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11 March 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:34pm

The digital age could spell a workplace revolution – for better or worse

The printing press made democracy inevitable. Will digital tools do the same for work?  

By Lisa Herzog

The sociologist Richard Sennett recently said that schools should be situated at the border between different urban districts to bring families together from different walks of life.

His suggestion was intriguing in its simplicity. Instead of complaining about social fragmentation or moralising about municipalities, Sennett asks how institutions could be designed so that the social interactions that hold our communities together would happen effortlessly and organically.

The question over what binds our societies is a pressing one. Issues such as migration, sexuality, and climate change divide us. Digital tools allow us to pick newsfeeds that reinforce our own views, allowing like-minded people to stick together – and reaffirm their biases.

There is, however, at least one area of life in which we still bridge divides: work. As Cynthia Estlund argues, workplaces are more diverse than many other social spaces and serve as an important sphere of social cohesion. Like the schools that Sennett imagines, workplaces can create contacts between people. But will the ties created at work continue to hold as digital technologies increasingly shape the labour market?

Studies of the nature of work vary throughout the history of philosophy, but the writings of Hegel and Adam Smith are particularly useful when reflecting on work’s communal aspects.

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For Hegel, we work in order to satisfy our basic needs and gratify our preferences. In fact, Hegel sees our struggle for survival and prosperity as crucial to the development of our individual personalities. And since each of us interacts with the surrounding world in different ways, we end up in distinct occupational roles from which we contribute to society as a whole.

Smith, for his part, noted that distinct occupations and the division of labour increase economic efficiency and productivity. We humans have for centuries lived in communities in which people draw on their unique abilities, specialise in particular trades, and then depend on others for a host of goods and services that they do not produce themselves. And when this division of labour and mutual dependence works well, social cohesion follows.

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Divided labour draws us together: it makes us dependent on others and integrates our own work into a much broader working community. Ideally, specialisation allows us to find work that corresponds to our interests and talents. And in theory, the existence of diverse occupations leads to mutually beneficial economic growth which brings people from disparate walks of life together.

But in practice, the social nature of divided work has often been undermined. Work is embedded in power structures that lead to the unequal distributions of its benefits. As Karl Marx observed, the conditions in which we work can be self-determined or determined by others. This division results in various forms of class struggle. And these struggles put pressure on the ties that bind communities together.

Today, many labour markets are organised in extremely individualistic and competitive ways. We are often told that our egoistic toiling serves the public good, but the hyper-competitive fight to outperform others inevitably forces people to overlook how much they depend on each other. The pro-social aspects of work ultimately fade into the background.

This is why the arrival of new technologies, especially intelligent algorithms and robots that will alter the nature of employment, require us to reconsider the role of work in society.

Negative scenarios of the digital future abound. With many jobs disappearing, workers might have to accept stultifying, underpaid “clickwork”, or employment that is managed by surveillance technologies or manipulative software. The traditional workplace of 9-5 stability might disappear, replaced by a “gig economy” in which workers, at the mercy of apps, jump at every opportunity to earn some money. And social life as we know it might be disrupted by unpredictable schedules and fractured colleague networks.

Given current power disparities between employers and employees (including the vast amount of personal data that transnational firms possess), and given the apparent unwillingness of many governments to address rampant economic and power inequalities, the aforementioned dystopias might seem more realistic than we wish to admit. If we let them become reality, any hope that work might draw us closer together will be naïve.

But perhaps there could be a brighter future for the world of work. Maybe we could rethink employment so that the pro-social aspects of work come to the fore again.

Similar to Hegel and Smith, Émile Durkheim argued that modern societies are held together not by a solidarity of sameness, but a solidarity of differentiation, which he called “organic solidarity.” Indeed, Durkheim thought the division of labour achieves this task as it allows people to pursue their interests and to develop their talents in the processes of making themselves useful to others.

But Durkheim also acknowledged that there is a crucial condition for this mechanism to work: social inequality cannot be too great, otherwise power differentials distort prices and wages. When society is massively unequal, people perceive the system as unfair, and this undermines their willingness to cooperate with others. It is only in societies where inequality is kept under control that organic solidarity comes about through the connections people make at work.

Digital technology has the potential to bring people together in ways that resemble Durkheim’s idea of organic solidarity; it allows for new contacts and flexible cooperation, enables horizontal decision-making and the mobilisation of large numbers of people for a common cause, and brings people from different walks of life together. Working for and with each other seems easier than ever.

But a key question for the world of work, and for social cohesion generally, is whether the digital transformation of work redounds to the benefit of workers, or to the benefit of capital. If cultivating social cohesion is our aim, then we should strive for a digital revolution that minimises extreme class divisions and has the potential to draw us together.

There are signs of hope in cases where these potentials have been tapped, particularly in the movement of platform co-operativism that applies the old principle of worker co-ops to businesses in the digital age.

But we need to learn more lessons from the successes and failures of those using digital tools to revolutionise work. As John Dewey once wrote: “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable.” Optimists might say: “Invent the internet and democratically organised work is inevitable.”

Still, it took a long time, and multiple political struggles, for the printing press to usher in democracy. We should not be naïve about technology’s potentially splintering effects on the future of work. But neither should we be fatalistic – the potential for the digital revolution to create a world of work that brings our societies together is there. It is up to us to unlock it.

Lisa Herzog is Professor of Political Philosophy and Theory at the Technical University of Munich. She is the author of Reclaiming the System: Moral Responsibility, Divided Labour, and the Role of Organizations in Society.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. He tweets @ajwendland.