Shadow Work

Shadow Work

Move over, job loss — there’s a new potentially worrying consequence of industrial automation in town!

Plenty of people worry that robots will take over all or jobs, and some may still be worrying about a robot uprising, but a new book by Craig Lambert suggests that there are human consequences to the rise of automation that have little to do with jobs or the potential serving of robot overlords.

It’s “the weakening of communities as robotics reduce daily human interaction.” Lambert defines things like self-checkout in grocery stores, with the help of machinery, as unpaid work done by humans on behalf of corporations. When we pump our own gas, check in at a self-service kiosk in an airport, we’re doing things that workers used to be paid for. We put in the time and save the company money, and we’re robbed of all the small transactions with other humans that used to be part of our days.

Take this further, and you’re going to be lamenting the days when ladies’ maids dressed women and valets shaved their masters. Now that we have to do all that cumbersome personal care ourselves without even being paid for it, we have lost the close relationships with personal servants that wealthy people of the past enjoyed.

Lambert isn’t taking it further. He has robots and automation in his sights. But some recent research on happiness suggests that the number of pleasant human interactions in a day is in fact associated with good moods and a sense of wellbeing. Quality interactions with coworkers, friends, and family are good, but many of us don’t get the sheer quantity we need, now that so many of our interactions are with machines.

Asked recently at a talk whether he felt that the loss of these small interactions had an effect on health, Lambert answered that he thought that had more to do with poor-quality food, environmental toxins, and a sedentary lifestyle. We can thank automation for a lot of those things, of course, but Lambert’s focus is strictly on the amount of extra “work” we now do, without pay, for companies which have shifted their service jobs to machinery and self-service.

Isn’t that balanced by the amount of leisure time we now spend with video games and TV?

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