When we learn about the Industrial Revolution in school, we hear a lot about factories, steam engines, maybe the power loom. We are taught that technological innovation drove social change and radically reshaped the world of work.
Likewise, when we talk about today’s economy, we focus on smartphones, artificial intelligence, apps. Here, too, the inexorable march of technology is thought to be responsible for disrupting traditional work, phasing out the employee with a regular wage or salary and phasing in independent contractors, consultants, temps and freelancers — the so-called gig economy.
But this narrative is wrong. The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes.
This insight is crucial for anyone concerned about the insecurity and other shortcomings of the gig economy. For it reminds us that far from being an unavoidable consequence of technological progress, the nature of work always remains a matter of social choice. It is not a result of an algorithm; it is a collection of decisions by corporations and policymakers.
Consider the Industrial Revolution. Well before it took place, in the 19th century, another revolution in work occurred in the 18th century, which historians call the “industrious revolution.” Before this revolution, people worked where they lived, perhaps at a farm or a shop. The manufacturing of textiles, for example, relied on networks of independent farmers who spun fibers and wove cloth. They worked on their own; they were not employees.
In the industrious revolution, however, manufacturers gathered workers under one roof, where the labor could be divided and supervised. For the first time on a large scale, home life and work life were separated. People no longer controlled how they worked, and they received a wage instead of sharing directly in the profits of their efforts.
This was a necessary precondition for the Industrial Revolution. While factory technology would consolidate this development, the creation of factory technology was possible only because people’s relationship to work had already changed. A power loom would have served no purpose for networks of farmers making cloth at home.
The same goes for today’s digital revolution. While often described as a second machine age, our current historical moment is better understood as a second industrious revolution. It has been underway for at least 40 years, encompassing the collapse, since the 1970s, of the relatively secure wage-work economy of the postwar era — and the rise of post-industrialism and the service economy.
Over these four decades we have seen an increase in the use of day laborers, office temps, management consultants, contract assemblers, adjunct professors, Blackwater mercenaries and every other kind of worker filing an I.R.S. form 1099. These jobs span the income ranks, but they share what all work seems to have in common in the post-1970s economy: They are temporary and insecure.
Article from: nytimes