2/1/19

Review: The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work by Richard Baldwin

There is an interesting new book out by Richard Baldwin, titled appropriately enough, THE GLOBOTICS UPHEAVAL: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work.

Here is a quick summary of the book, as provided at the Oxford University Press website, Baldwin's publisher for the book:
  • Compelling analysis of how a new form of globalization will combine with software robots to disrupt service-sector and professional jobs in the same way automation and trade disrupted manufacturing jobs in the past
  • Puts today's disruption in the context of two historical cycles where technological impulses produced economic transformations, upheavals, backlashes, and resolutions
  • Provides a concise overview of what types of jobs will be affected by software robots and pervasive translation that open new opportunities for outsourcing to tele-migrants
  • Argues persuasively that future jobs will be more human and involve more face-to-face contact since software robots and tele-migrants will do everything else

Globotics is not new

While I found the book interesting, I found many of its arguments (as in the case of telecommuting) simplistic and rather problematic.  Also, the wider argument it makes about technology is not new. In fact, the argument has already been made in globalisation studies, sociology and political science, and in a much more developed and sophisticated way.  And it is this later point that I want to focus on here:

In such fields as sociology, for example, one can go all the way back to C. Wright Mill's and his famous White Collar to find prescient prognoses about the future of middle-class work in light of forthcoming advances in technology.  Perhaps, though, the more well-known intellectual timeline, which I regularly teach students -- albeit highly abridged here and therefore, in many ways, wrong! -- runs as follows:
  • First  there is the whole literature on social class, going back to the 1800s -- which was largely a reaction to shifts in technology, particularly the emergence of industrialization.
  • Okay, so that literature is a bit wide.  But, moving along to the 1970s, there is post-industrialization, as outlined in such works as Daniel Bell's The Coming of Postindustrial Society
  • As post-industrialization spreads, one needs to then take into consideration the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and world system theory, which outlines the historical advance of globalisation into contemporary times.
  • From here one moves on to the world of Manuel Castells and others (Giddens, Held, etc) on global network society and the more recent advances in globalisation.
  • In turn, one moves to the work of Sylvia Walby and Patricia Hill Collins and others (e.g., intersectionality theory) on the inequality produced by globalisation, relative to issues such as ethnicity, social class and gender.
  • From here, one can move on to other well-known 'popular' reviews of globalisation, which address the same topics as Baldwin. Of these, one of the more popular is Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
  • Then, intersecting with this literature are other related areas of study:
Again, this list would most likely be developed differently by others.  And there are a variety of other literature that I would include if I was being thorough.  But, it does get to the basic point: we have been aware for some time that globalisation and the advance of its global socio-cybernetic infrastructure are profoundly changing the nature of work across all levels of global society.

Still, Globotics makes a key point

Still, despite the significant problems with his argument -- including the need to acknowledge this wider literature -- Baldwin's work can be used to make a key point, which I sought to articulate in, The Defiance of Global Commitment.

My point is as follows:

In many ways, the current backlash against our global commitments to one another, particularly across western society, has very much to do with the failure of public policy to adequately address the negative impact that post-industrialization and globalisation have had on the working and middle classes.  All of which has helped to fuel the negative psychology that has become part of our political discourse.

Now, as technology advances, this negative impact will be more concretely experienced by the professional classes.  And, it will not just be in terms of their work lives.  Given the current impact that technological advance is having on income and salaries, it will also lead to problems regarding retirement, healthcare, housing, social entitlements, the cost of living and so forth -- all of which will be further felt given that so many western societies are greying and getting older.

In short, one can expect that the Globotics Upheaval, if not managed through effective public policy and rigorous democratic debate (both within and amongst the countries of the world) will further incite rather than reduce the current negative psychology that is becoming more widespread.  And, this is a serious concern, as this negative psychology is getting in the way of us making the sorts of global commitments that we, as a global society, so desperately need to embrace if we are to make good on the complex global social problems we presently face.

And, it is for such reasons that the wider literature on globalisation (even if ignored by the pop press) remains very important, primarily because it gives us a context for having these much-needed discussions and reminding us that the problems we presently face are not new.  In fact, academics have been saying it for a while now.



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