Automation? Developing world? This is supposed to be a photography blog, not The Economist! I know. I know. Have patience, dear reader, and it will come together soon. And I promise there will be photos. Let me explain: I have a fascination with photographing Pakistan’s working class. I was born and raised there and have a tremendous amount of respect for the resilience, work ethic and ingenuity of the common people. Whenever I visit, I try to capture elements of that spirit through photography. Some readers may have seen some of my earlier work from there on this site. Here’s the twist: my day job is in tech – one could call my work Silicon Valley-ish – and the big buzzword these days is ‘automation’. The robots are coming and soon we all be out of work. Well, that last bit may just be hyperbole but in reality, no one really seems to know how it will play out. And developing countries may be hardest hit. That’s exactly what was on my mind on my photo walks during a recent trip back home. Keep in mind that in Pakistan, much like the rest of the developing world, manual work is the engine that powers the economy.
To refer to this kind of work as a ‘job’ trivializes it. Often these are vocations, skills, carefully honed crafts that are passed from generation to generation. It is a source of purpose, meaning and most importantly a way to make an honest living and provide for a family.
It is important here not to underplay the physical toll of manual labor. Often this is back-breaking work that brings with it long-term health consequences. It is easy to extol the virtues of it from a word processor on a computer.
That said, it is possible to learn from recent experience with technology and chart a different path. Perhaps, a more prudent approach is possible that focuses on automating grunt work mainly, while preserving other, more creative forms of manual work. The rising demand for ‘hand-crafted’ goods in the developed world suggests that such an approach may be viable.The key of course would be to foster a culture that ascribes greater value to this kind of work and compensates accordingly and fairly.
Amazon is already testing stores where the entire shopping experience can be completed without a single human interaction! Is the world ready for that?
And yet, there are some jobs that machines just can’t do.
Let’s not forget that there is a philosophical element to this discussion. Work that is done by hand has an intangible value, for the consumer as well as the producer. The former acquires something distinct, incorporating unique characteristics derived from the specific context and workmanship of the producer. The latter on the other hand, experiences the satisfaction of creating something of value, something unique, offering a small piece of themselves to this world. Finally, there is an invisible human element at play in such an exchange – a social experience that cannot be quantified.
How any of this plays out remains to be seen. At this point in time, where the AI on our smartphones still struggles with auto-correct, it is safe to say that our robot overlords are not descending upon us any time soon. So, while we humans are still in charge, let us at a minimum, develop an appreciation for the world we have now, where the human element is still alive. Perhaps this will have the effect of making us more introspective, thereby forcing us to take a more considered approach towards our collective future.