“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias.” – Oscar Wilde
Whether it be the Garden of Eden, the Lost City of Atlantis, or the Hard Rock Candy mountains, mankind has longed for an ethereal state of paradise that is free from troubles and toil.
Wilde’s summary of human perseverance in optimism is a dream that transcends politics and the economy. It is merely the hope for a better world that lies inside us, one which progress seems to promise, but arguably seldom delivers.
For the purpose of this article, I will concern my definition of ‘liberty’ as our time returned, and ‘enslavement’ as it taken away by force. Force, as we will see, takes many forms, and the reluctance to use innovation for the greater good says more about us as human beings than our capability to create it.
But first, one must ask – what is the role of technology, if not for the betterment of life on earth?
Learning from the past
In terms of the traditional workplace, little has changed since October 24th, 1940, when the amended Fair Labor Standards Act came into place. It was on this date that the American workweek was limited to 40 hours. It followed more than a century of protest and reform in the West since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which often saw workers spend 16+ hours a day in all manner of conditions at their job.
The popular dictum “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hour’ rest”, first coined by Welsh social reformer Robert Owen, has become the mantra of the working week ever since.
Force takes many forms, and the reluctance to use innovation for the greater good says more about us as human beings than our capability to create it.
The Industrial Revolution promised freedom from the supposedly gruelling lifestyles of pre-industrial society. But the gains came at great cost to the common worker. What was once produced by hand now became mass-produced. Quality devolved into quantity. As food could be made so quickly, preservatives were introduced to elongate lifespan. Slowly, but surely, human beings became mechanized. The rhythms to which we were accustomed were compromised with the invention of the light bulb, which allowed workers to continue their torturously long days way into the night.
And so it continued.
Despite the Fair Labor Standards Act, the average American worker now spends 46.7 hours a week at work.
The digital revolution
“The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes” – John Maynard Keynes
We have seen a staggering pace of change since the first message was sent through the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) in 1969. This technology, the precursor to the internet, sparked such imagination that we now live in a world once imagined by writers and futurists.
But are we set for the abundance that Keynes speaks of in his 1939 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”? In it he imagines a world 100 years ahead where we are freed from our working lives by technological progression. Or, are we finding ourselves willing proponents of slavery, captured in our own Brave New World or Orwellian dystopia?
It is true that this technology has allowed the way we work to evolve. The ‘gig economy’, simultaneously praised as a ‘force that can save the American worker’ and lamented as a system that ‘celebrates working yourself to death’, is a growing collection of everyday entrepreneurs who want to reclaim the structure of their working lives. However, there is a worrisome trend in this new lifestyle, one which is at risk of dismantling any promise of liberation that technology may provide.
In 2012, Facebook found itself under major scrutiny when it was revealed that it had conducted secret psychological tests on nearly 700,000 of its users.
The social media giant performed the government-sponsored study to gauge whether the inclusion of positive or negative words in messages would lead to positive or negative status updates. They concluded that there was an “emotional contagion” amongst the users tested, many of whom were outraged at the experiments.
This incident has become a precedent to other instances of psychological manipulation and underhand marketing techniques within the digital revolution.
The drivers, who are technically independent business owners, set their own hours and choose what jobs they want to take. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but also means that it cannot dictate to the drivers where they need to be. In an attempt to regain influence, the company has employed several psychological tactics gleaned from social studies in relative technologies.
They have introduced an algorithm that loads the driver’s next fare before they have finished with their current one. It is a system similar to that of Netflix, which automatically loads the next episode, which many experts believe encourages binge watching.
The company has also incorporated several addictive computer game style enticements, such as the ‘Ludic Loop’ – whereby drivers are given arbitrary goals to prompt them onto their next fare, goals that are by their nature forever out of grasp. They have also adopted a ‘badge’ scheme, whereby non-cash rewards such as “Excellent Service” and “Great Conversation” are awarded to drivers, as if reaching the next level.
Perhaps most disturbingly, some male managers adopted female personas when texting their male drivers, believing that they would be more susceptible to suggestions made by women. “‘Laura’ would tell drivers: ‘Hey, the concert’s about to let out. You should head over there,’” said John P. Parker, a manager in Uber’s Dallas office in 2014 and 2015. The tactic worked, as more drivers responded, but such a coercion raises questions regarding the moral turpitude of those who are willing to manipulate people for profit.
The high price of the gig economy
Facebook and Uber are not alone in their compliance with the modern day mechanisms of control. Lyft, Uber’s main rival, recently shared with glee the story of Mary, a Chicago driver who was 9 months pregnant, and who decided to take some driving jobs on the night of July 21st.
After picking up some fares, she began to have contractions. Being a week away from her due date, she decided to keep on driving. As her contractions worsened, she decided to drive to the hospital, but not before picking up another fare on the way. When she finally arrived, she was told that she was in labor. Lyft’s website has a photograph of the baby wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.
This sentimental cover story hides a deeper problem with the gig economy. Lyft drivers in Chicago earn an average of eleven dollars a ride. They do not offer paid maternity or health insurance. It is not such a stretch to imagine the above story differently, one that is not so worth celebrating. This cannot be the liberation that we thought we’d get from technology.
Uber has adopted a ‘badge’ scheme, whereby non-cash rewards such as “Excellent Service” and “Great Conversation” are awarded to drivers, as if reaching the next level.
Another enemy of the freedom-loving person is Fiverr, the freelance marketplace website, though at first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking differently. The website gives a platform for freelancers to upload their services that start for as little as $5, but their recent advertising campaign denotes anything but a life free from toil.
A recent ad reads: “You eat coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”
Self retraction is self reliance
The examples above must serve as a warning, and not an equilibrium.
We, as creators, consumers, and human beings, must not become accustomed to this new form of servitude. The lure of the gig economy is that it serves to liberate us as workers, but we must be weary of such promises when they are delivered by parties with their own agendas.
This technology, the precursor to the internet, sparked such imagination that we now live in a world once imagined by writers and futurists.
Our freedom comes through retraction and education. Technology can liberate us, but it is us who must choose the technologies we want to use. If a company uses practices that we find immoral, then we have the ability to seek others, and we must.
We are living in a great experiment, but we have a history to learn from. The Industrial Revolution became just another form of control, where the workers were taught to look to the machinery as power and the bosses as truth. It’s up to us to steer our own way in this Digital Revolution, with it’s chance of freedom still being written.