Magazine article Geographical

Rebooting Work: Douglas Rushkoff Is a Best-Selling Author and Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at Queens/CUNY

Magazine article Geographical

Rebooting Work: Douglas Rushkoff Is a Best-Selling Author and Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at Queens/CUNY

Article excerpt

DIGITAL AND ROBOTIC technologies could offer us both a bounty of productivity as well as relief from myriad repeatable tasks. Unfortunately, as our economy is currently configured, neither of these potential miracles are coming true.

It's not like we weren't warned. In the 1940s, the father of 'cybernetics,' Norbert Wiener, worried about what thinking machines meant for the human employees who would have to compete with them. Wiener realised that if we didn't change the underlying operating system of our economy, our technologies may not serve our economic prosperity as positively as we might hope. Before we embed the values of our industrial economy into the fabric of the digital one, we need to re-evaluate our fundamental assumptions about employment and compensation.

Looked at in terms of human value creation, the industrial economy appears to have been programmed to remove human beings from the value chain. Before the Industrial Age, the former peasants of feudalism were enjoying a terrific economic expansion. Crusaders had returned having established trade routes through which the goods of many lands could travel. They also returned with new technologies for agriculture and trade, including the bazaar--a marketplace for the exchange of crafts, crops, grain and meat, which used new financial instruments such as grain receipts and market money. But as the peasants got wealthy exchanging goods and services, the aristocracy got relatively poorer. So they re-established control over the economy by outlawing market moneys and chartering monopolies with dominion over particular industries. Now, instead of making shoes himself, the local cobbler had to get a job at the officially chartered monopoly company. Thus what we think of as 'employment' was born--less an opportunity than a restriction on creating value.

Instead of selling his shoes, the cobbler sold his hours. Worse, his skills were not valued. The owners of proto-factories saw in industrial processes a way to hire cheaper workers. Why hire a skilled craftsman when you can break down the shoe-making into tiny steps, each capable of being taught to a day labourer in 15 minutes? Automation reduced the economy's dependence on the labouring classes. The only business priority these companies understood was growth. Their own solvency was based on paying interest to nobles chartering and later to the banks financing them. But today, growth has become an end in itself--the engine of the economy--and humans have come to be understood as impediments to its functioning. …

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