A future of work worth caring about

13-12-2021

As automation technologies advance, the way people work will change. Movies, TV shows, news outlets, and politicians often paint an apocalyptic picture where people are left begging as robots take over their jobs. The reality is much less dramatic. More likely is a great rearrangement of tasks and more collaboration with digital systems. The relationship between technology and the workers will be more dynamic, fluid and integrated. Robots that were once left behind safety barriers will glide through warehouses and pass items to their human counterparts and productivity records once kept in a manager’s notebook will be documented through a smart device.

 

Before stretching our imaginations to the distant future of work, let us consider the present. We currently stand in a time transition. As with all such shifts, it is fraught with tension and fear of the unknown. We don’t know yet exactly where we’re going. The path is not clear. However, what is clear is that within this time of uncertainty, there lies rich opportunity for reflection, reprioritizing, creativity, and hope. Possibility abounds. What work should humans do? How should they do it? What technologies should be used? Why? By whom? At the heart, these questions about work and technology are important questions about how humans should live. People spend a huge portion of their lives at work. It can be a source of meaning or perhaps a means to support what matters outside the job— family, independence, dreams, creativity. Work isn’t everything, though it deeply concerns people’s everyday existence. Consider how disruptive a bad day on the job can be; and on the flip side, how fulfilling a good day can feel.

 

A proposal of care
I propose adopting an ethics of care to navigate the shifts caused by further automation in the workplace. Moral theory may seem removed from the rapid changes occurring at work, but the field of ethics is undergoing its own changes. Historically found within the university walls (and sometimes hospitals), philosophers are now being summoned out of their offices by large companies — the likes of Google and Microsoft — to help mitigate the negative effects of emerging technologies like A.I., automation, and robotics. Ethical frameworks help to analyze the current landscape and to imagine an improved way forward. But if we drop the formalities, all people are “doing ethics” throughout the day. It’s our ethical commitments that guide us along the muddy terrain of “Should I? Should you? Should we?”. Care, I argue, should be prioritized in these moments of moral decision-making.

 

Care is clearly relevant in the context of family or medicine, but may seem a far cry from the echoing walls of a distribution centre or bright lights of a store. Yet, since the 1980s certain philosophers have argued that care is a fundamental human activity extends beyond homes or institutional settings, and is crucial to both surviving and thriving in our lives. This argument was formalized into an ethic of care in the 1980s when Carol Gilligan challenged her supervisor, Lawrence Kohlberg. She argued that girls’ concern for close relationships when making moral decisions didn’t indicate immaturity, as Kohlberg concluded, but revealed a “different voice” from the dominant (male) concern with individualism and autonomy. This voice had been historically overlooked in research on moral development, despite its prevalence in daily life. Following Gilligan’s seminal work, In a Different Voice (1982), care ethics emerged as an alternative moral theory that saw relationships of care as a basis upon which life and flourishing arise.

 

Various definitions of care have been put forward, but the one articulated by Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher is perhaps the one most commonly held:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (1993, p. 103). 
Here, you can see how care can be more broadly understood and seen within daily life, like education, infrastructure, and tech- nology design. What’s important is that care is more than an attitudinal stance towards someone or something; it’s a practice that involves both intention and action. Without the latter, care is merely a feeling.


The degradation of care
It’s easy to think of care merely as a rosy sentiment because Western culture tends to overlook the nitty-gritty work involved in caring. A clear indication of this was when Facebook added a new reaction alongside other options ‘like’, ‘love’, ‘haha’, ‘wow’, and ‘angry’. Users can now go through their daily scroll and tap a yellow face hugging a heart to indicate that they ‘care’. Marketing teams have also leveraged the language of care to improve corporations’ images by using seemingly sympathetic phrases such as “We care about our workers/customers.”
But without subsequent action and measu- res for accountability, these amount to little more than what the ‘The Care Collective’ calls care washing, or “trying to increase their legitimacy by presenting themselves as socially responsible ‘citizens’, while really contributing to inequality and ecological destruction.”

 

Care is not a reaction nor is it a throw away phrase. It’s an interaction that requires mutual engagement of those involved. It’s an ongoing movement of checking-in, understanding needs, acting, and then checking-in again. This committed process is desperately needed as we forge our way into the future of work because without it so many people’s needs risk going unheard.

Care crisis at work
Those investing in and deploying technologies such as AI, robotics and smart devices in the workplace rely on the narrative that technology will help ease the burden of labour. A recent Walmart press release states that their robot ‘Freddy’ helps employees endure “less drudgery and enjoy more s atisfying jobs”. Amazon claims that in their warehouses “humans and robots work harmoniously to get packages to customers on time”. The companies’ visions depict smooth worker-technology cooperation. Certainly this is the case in some settings. But, different stories also emerge in the news as workers speak about their experiences. Employees working with the robot, Freddy, said they’d “never felt more robotic”. In her interviews with Amazon employees, Erin Guendelsberger found people referring to their work as a “cyborg job” and comparing themselves to the machines. One said that as a worker you need to “clamp down on your self-respect and dignity” and “learn how to get harder and more pragmatic...Like a robot.”


Contemporary care theorists say that we’re in a care crisis, and workplaces are not immune. The quest for profit, power, and progress lays waste to the wellbeing and basic needs of people at work. Over the pandemic, billionaires became trillionaires while essential workers who risked their lives to care for others fought (and often lost) for a living wage. In warehouses, workers in the United States held up signs reading, “I am not a robot” and told stories of wearing diapers and ignoring injuries for fear of being replaced. Yet, these people repressing their most base bodily needs are what allow others to sit safely at home and receive deliveries.

 

A way of questioning, listening, and seeing
Overlooking the web of dependency that supports our lives is the mark of a careless society. Treating people as though they are disposable is another. An ethics of care strives towards the opposite— it recognizes interdependence as a given, while also honouring the innate and unique value of each person. This can and should be applied to the context of work. The care ethicist takes notes of their surroundings with the common sense of a caretaker. They walk into a work- place and ask, “Has everyone eaten?”. They cut into debates on meaningful work and ask, “Have workers had a moment to rest? Do they feel secure?”. If the answer is ‘no’ to any of these questions, it makes little sense to jump to more abstract goals tended to by many researchers on the future of work, i.e. autonomy, freedom and meaning. That’s not to say that these concepts don’t matter, but a grumbling stomach or one knotted with fear should always call us down from the lofty realms to make practical change.


Besides asking particular questions, a care ethics approach also requires a certain quality of listening. This involves assuming a gentle posture, both verbally or physically, that invites the other: “tell me.” The invitation acts as a tender question and allows the answer to unfold naturally, without the danger of being immediately categorized. The listener does not seek to possess or dissect the story, but to nurture the space into which it emerges. The practice of attentive listening conflicts with our culture’s emphasis on action, productivity, and knowledge. But, I believe it’s essential to build a path towards a more caring workplace.

 

There are myriad people involved in bringing further automation to work, ranging from front-line workers, managers, trade union representatives, business owners, researchers, engineers, students, consumers to politicians. Sitting with one another in attention would be a powerful way to understand other's needs and experiences. Empathetic relationships stretch us beyond our own minds to consider how another person experiences the world. This kind of moral imagination helps shed preconceived notions of how things should be, and move into the more practical and creative realm of collaboration.

In addition to questioning and listening, care ethics has a certain way of looking. Tronto admits that care ethics isn't a “complete alternative” to others, but rather a “glimpse into a different world, one where the daily caring of people for each other is a valued premise of human existence”. Adopting

this framework means looking at the world through a different lens, where commonly overlooked features of human beings are brought to the fore. Relationships, power dynamics, emotions, and embodiment become morally salient.

 

When looking at stores, factories and distribution centres from a perspective of care ethics, the activities within are not seen as mere moments along the supply chain, but as instances of connection between people. Stores, with their flashy sale signs and automated check-outs, may not commonly be thought of as places where care practices often occur. Likewise, a warehouse with workers busily sorting packages for strangers may seem far from the caring acts we readily imagine. Yet, by taking a closer look, these spaces tend to some of humans’ most basic needs: food and supplies, work (indirectly allowing for essential resources), and social interaction— the latter of which was espe- cially vital in the COVID-19 crisis, where for many people a trip to the store doubled as the week’s social activity. Looking at work spaces through the lens of care ethics centres the human experience. It insists that relational dynamics— the way people chat, feel, and move around each other— should be valued within moral the discourse on technology. So far, there is little research attending to these matters.

Care is a practical ideal 
When telling people in academia and industry that I research how to get care involved in technology design and deployment, many nod their heads politely as if to say, “Oh, that’s nice.” Care, it seems, is just too much to ask for. Yet, it’s strange indeed that caring is deemed superfluous when it’s a basic requirement for human life. Humans are innately dependent creatures, who cannot negotiate birth on their own, let alone, the complex business of survival.

 

There's a long history of dismissing and overlooking care. It's been linked to emoti- ons, femininity and dependance, all of which have traditionally been seen as weak and fragile. Also at work here is a deep-rooted moralization of wealth and poverty, where financial independence is the golden standard and financial dependence is indicative of moral deficiency. All of this feeds the idea that needing care is a shortcoming.


Taking care seriously is to admit that there is some unshakeable vulnerability within each of us and that we rely on one another to be well. Of course, levels of dependency ebb and flow throughout a lifetime. We start with great need and often end with it, too. The play between care-giving and care receiving is messy, unending, and asymmetrical. No wonder it's been sidelined in a world that prioritizes tidiness, linearity and quantification.

 

 

But, it's not too much to hope for. And as Rebecca Solnit reminds us in her beautiful book on the subject, it’s hope we need to guide us through the rocky transition periods and into a better future:

Hope is the ax you break down the doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginalized. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.


Care is an ideal towards which we should strive when building the future of work, and it's not out of reach. Adopting an ethics of care means taking up a different way of asking, listening and looking. It involves a commitment to building relationships, learning what people need, and taking action to meet those needs. This means creating space and on-going opportunity for conversations between those involved and affected by automation in workplaces. This kind of an ethics is needed everywhere human wellbeing is at stake. An automated robotic workplace is certainly such a place.

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