Automation, algorithms, platforms, smart working: these are some of the terms in current usage about both the transformation of work and most of the social fears associated with this transformation. Fears that automation will erase employment, that algorithms will end up governing all our decisions. Fears that platforms will dismantle entire production sectors and, ultimately, that smart working will fragment the world of services and cognitive work. And yet, "technology in itself is not good or bad," as lawyers Antonio Aloisi and Valerio De Stefano explain. On the contrary, "there are distorted uses and deliberate uses of inventions and innovations". Even in the world of work. Let's try to take a close look at these uses with Antonio, professor of labour law at the University of Madrid, and Valerio, professor of labour law at Leuven University, and authors of the recent volume published by Laterza Il tuo capo è un algoritmo. Contro il lavoro disumano" [Your boss is an algorithm. Against dehumanised work].
Saving innovation from itself
In a world already transformed by digitalisation, you write in your book that innovation is somehow being saved from itself...
Aloisi: It is important to respond to a rhetoric that is now pervasive even with regard to the inevitability of some technologies. In order to save technology from this rhetoric, by that I mean, from itself, we must shift the forum for reflection and debate. We have to learn to negotiate about technologies, especially algorithms.
Negotiating with algorithms is another recurring theme, what does it mean?
De Stefano: Social partners should sit around a table and discuss the organisation of work again in this period of profound transformation. The future of work, no matter how innovative, technological or revolutionary it is, is nothing more than a necessary reinvention of processes, roles and tasks, not to mention control systems. So, by using this expression "negotiating with the algorithm", we want to force ourselves to think about this reinvention of work processes from a different angle.
Why should this transformation be discussed, understood, reflected on and negotiated?
Aloisi: The transformation takes place through us; there is nothing predetermined or neutral about it. This is the gist of the recent rulings made on digital platforms: there are no neutral technologies, but there are positive prospects unlocked by these and other technologies.
It is basically about bringing workers, managers and companies to the table where they can discuss the pathways of this transformation. To do this, you need to invest in this modern form of collective negotiation.
This non-fatalistic relationship with innovation and technology brings us directly to the question about the future of work. Is it still being discussed too generally and with sentiments of doom and gloom?
De Stefano: The future of work is not something that simply happens, but something that we build. But, watch out. The future of work is determined by what happens now. When we started using platforms, few wondered about their impact on the world and labour law. The issue was to do with antitrust or logistics regulations. Nowadays, on the other hand, having also raised the issue in a critical manner, a subject such as the rights of workers using the platforms has become crucial. This has also become the case for companies, which is why it is no coincidence that it is the area in which platforms invest the most to avoid legal repercussions that show them in a negative light. The point is that, by asking the question, the issue becomes unavoidable and that's when we can start redesigning things together: the profile of what work will be like.
Aloisi: In recent times, the level of attention paid by the public and the legislator to work issues related to its digitalisation has also changed. We are now talking about "techlash", an expression that we could define as follows: "backlash against innovation". A kind of critical impatience, after the initial heady delight, which has turned into a moment and attitude conducive to discussing the future of work and reconfiguring it together.
The pandemic has accelerated the transformations in the work system and has perhaps also made us realise the fragile aspects of that system...
De Stefano: The pandemic is an emergency and it cannot become a paradigm. The practice of working from home, which has emerged during the pandemic, is not what you would call smart working, but its opposite. It is a situation where we find ourselves under coercion and our freedom restricted, which is justified by a very serious situation. That's all there is to home working, whereas proper smart working typically has a strong element of freedom. There must be certain conditions in place for smart working. The first one is an efficient and stable technological infrastructure. The second condition is that we need to change the way we perceive work and, in particular, paid employment. Paid employment even today (and this conflicts with smart logic) is very often perceived as continuous control and monitoring of workers. Smart work requires an increase in the autonomy of people, always within the framework of paid employment, relying on new processes and being guided towards achievable results.
Often the monitoring and evaluation of the results remain an illusion...
De Stefano: Precisely because – and this is more of a company problem – the way in which workers are made responsible and evaluated must be changed.
Nowadays, "platform" has become almost a catch-all term, but what does it technically mean to "work via a platform"?
Aloisi: Also taking into account the definitions which have been, as it were, approved by the European institutions, there are two types of meaning understood for work carried out by means of a platform: systems used to provide specific services in the real world (in this case, we are dealing with on-call work via a platform) or remote services (crowdworking involving cognitive tasks which can also be carried out without being physically present). In some cases, it involves a new form of performing very traditional jobs – from deliveries to cleaning, from legal advice to commercial advice – with the new element being the invisible intermediary, in other words, the digital infrastructure.
Proper smart working typically has a strong element of freedom: it requires an efficient and stable technological infrastructure and a new work concept. Valerio De Stefano
But what requires urgent consideration is the combination of two additional elements. The first element is excessive domain capacity of certain platforms, which are capable of not only organising the performance level, but also of controlling it by using algorithms, and of restraining it where it is considered not to be in keeping with what has been agreed. The second element is that faced with these powers, all platforms in their contractual legal notices regard workers as self-employed workers. In the pursuit of this illusion of autonomy, we find ourselves in a situation diametrically opposed to the one we started in.
Aloisi: Or else you fall into a model that, instead of guaranteeing extreme autonomy, creates extreme subordination. While the scope of the work being carried out via platforms is currently still small (the most substantiated studies put the figure between 1% and 4% of the working population in Europe), the typical critical issues relating to working via a platform are spreading to all sectors. Working via a platform is not only an issue in itself, but is also acting as a test-bed for certain trends that we currently see being consolidated in increasingly wide sectors.
Navigating between platforms and work
Platforms are often linked to the topic of how many jobs will be lost due to these very platforms or extreme digitalisation...
De Stefano: The mention of this topic has led us to talk too much about how many jobs have been or will be lost and too little about how many and what jobs we have. This is why we have used the phrase "negotiating with the algorithm", to reflect on today, discuss today, intervene today and arrange within today's way of working, what the way of working in the future will be like.
The transformation takes place through us; there is nothing predetermined or neutral about it. There are no neutral technologies, but there are positive prospects unlocked by these and other technologies.
Will the new industrial relations have to enter directly into the algorithm black box?
De Stefano: Like the term "innovation", "algorithm" is often used inappropriately. It works, it is appealing, it's talked about, but people understand little about what's behind the system of algorithms applied to work. Very often, we're not dealing with real algorithms, but with rudimentary applications instead. There is, however, an important theme that remote working has highlighted: the issue of control. Remote working has provided the perfect storm for many software distributors who have reinvented themselves as manufacturers of employee monitoring systems.
Aloisi: There is a double paradox in this case too. As part of the initial promise, technology should have made our lives easier, and not increased our stress levels, the use of metrics, the unpacking of the jobs we do or control anxiety. On the other hand, this issue of control risks having a detrimental effect on the very companies which implement these platforms. The data is beginning to be consolidated. Having such stringent focus on control ends up reducing productivity. Productivity is therefore set as the goal, but the opposite objective is achieved. So, delegating to an algorithm or a "server-master" relationship a theme which is relational and based on trust risks not making good on those promises in which the use of technology is, however, instrumental and is here to stay.