Valuing digital labor

What’s the value of work in a world of intelligent machines?

The value of digital labor

“Work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” This line from Candide, a 1759 novella by the French philosopher Voltaire, has endured as a pithy explanation of why work matters to both individuals and society.

Work still helps people meet daily needs, just as it did in the 18th century. It may or may not eliminate vice: for every story about gainful employment saving someone from a life of crime and debauchery, there’s another about white‑collar corruption, sexual harassment, workplace bullying and other vices that were common in Voltaire’s day and persist in our own.

Work can certainly keep boredom at bay, providing the work itself is not soul‑crushingly dull. Yet boredom was an occupational hazard of work in 18th century Europe, whether you were a peasant ploughing fields, an artisan building furniture, or a soldier marching to war. Boredom was also a persistent feature of work during the Industrial Revolution, which created millions of factory jobs that required workers to imitate machines by doing the same manual task over and over.

Knowledge workers are hardly immune to boredom. Office ennui has been a persistent theme in popular culture over the years, from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” published in 1853, all the way through “Dilbert,” “Clerks,”and “Office Space.” Today roughly two thirds of U.S. workers are disengaged at work, according to Gallup polling.

A paradox of the digital age is that technologies designed to minimize boring, repetitive work have instead turned us into digital serfs. Mobility and the cloud promised to liberate us from the tyranny of clocking in at offices. Instead they force us to run on electronic hamster wheels, perpetually worried about keeping up with our emails, texts, and social feeds.

Research shows that the resulting screen addiction degrades cognitive performance and increases the risk of anxiety and depression for both adults and kids. The deluge of digital distraction may even help explain why U.S. labor productivity has been stagnant for the past 15 years.

Today, emerging technologies such as robotic process automation, digital workflow, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are rapidly changing how companies operate and go to market. Sometimes gathered under the banner of “digital labor,” many of these technologies are seeing rapid adoption in front and back offices across the world.

Tech boosters claim that digital labor is revolutionizing business. Skeptics worry that digital labor will displace human workers and even make humans superfluous. Digital labor promises to liberate us from the tedium of repetitive work. At the same time, it raises legal and ethical questions about our privacy as consumers, employees, and citizens. In a world where machine intelligence can give autonomous weapons the ability to make independent targeting decisions in battle, it also raises fundamental questions about human agency over life and death.

Digital labor promises to reduce office tedium by automating a host of repetitive tasks, from routing customer service requests to choosing benefits and closing the books at the end of every quarter. This technology promises to spark a new wave of labor productivity by freeing up people to do more creative and strategic work.

Workers will need new skills to take advantage of these opportunities. A recent McKinsey study estimates that by 2030, automation will displace between 400 and 800 million workers worldwide. While McKinsey predicts that the global economy will create new jobs to replace those lost to automation, as many as 375 million workers will need to acquire new skills in order to stay employed.

In the current edition of Workflow, we present seven key skills that can help knowledge workers stay relevant and engaged in 2019 and beyond. They include technical chops like coding and data analytics, as well as softer skills like leadership and creativity. We can’t promise that mastering these skills will eliminate workplace boredom, but it will certainly help keep you fed and off the street. For many workers, it will open new career doors and change lives. Voltaire would be pleased.