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Will Technology Help Eliminate BS Jobs?

  • Osama Rizvi 
Lazy inefficient businessman in the office
Lazy inefficient businessman sitting at desk and staring at Newton’s cradle balls moving.

As mentioned in one of the previous articles (How Technology Aims to Revolutionize Trucking), one of the aspects of our economy that I constantly think about is people doing jobs that might not be productive, meaningful, and useful for their own growth. Interestingly, there is a whole academic framework for categorizing such jobs, and David Graeber, an anthropologist and activist – who played a key role in Occupy Wall Street movement coined the concept of Bullshit Jobs.

What qualifies as Bullshit jobs? According to Graeber, the original critique he published in an article for Strike was against the “predatory nature of the capitalist system.” The definition of a bullshit job is that the person doing it feels that their contribution to society is meaningless and in a way even harms it. The person doing it needs to pretend that the work they are doing means something. One should not confuse bullshit jobs with bad jobs, which are often tiring, exhausting, and pay less, etc. Graeber further adds that these jobs also erode you spiritually and morally hence we see many highly unhappy but employed people (they are unhappy because they know that nothing useful or meaningful is being contributed).

Now we will look at an aspect of technology that is making inroads and creating inducing significant changes: Artificial Intelligence. Already technology has taken over most of the human professions and is drastically automating manmade setups and industries. Data shows that the use of AI in many business sectors has grown by 270% over the last four years. If it continues to penetrate the industries and businesses with the same ardor, then surely most of the professions will be robots driven in the next five to 10 years. In fact, 90% of leading businesses already have ongoing investments in AI technologies. More than half of businesses implementing some manner of AI-driven technology report experiencing greater productivity.

According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2020”, AI is expected to replace 85 million jobs worldwide by 2025. Though that sounds scary, the report says it will also create 97 million new jobs in that same timeframe.

In an essay posted on Medium, AI guru Kai-Fu Lee — CEO of Sinovation Ventures and author of the 2018 book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order” — posits that AI will automate 50% of all jobs within 15 years.

“Accountants, factory workers, truckers, paralegals, and radiologists — just to name a few — will be confronted by a disruption akin to that faced by farmers during the Industrial Revolution,” he wrote. “As research suggests, the pace in which AI will replace jobs will only accelerate, impacting the highly trained and poorly educated alike.” AI is likely to have a strong impact on certain sectors in particular:

Illusttration by Hira Shah

Now we will connect these ideas. Can the use of AI reduce or eliminate Bullshit jobs? It can introduce more humanity to the world, people can take a break from drudgery and pursue their own passions and projects. Graeber wasn’t the only one that dreamt of this. In his essay, In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell dreams of a world where people only work four hours a day, leaving sufficient room for creativity. “Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion”, he says.

Thinkers like Lewis Mumford have also postulated some arguments in this regard. He talks about wealth distribution technologies focusing on “concrete wealth” rather than money as the latter has fed this monster of “excessive accumulation”. Recently, the trend of “quiet quitting” has taken over. Unlike the name suggests it isn’t about quitting your job. It is about not doing overwork or anything other than what was assigned to you i.e., doing the bare minimum. This trend has been catching up lately, especially after the pandemic, as work from home has become the new norm. There is a reason why everyone is talking about it – workplaces and the nature of work, in many cases, continue to be toxic. Global workforce report 2022 by Gallup shows only 9 percent of UK workers, for example, were engaged or enthusiastic about their jobs.

I, for once, would love to see a world where robots and algorithms replace these bullshit jobs; delivery guys doing rounds every day, the truckers driving hundreds of thousands of miles, the workers at Amazon who almost work in a robotic fashion (their bathroom breaks are timed!). Thinking about my part of the world where the laborers toil in the scorching sun: queues lined up: administrative hindrances exist, making it all worse. All of this, and for all of those people, it needs to get better. We, as humans, deserve a better and more meaningful life; maybe robots will help us in achieving that.