Ann Bartow on “Robots as Labor Creating Devices: Robotic Technologies and the Expansion of the Second Shift”

Robots as Labor Creating Devices: Robotic Technologies and the Expansion of the Second Shift
Ann Bartow

Automation often incompletely replaces human employees in service related positions, and the leftover tasks become the responsibility of the consumer, who is forced into performing ever increasing amounts of self service. For example, ATMs and online banking programs require account holders to perform the tasks that human bank tellers used to undertake for depositors. A bank statement used to arrive regularly in the mail, but now one must track our savings and expenditures online, using complex passwords and secure servers if one wishes to avoid automated bank robbery. A hard copy must be self-printed at home. If one has any unique questions about one’s finances, she must survive a gauntlet of automated phone options to reach a live person.

Ann Bartow

Ann Bartow

A different but related consequence of automation is a ratcheting upward of standards. Automation may reduce the labor associated with a task, but there is a new expectation that the task should therefore be performed more often or with elevated results. Housekeeping tasks like floor cleaning can be delegated to robots, but preparing a floor to be cleaned by a robot can require de-cluttering, moving power cords and rearranging furniture. At the end of each robotic floor cleaning session, everything must be put back into place. Because sweeping and vacuuming robots have the capacity to clean continuously, this creates expectations that floors should always be freshly cleaned. While the per episode work input required might be lessened by a robot, any labor savings are likely offset by the increased frequency of the cleanings.

One might assume that when robots can complete tasks that female humans would otherwise have to undertake in the home or on the job, the workload on human women is reduced. This paper challenges that notion, and posits that in some contexts robots actually increase the workloads of the humans they putatively serve, that this trend is significant, and that it has a disproportionately negative impact on women, thereby exacerbating “the second shift,” preexisting gendered work gaps related to housework, child rearing, and caregiving.

Ann Bartow will present Robots as Labor Creating Devices:Robotic Technologies and the Expansion of the Second Shift on Friday, April 4th at 11:45 AM with discussant Jodi Forlizzi at the University of Miami Newman Alumni Center in Coral Gables, Florida.

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