second, repetitive click tasks that can be performed regardless of the location and do not require special skills (Clickworker, Mturk).
3. Third, manual services performed in the client’s facilities, such as cleaning or looking after vulnerable groups (Taskrabbit).
4. Fourth, transport or delivery services, e.g. of food (Uber and Deliveroo).
Many digital workers are dealing with great uncertainty in terms of when they will have work, what will such work involve and when they will be paid. The inability to predict working hours makes it difficult to plan everyday life and has a negative impact on personal and family life. Digital work is also characterized by tight time frames to decide whether to assume a job or not, and workers may lose a job if they hesitate even for a few minutes before they click to accept it. In many cases, this uncertainty increases due to the fact that payment depends on whether the work will be deemed acceptable or not by the client. Evaluations by employers or clients also determine whether the worker will continue to work for a platform or to be able to charge a reasonable rate. Control algorithms that combine in an automated way different criteria, such as evaluation and reputation scores, play a crucial role in all platform types. Algorithms combine these evaluations with every worker’s history (number of completed tasks, hours of work and total revenue) in order to classify workers and assign more work to those who have the highest ranking. This means that workers who have the best overall reputation are more likely to receive even more tasks. At the same time, they don’t have the right to challenge the said decisions and there is no procedure for the independent evaluation of work quality. On some occasions, a negative evaluation by the client may become a form of blackmail or fraud in order to skip payment. Due to the crucial role of evaluations, digital workers often turn to intermediaries (i.e. other digital workers) who already have high scores. These intermediates take up projects and then they assign them to third parties, keeping a percentage of the payment for themselves. Overall, competition is growing, mainly between clickworkers with low specialized skills, due to the oversupply of labor from the countries of the South. Digital workers in the South have lower demands compared to those in the North, which as a result reduces pay rates, as is the case of MTurk where Indian workers compete with American workers. Digital workers are also affected by the emotional and mental requirements of their work. For example, workers who filter content posted on social media have to deal every day with images and discourse expressing the cruel side of human nature including murders, tortures, bestiality and child pornography. The consequences of constant exposure to such content can only be dramatic for digital workers’ health. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that digital workers are deprived of direct communication channels with the end-client as well as of collective representation, thus, they are not able to influence the decision making process that determines their working conditions. Even when work is executed in teams, the geographical distance from the employer and the other members of the team reduces the ability for direct interaction and collective action. Isolation, lack of social support and the need to be independent increase psychological stress. Furthermore, mental and social stress can also be caused by the digital workers’ obligation to combine various small tasks for different employers and clients who are not responsible for the working conditions. Although digital workers are in a state of constant surveillance as regards productivity (performance indicators, payment based on results, evaluation by clients, etc.), no one examines their mental and physical health. This may lead to serious risks not only for the digital worker but also for the clients and the public.
The ambiguous status of digital labor
Digital workers’ labor status is also a pivotal but ambiguous issue. The type of the employment relationship is crucial in order to determine the financial cost and benefits of this type of labor organization and the worker’s rights. For companies using this form of labor, the ability to externalize costs related to direct employment is the main incentive.
According to Mr Smyrnaios, obligations (and corresponding costs) avoided by the companies when using digital labor include overtime, protection of minimum wages, insurance, unemployment allowance, maternity leave, compensation for injury, paid sick leave, etc. To the above one could also add expenses related to the provision of workspace, equipment, material, transport, training, etc. The majority of the employers of digital workers tend to avoid a legal employment relationship and prefer the status of “independent contractor” facilitated by a variety of mediation models, including the use of companies acting as quasi-employers.
Closing his speech, Mr Smyrnaios referred to dealing with the aforementioned challenges and problems on the part of workers. Despite the unequal balance of power, workers and unions are gradually starting to react. Dozens of cases are pending in courts regarding digital workers who demand to be recognized as employees of exclusive employment of the companies for which they produce work in an effort to ensure various rights and guarantees. Europe’s biggest unions, such as IG Metal in Germany and CGT in France, are starting to take an interest in this problem. There is an increasing number of empirical research presenting unarguable evidence regarding these new forms of exploitation, as well as an increasing number of relevant demands towards governments. At the same time, a movement known as Platform Cooperativism claims a more fair future for digital labor, promoting platform cooperatives based on democratic governance and solidarity. Yet, this movement is still in its early stages and cannot be compared to the power of digital capitalism. Time will tell whether such alternatives may thrive or if the Internet is doomed to be the 21st century factory.
In her speech, Dr Dora Kotsaka, following Mr Smyrnaios’ last remark on Platform Cooperativism, focused on the continuously expanding possibilities in wider economic sectors acquired by the commons during the 4 th Industrial revolution and the changes that the latter brings to the production model (economy of knowledge-intensity and digitalization).
First, Ms Kotsaka referred to the fact that the commons’ applied attempts in the economic field remain indeed fragmented (with the exception of digital commons) and function almost exclusively on a small scale. In order to achieve an escalation, the appropriate institutional and legal framework is required, and this cannot happen unless we take seriously into account the role of the EU and member states as regulators. Today, transformations of exceptional importance are taking place not only on the production level but also on the model of value production. This historical process is known as ‘value shift’ and, at this stage, it is characterized
by an increased ability to create value through practices of Commons Based Peer Production (CBPP) and various applications of cooperative economy. It is described as a transition from ‘extractive’ models and practices that generate wealth for someone to the detriment of another, towards models of reproduction of value and practices that generate wealth for communities and ensure sustainability of resources. This is a development with serious implications for the current economic system and the accompanying model of creation of value.
Ms Kotsaka underlined that knowledge commons are a recurrent topic in the public discussion and that it is gradually revealed that they can contribute into giving answers regarding technology, artificial intelligence (AI), data management, biotechnology and climate change, i.e. regarding fields that are at the core of the 4 th Industrial Revolution. New forms of ownership, new types of lending, new forms of legal contracts and licenses are emerging. A new innovative economical sub-culture has been created; however, we are still at a stage where we are trying to describe it using terms such as ‘commons’ and ‘peer to peer production’ (P2P). For the ‘official’ economic science, all the above are difficult to include in the category of ‘economic activity’.
According to Ms Kotsaka, this is a crucial point. These socio-economic practices exist because they manage to give answers to specific social problems in crucial times. They are functional because the logic governing them is compatible with the structures and values created during the 4th Industrial Revolution, such as openness, sustainability, networks, resource sharing (goods or services). It is also particularly interesting that in the political culture created by the commons, emphasis is shifted from the fight for ownership -a cornerstone of capitalism and legal culture on which it is based- to management. Commons movements place
the emphasis on the right to use and the access to a good or service and not on the ownership of them.
Ms Kotsaka continued saying that, in the context of the conditions created by the pandemic and the pressure on healthcare systems, it was made clear that the current model of research and development, pricing and distribution of medicine, vaccines and health supplies was unable to respond to the needs that had arisen. The business model applied to the provision of health services has undermined its ability to deal with emergencies. At the same time, the pandemic crisis gave birth to numerous initiatives of solidarity and mobilized all movements of makers and peer to peer production, which were activated to such a degree that they were largely promoted for the first time by the media. On a global scale, there was great activity in connection with commons practices, such as open research and science, the use of open source software and hardware, data sharing, etc. The crisis caused by Covid-19 made visible the remarkable initiatives of helping each other as well as the ability of these movements to offer solutions where the state and the market fail to do so. Moreover, the lack of protocols for the cooperation between the state and the commons (such as Public-Commons Partnerships) when they were urgently needed was also made clear. Ms Kotsaka stressed that peer to peer production is compatible with the type of economy under development in the context of the 4 th Industrial Revolution: it maximizes the benefits of networks between peers and modularity and it strengthens openness and circulation to the highest extent. At the stage of economic development that we are today, abusive enclosures and privatizations of all possible resources constitute an obsessive and harmful practice, in particular as regards the abilities to produce value. This means that their role is also harmful to the operation of markets. However, openness, peer to peer production and commons are not able to protect themselves against corporate greed, monopolies and extreme deregulation. Grassroots innovation is firmly connected to new institutions and new rights. In human history, communities had to defend over and over again their right to land, natural resources, handicrafts, language, culture, etc. Nowadays, it is imperative to find an equivalent to science and information, a new principle against new enclosures. Due to the lack of the appropriate legal framework and the necessary institutional supervision, the more open and accessible data and information are, the more they function to the benefit of the big stakeholders in the market. At this point, the crucial importance of regulation is made clear.
Analyzing further the issue of regulation, Ms Kotsaka stressed the importance of the state as a regulator in regard to the productive transformation towards the economy of the commons. The backbone of the plan for the transition to Commons Based Peer Production is the Partner State Model and the establishment of the relevant legal and institutional framework that will allow the latter to function. In order to implement policies oriented towards the commons, there are specific tools that may be utilized by the Partner State that have resulted from emerging projects in various parts in the world, such as: licenses protecting the commons, i.e. GPL and Creative Commons licenses, cooperative banks, P2P Accounting, Public Commons Partnerships (PCP) instead of Public-Private Partnerships. This kind of policies can reduce the damage caused to intellectual property by monopolies and the overextensive use of patents. Applied policies on the commons and peer to peer production may be used as a tool by the EU and member states in order to control digital monopolies.
Closing her speech, Ms Kotsaka underlined that a wide approach and a political strategy is necessary as regards the State Partner model that will be accompanied by the appropriate legal forms of common ownership and supervision. The above constitute new emancipatory tools that the EU may have in its toolbox. It is a model of a targeted, active entrepreneurial state ableto assume risks and to create highly networked systems of actors, harnessing the best of the private sector for the national good over a medium-‐ to long-‐term horizon.
Mr Delis, member of the Social Analysis Unit of ENA, examined the way in which the 4th industrial revolution affects the Greek labor market. Mr Delis noted that, during the previous industrial revolutions, the transformation of the production process caused the reshuffle of global division of labor. As a result, production centers and peripheries are established in the new digital economy. Greece seems to be at the periphery of the new digital production system, as shown by various indicators:
As regards the EU Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), Greece is consistently at the bottom of the ranking (next to last in 2020). In particular, as regards the Digital Intensity Index (DII) for businesses with over ten employees, Greece is ranked third from the bottom, with 66% of businesses being very little digitalized (Bulgaria and Romania are the last). As regards the impact of the 4th industrial revolution on labor, Mr Delis focused on three different dimensions.
The first dimension is about the organization of labor with its main features being remote working, which due to coronavirus restrictions “was imposed” on a great part of the society in the last two years. While this is a tendency that, on a worldwide scale, seems to work to the benefit of employers due to the reduction of expenses for offices, equipment, etc. and the opportunity to take advantage of inequalities in wages between different countries (globalized labor), this dynamic is not verified in Greece. Indicatively, a study of the Hellenic Federation of enterprises reveals the following findings:
The audience who attended the online event submitted their questions via the ENA YouTube channel or via mail, and the questions were posed during the wide and open discussion that followed. Some of the questions asked are the following: