All the routine jobs

All the routine jobs will eventually be replaced.

Someone talking on the radio one morning

1

It’s the morning routine. I’m driving to work, and thinking about my job, and all around me are the people doing their jobs as I’m on my way to mine.

Right there in the morning traffic, there are two men laying out bollards in a row, because something’s up and today’s the day. And beyond that the freeway and all its stuff that’s only there because people with routine jobs were sent out in all weathers to put road things in place: traffic lights, direction signage, concrete lane separators, small new plantings of suitably tough freeway trees.

But suddenly a voice on the radio is telling me we’ll all be better off when driverless cars reduce the possibility of human error and with it, presumably, the need for all this signage when vehicles are guided by satellite, and don’t need to know what the speed limit is.

Who will pay a premium, he asks, for a human driver? And maybe this won’t be the only road-based job that’s lost in the workless future he’s explaining to us.

2.

At Macca’s, people are the key to our success.

We’re taking a quick road trip break, and her eyes light up. We can do this, she says, and shows me how. We stab at a brightly lit board, like we’re checking in for a flight. It’s drive through, just indoors. While we’re waiting in line for the food to come, I point out to her that she’s a low-waged supermarket checkout worker and this is exactly the tech that’s coming for her. “I suppose it is,” she says.

Together we watch her peers and even younger doing the kind of routine minimum-wage work that disruptive tech can’t be bothered yet to replace: putting fries in a bag, calling out the number on the docket. It looks to be unsmiling work, requiring the minimum of customer engagement. The voice on the radio promised that factories are already competently staffed with robots. But service work is something else.

A tired looking girl who looks about fourteen calls out our number, and hands over our bag.

3.

I’m at my desk, filling out forms. The forms are all the same. If this isn’t routine, I don’t know what is. The voice on the radio promised that cognitive labour won’t easily be replaced, that computers aren’t coming for the thinking or emoting or analysing jobs, just the routine jobs. Computers can provide brief sports reports, he said, maybe a paragraph. But we will still be needed for the thinking work.

The voice on the radio is a professor. He works in my profession, and I can guess roughly what he earns for the cognitive work of writing books on the automation of labour, and talking about this on the radio.

To see if I’ve remembered his words properly, I stop filling in forms, look up the radio program, download the recording, play it back, and then search again to read about his book. It’s routine academic work to link from this blog to all of that, to play my part by contributing those unrecoverable moments of my human time and attention to his enterprise. (It’s much rarer to acknowledge this invisible labour in the academic attention economy.)

If I don’t do this routine work of citing the specific individual who put these words in a sentence and frisbeed them out into the public conversation, then I’m also eliding the work of their career building effort, their sacrifices, their hopes, their research and all the supporting labour that got them to the point where they could be on the radio in the first place. If I don’t do my routine job properly, they’re just an anonymous someone talking on the radio one morning. Because the most easily replaced part of any idea is the person behind it, once it’s out there.

The taken-for-granted routines of respectful academic practice are those that we don’t think about nearly enough in labour terms: making connections, citing, linking, building each other’s reputations, carrying each other along like a raft of fire ants in a flood.

4.

Last week I had the honour of leading a track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg with Maha Bali. Maha’s blog is titled “reflecting allowed”, and perhaps more than anyone I’ve worked with, she means it. She reflects constantly and compassionately and deeply, and you can see this in her two blog posts about the event, here and here.

Though the week I learned that we’re still struggling to centre professional development on the most urgent questions of labour in higher education. This event did touch briefly, and painfully, on the question of what it means (to Americans) to have tenure, and what it means to walk away from tenure and start a business instead, to become an employer instead of a cultural critic of capital. But the majority of workers in higher education, including in America, don’t have anything like tenure. This isn’t some dystopian future: most work in universities is already done by people who can be let go or replaced in a variety of ways, because there is both a labour surplus in our profession, and a politically-inflected funding crisis in higher education, and these two system failures converge to create the business conditions in which precarious staffing is a norm.

And at the same time digital pedagogy is significantly and continuously extending the ways in which we and our students volunteer our labour for large (American) corporations with every keystroke we contribute, every search term we fashion.

Labour is not an optional topic.

5.

The room that Maha and I worked in during the week was furnished with the kinds of seating designed for learning that irks Amy Collier.

These chairs rile me too, for so many reasons. They’re the fidget spinners of higher education. It’s not just the overblown claims made about their transformative potential by the vendors who are excited to sell them to us, but because of all the ways they normalise a particular body type, and in doing this prepare to humiliate any student who doesn’t fit the mould, literally.

And in Fredericksburg we quickly learned that a roomful of 30 of these chairs places a particular burden on cleaning staff who are required to restore room layout at the end of every day. Rolling them back into line, if you’re not sitting in one, is back-bending work.

rolling classroom chairs
So much transformation, taken by Amy Collier, DigPedLab 2017

To craft good pedagogy, we need more than fancy chairs. We need to be vigilant in keeping all levels of labour in view. The workless future that is purportedly going to free us up for more creative and engaging lives will not treat us all the same. And we need to be equally scrupulous in acknowledging all of the work of invisible hands that make digital pedagogy possible (and thanks to Audrey Watters for that link). This is essential critical justice work; without it we really are just putting fries in a bag.

5.

Automated cognition: a footnote

It’s lately seemed that updates to autocorrect have dialled up its intensity. It’s becoming either quicker to finish our half-formed thoughts, or we’re slower to notice.

Halfway through a conversation with a friend, I read back over what I’ve written and notice that Deleuze has been substituted with delouse.

When I back up to explain what I was trying to say, autocorrect jumps in to suggest that what I really mean is delusion.

And all the routine jobs will eventually be replaced. But not like this.

10 thoughts on “All the routine jobs

  1. I just wondered how we might define routine, and what any definition might miss that could appear as disadvantages of any particular automation.
    Parenting can appear to be routine but …

    1. This came to me too, as I was listening. There are routine jobs, apparently, and then there is the matter of routine labour. Formfilling is both routine and is the way in which higher education proves its devotion to quality; so risk management is both formula compliance and a continuous exercise in human processing and judgment.

      In the years we’ve been filling out these same forms, there have been more and less successful efforts to autocomplete the parts that should be locked down if quality is to be guaranteed without rising overheads of staffing costs. To me this has a great deal to do with the recent brouhaha over “bullshit jobs” and empty work in higher education. In this, I’m squarely on the side of professional staff. Academics are so often prone to see themselves as offering superior cognitive labour, all the while kept afloat by a raft of people labouring invisibly to make their labour possible and effective.

      We just need to keep talking about work, I think — not employability, but the actual business of work and its routines.

  2. Thanks Kate, I always thought that all jobs had elements of the routine and the complex. I’m scratching my head at how to pull the routine tasks out of the flow of tasks and find ways to allocate them to anybody including how to scope them into a neat package for AI to “solve”. And ironically, the tweet under yours that led me to your post is this: “There’s now a computerised tool to identify skin cancers through photographs. Can machines tell us if we’re sick?” Ugh.

  3. Hi Kate, Fidget spinners of HE is going to stay with me for a long time. It is a vivid and perfect(ly horrid!) image.

    On routines and being replaced, this summer I’ve been working my way through Stephen Downes book ‘Toward Personal Learning’ and in it he has two pages that respond to this beautifully with a story quoting an Arthur C. Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” I’m reposting Downes’ paraphrase of the story and his final comment from p91-92 below:

    “There were some monks in the Himalayas. They’d been working for the last 300 years
    and they developed a new language. They’re laboriously writing down, one by one, each
    of the nine billion names of God. It’s calculated it will take them another 13,000 years to finish. When some Westerners arrive at their monastery and they talk about computers, the monks think and the Westerners think this could be a really good shortcut.
    We could get the computers to write out all the names of God for us. That’s what they do.
    They set up computers. The Westerners are very careful because what’s going to happen after you write out the nine billion names of God? Well, nothing. The Westerners set up the computer to print out the names of all the nine billion names of God, but to finish printing only after they’ve left so the monks won’t be mad at them.

    The story ends with the Westerners are climbing down the hill and the computer finishes
    churning out all the nine billion names of God. They’re walking down the mountain. They look up and, one by one, very simply, the stars are all going out without any fuss.”

    Downes ends with: “We can imagine a future filled with machines. We can’t imagine a future without meaning. We have to continually hope for the impossible, not the possible, because if our ambitions were actually achieved, it would be a disaster.”

    We all have to be careful how we ‘fix’ things, as sometimes the fixers lose sight of the people and just focus on the things.

    As an aside, the way you tie perspectives together is magic. Thank you for the care you give in so many ways.

    1. Re parenting… Parts of it are routine and in some parts of the world, are often delegated to nannies. I did read a book where a character working on AI things thought creating an always caring nanny bot would be better for kids than neglectful parents…and they were also comparing this to neglect in orphanages and such. And this isn’t even the routine of diaper change and feeding and such
      Then again, we build relationships with our children through all this. My child and I play games in the bathroom/toilet and we actually practice math and vocabulary and we sing (i know, it’s a bit much, but she takes her time there and enjoys it).
      So yeah. Who gets to decide what counts as routine and is a waste of human intellectual time? Probably some white man somewhere who lacks social sensitivity I’m guessing

    2. That’s so well said Laura
      “We all have to be careful how we ‘fix’ things, as sometimes the fixers lose sight of the people and just focus on the things.”

      So true

  4. Thank you, as always, for this, Kate. So much of it resonated and there were many moments while in the US and not even at DPL where the issues of labor and automation came up. Like supermarket tellers who aren’t allowed to sit (and are mainly replaced by the automatic checkout which is more “convenient” but doesn’t allow u contact w a human smile – I use it often but checking out thru a person is an entirely different experience; but why won’t they allow them to sit? Who benefits from the health issues that would accrue?). Even more baffling are hotel receptionists who aren’t allowed to sit. And then you saw how the computer screen was under the desk, so how are they to take a healthy pose while looking down at that screen and standing up straight? It’s one thing to choose a standing desk and level up your computer in a way that makes you comfortable ; and entirely different thing to not give people choices. And I don’t even know where automation fits into THAT scenario.
    Speaking of chairs.
    I’m going to jump back onto the chair question. Your point about treating all bodies as if they were fitting some norm…surely applies to so much othet furniture, and not just those chairs. I mean, yes, their flexibility made them more difficult than usual, static chairs, but all kinds of static/traditional seating makes assumptions about bodies. Of note to me is how most furniture and utensils assume right-handedness, including doors and keys. Yes, I struggle with keys.

    On another note, I was recently in convo on Twitter with Sian Bayne over their Online teaching/learning manifesto and they have a line over welcoming bots. They’re a critical group of people, so this unqualified support for bots irked me. I understand that they’ve used bots in particular ways (remember the discussion in our track about care bots) but it still imho doesn’t justify unqualified decontextualized support for bots in a manifesto imho. Will maybe write this out better

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