The problem with jobs below the API

Left turns in Seoul

There’s been a flurry of writing over the last couple of weeks about the future of jobs ‘below the API’ – the notion that a new class of work is emerging in technology products somewhere between fully automated tasks performed by robots and managerial tasks performed by humans.

Of course, it’s reasonable to be concerned about having large numbers of people in ‘task execution’ roles – and as Anthony Kosner points out in his Forbes article, they’re sitting targets for potential future redundancy through automation, much like their 17th and 18th century predecessors whose piecework jobs were swallowed by large scale industrialisation.

Much of the recent writing about Uber (in particular) focuses on the effect that this modern-day piecework has on the labour market and welfare. This ‘Uberization’ is dangerous, says Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times last month, quoting Robert Reich, former US Labor Secretary:

“I’m glad if people like working for Uber, but those subjective feelings have got to be understood in the context of there being very few alternatives,” Dr Reich said. “Can you imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turk economy, where everyone is doing piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?”

Reich calls for greater regulatory oversight of independent contractors, and acknowledges that this isn’t unique to Uber: it affects supermarket staff and construction workers just as much as it affects those summoned by a mobile app.

So if we fixed the employment framework, would we still have a problem? Probably. Peter Rheinhart writes of Uber’s workforce:

The skills they develop in driving are not an investment in their future. Once you introduce the software layer between ‘management’ (Uber’s full-time employees building the app and computer systems) and the human workers below the software layer (Uber’s drivers, Instacart’s delivery people), there’s no obvious path upwards.

But I’m not sure this is it – I think there’s a fundamental omission here. Uber drivers and Instacart runners do have an opportunity to develop their skills, particularly in customer service. While their car-steering functions may be eclipsed by robots, their ability to interact with other humans is likely to be useful for a little longer at least. In economies driven by the service sector, these skills are immensely valuable, and the ‘path upwards’ may lie well outside of the worker’s current domain.

So what is the problem with jobs below the API? Perhaps it’s just something about the APIs that we don’t like:

Research shows that evidence-based algorithms more accurately predict the future than do human forecasters. Yet, when forecasters are deciding whether to use a human forecaster or a statistical algorithm, they often choose the human forecaster.

It turns out this isn’t limited to long term future-gazing. UPS drivers have mixed feelings about the Orion system that determines route planning:

The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

The rise of opaque intelligence – or, if you like, the creeping spread of computer says nois a legitimate cause for concern. Taken to the extreme, this diminishing agency, Manjoo says, sounds like a ‘hellish vision of the future of work’.

But this assumes a lot about how these APIs are created, deployed and managed. It’s inevitable that this shift in the way work is planned and allocated will continue, but who says that the systems that do so need to be blunt and unfeeling (or say no all the time)? If the APIs are the problem, let’s treat this as a serious and fascinating design challenge, not a doomsday prophecy.

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