Handling automation

21 August 2020

Progressives must learn to govern the digital displacement that is underway in workplaces and schools.

Long before the outbreak of COVID19, the widespread adoption of digital technologies had had a profound impact on most aspects of society. Phenomena such as the organisation of workflows, the provision of key public services and the emergence of new categories of jobs have come to the centre of political and social action over the last decades. A notable example can be found in the debate that came in the wake of Frey and Osborne (2013)’s seminal work on the effects of computerisation on labour markets, in which, according to the authors, about 47% of jobs in US labour force were vulnerable to displacement.

However, while in the pre-COVID-19 era policymakers had the opportunity to adequately reshape the configuration of society according to the digital revolution, following the onset of COVID-19 these opportunities no longer exist. The disruptive effects of the pandemic are not yet entirely clear but there can be no doubt that this crisis has entailed an acceleration of digital transformation, especially as regards remote working for many sectors in society. Yet, what seems clear is that, while for some activities and jobs there may be a slow return to the ‘old normal’, many others sectors of our society will need to find a new one. The problem is, as often happens when technology impacts society, firstly we don’t know when this will happen, secondly, we do not know at what cost it will come and, perhaps most importantly,  we cannot tell what social, political and economic relations among individuals will emerge as a consequence of this great process of recalibration.

We argue that progressives must provide a valuable contribution to soften the impact of these transformations. Progressives should address the challenges of redesigning a society by focusing on the situations where people and organisations will struggle because of the impact of automation. The political forces which aim to fight inequalities and restore social justice must not make the same mistakes of 20 years ago that were made with respect to  globalisation. Back then, the widespread idea of many progressives forces was to allow globalisation to reshape the new configurations of our world by itself. The belief shared by many Progressives was that the role of governments was to reduce inequalities and unbalanced distributions which could come at the end of globalization process (Salvati 2001). According to  this view, markets and technology would have taken care of the business development, politics while governments, through specific welfare policies, to the left behinds. We are not entirely condemning this vision, although we suspect that many problems of progressives right now follow on from the incapacity to depart from this approach.

However, we hope it is clear that the same approach towards the post-COVID-19 situation is not going to work, because the dimensions of the crisis are simply bigger, and the first steps undertaken to face the crisis have shown a renewed commitment of State actors to play a more direct and straightforward role in addressing social and economic problems. Wholesale automation which comes out of the COVID-19 crisis cannot be the independent variable of our times, as internet-based globalisation was thirty years ago. To some extent, the dawn of the post-COVID-19 world still resembles the famous political trilemma of the global economy portrayed by Dani Rodrik in 2010. Rodrik’s main argument was that only two attributes among hyper-globalisation, democratic politics, and national sovereignty can coexist. The notable difference being that digitalisation – and its distributive effects both cross-country and within-country – has substituted the hyper-globalsation angle that no one openly supports anymore.

Hence, given that we are heading towards an even more automated and digitised world, we encourage progressives to commit to a fresh approach towards digital transformation. To be clear, we do not aim to destroy machines, and we remain optimistic that if correctly handled, digitalisation might be a powerful ally to solve many of the problems that will arise in the coming years, such us the necessity to provide public services by distance (healthcare, education, bureaucracy). However, the COVID-19  crisis has already exposed liabilities on this side, and progressives should not make the same mistakes that were made before by often uncritically embracing hyper-globalisation. Radical digitalisation has many drawbacks that need to be addressed and the COVID-19  has portrayed how urgent this is.

If we look at the share of teleworkable jobs in the EU labour force, some 6% of low skilled workers can work from home, compared to some 61% of high skilled workers. Only 15% of under-30s and can engage in teleworking, and only 11% of self-employed people. This might provide a glimpse of which categories would be hit the most by the on-going changes brought about by the leap forward in digitalisation (see: JRC, 2020). In parallel, the Education sector has needed to quickly move to distance and blended learning, by online lectures, classes and activities. Early research into how distance learning has been delivered show dramatic results. In Italy, NGOs have highlighted that only half of the primary students in Milan were able to access online classes (Caritas Ambrosiana, 2020), and more than 60% of primary students in Rome undertook no formal education activity during the lockdown (Comunità di Sant’Egidio, 2020). Further research published by UCL pointed out that two million children in the UK (circa 20 per cent of the total) had done no schoolwork since the lockdown measures were introduced (New Statesman, 2020). Furthermore, globally, UNESCO has estimated that girls and women are going to pay the highest price for not being unable to access education under COVID-19.

Of course, these are only empirical examples, and it is too early for causal mechanisms to be clearly identified. However, the array of these challenges – and the funds that are going to be allocated for the economic recovery – obliges progressives to think about these stark realities.

These transformations  imply two major potential problems. Firstly, how do we successfully manage digitalisation, and secondly,  what will the long-term social consequences be. Furthermore, these problems lie at two different levels. The first one concerns cross-country differences. In the EU, digital readiness is highly differentiated between countries. The European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI, 2020) has the Northern countries leading the ranking, with Finland, Sweden and Denmark in the top spots, whilst larger countries are only mid-ranking (Spain is 11th, Germany 12th, and France 15th) or lie in the very bottom of the ranking (with Italy 25th). The second issue concerns within-country difference whereby digitalisation risks exacerbating difference between areas that are connected and possibly ready for the so-called ‘Gigabit Society’ and other areas in which connectivity is lower and where there are not enough digitalised enterprises to provide a critical mass for innovation (Rodney 2020). Beside the infrastructural problems that our societies must face up to, progressive forces should carefully consider what kind of social articulation will take place in Western democracies.

Currently, many Progressives find it extremely difficult to exert major influence over public discourse and to connect with entire sectors of the population, as progressive voters continue to tend to concentrate in urban and digitally advanced areas. We worry that, with the onset of COVID-19 and increased rates of teleworking, it will become even more difficult for progressives to speak to hyper-atomized segments of the population, at least by using the traditional ways and means of communication. The political lesson that progressive should be ready to learn is that they have to govern this digital displacement that is underway in workplaces and schools. Otherwise, a completely disaggregated society, without common physical places to share beliefs and values, may provide the perfect terrain for populist and nationalist messaging, policies and rhetoric.