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Are workers becoming robots to keep their jobs?

Amazon is engaged in a highly publicized effort to locate a second headquarters in North America. Amazon's estimate that the new headquarters could create 50,000 high-paying jobs brings to mind the question of how desirable such jobs might be.

The question was raised by an Aug. 15, 2015, article in The New York Times titled "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace." The article suggested that the new jobs might not be that attractive after all. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld wrote that employees who "hit the wall" were told to "climb the wall."

They wrote that Amazon workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas, to work late and answer emails after midnight, and to meet " ... standards that the company boasts are 'unreasonably high'" An ex-employee reported seeing Amazon workers crying at their desks.

The Times article did not reflect well on Amazon, with reports on people with health or family issues being treated badly. However, the specific instances cited in the Times article represented a small portion of Amazon's workforce. That's not to excuse mistreatment of employees with medical and family issues, but such incidents can probably be found in any large organization.

Indeed, in an Aug. 17, 2015, follow-up article in the Times, Kantor and Streitfeld reported that founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos deplored the original article's description of "... a soulless dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard." They wrote, "He told his workers, 'I don't recognize this Amazon, and I very much hope you don't either.'"

And in an Aug. 22, 2015, letter to the editor of the Times, one employee wrote, "I found your portrayal of Amazon to be extremely one-sided"--she acknowledged that the environment is competitive and the work demand high but said she didn't work 80 hours a week, did take four weeks of vacation one year, and got promoted. She concluded, "No, I don't cry at my desk every day."

As for those who do cry at their desks, it might be tempting to advise them that they might eventually be replaced by robots that don't cry at their desks. But whereas there is widespread fear that robots will take over people's jobs, there is an equal fear that some people--possibly Amazon employees that don't cry at their desks-- are becoming robots. Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger, in a Sept. 25 article in The Guardian, ask, "To what extent are we being turned into workers that resemble robots?"

It's a good question. Kantor and Streitfeld in the Times quoted one Amazon employee as saying, "If you are a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot"--you become one with the system. They don't mention "resistance is futile," but the implication is clear.

In The Guardian, Frischmann, a professor in law, business, and economics Villanova University, and Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, trace humans' fears of becoming robots back to the management theory developed by Frederick Taylor in the early 20th century. Taylor wanted to break down tasks into inputs, outputs, and repetitive tasks that unskilled laborers could perform. "Over time" they write, "Taylorism became synonymous with the evils of extracting maximum value from workers while treating them as programmable cogs in machines"--leading to labor strife.

The visible manifestation of Taylor's theory--the time and motion man on the production floor with a stopwatch and notebook--has largely faded. But today, Frischmann and Selinger warn, the surveillance is increasingly hidden--with surreptitious keystroke logging and audio and video recording.

Frischmann and Selinger don't specifically address Amazon or employees crying at their desks. But they do caution against modern-day Taylor-like analyses that threaten "... the value of being human."

Rick Nelson

Executive Editor

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Author:Nelson, Rick
Publication:EE-Evaluation Engineering
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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