The future has a history – and so do our current discussions about technological change and the future of work. On February 20, Richard A. Bachmann, a graduate student in history at the University of Michigan, talked about the importance of revisiting the history of the future of work. He emphasized that this history offers perspectives which can enrich our conversations about the future of work—perspectives which might have been marginalized or largely forgotten. 

To underline his point, Richard talked about his current research on James Boggs and Charles Denby, two black autoworkers, labor organizers, and writer-editors from Detroit. In the 1950s and 60s, Boggs and Denby wrote about the impact of automation and cybernation on the workforce in Detroit’s auto plants and beyond. At that time, the spread of automated and computer-controlled machinery in factories, offices, and transportation stoked similar fears of large-scale unemployment as do current scenarios of the proliferation of artificial intelligence and ‘the rise of the robots.’

In his 1963 book The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, James Boggs emphasized that automation has the potential to permanently push a large number of workers out of the workforce. This demands for a radical rethinking of the value of work in society. If human labor is less and less necessary in an automated economy, then one’s social standing and esteem can no longer be defined through one’s ability to work. Boggs furthermore highlighted that technological change affects some social groups more severely than others. Automation particularly displaced black and female workers and decreased the employment opportunities of youth entering the labor market. This is a point today’s commentators on the impact of technological change on the future of work hardly make.

In contrast to Boggs, Charles Denby focused on the effects of automated machinery on the workers in his 1960 pamphlet Workers Battle Automation. In line with current critics of ‘end of work scenarios’ like Kim Moody or Aaron Benanav, Denby showed that the deployment of new technology kills jobs not simply because robots suddenly replace humans. Rather, automated machinery forces humans to work more than before. As a result, a job formerly done by two workers now must be done by just one. For the remaining worker, the machine-induced “speed-up” severely increases the risks to mental and physical health. For the other worker, it means unemployment.

After his presentation, Richard and the audience discussed the relevance of bringing the voices of the past like Boggs’s and Denby’s into our current conversations about technology and the future of work. They agreed that the history of the future of work awaits to be explored further.