The effect of digitomation on workers: We the sellers

The night of September 6, 2019

In September of 2019, two pieces of news were gripping the Indian media. The first one was about the unfortunate event where India failed to soft-land the lunar rover (Chandrayan-2) on the surface of the moon. For India, the stakes were high with this mission because, if successful, India would have become the fourth country in the world to place a rover on the moon. Even though the project was a failure, the accomplishment of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), established in 1962, was considered spectacular. Staying true to the trend set in 2014, when ISRO accomplished its Mars mission within $74 million, Chandrayan-2 was also a low-budget venture. Given the fact that the budget for the 2019 sci-fi movie Avengers: Endgame was a staggering $356 million, ISRO’s space missions, which cost only a tenth of that, drew global attention.1 The other news that had dominated Indian media, on the same day, was that Zomato, the food delivery giant, planned to lay off 10% of its workforce. Launched in the Indian capital city, New Delhi, in 2008, Zomato has grown from a home project to one of the largest food aggregators in the world. It currently operates in more than 10,000 cities in twenty-four countries and enjoys a market value of $3.6 billion.2 But despite its growing success, Zomato was deciding to cut down its workforce.

Even though these two incidents might seem unrelated, there are visible traces of a pattern behind India, an emerging economy, entering the elite club of nations planning interplanetary ventures, and one of its food delivery giants shedding its global workforce. The underlying reason behind these was the same: the rapid growth of digital and computation driven automation, a trend that we term “digitomation.” In fact, while announcing the job cuts, Zomato made its rationale very clear: “The reason behind the move [of cutting down its workforce] is an improved Zomato platform with Artificial Intelligence (AI)- driven bots and automation in resolving customer queries which has led to an overall reduction in direct order-related support queries.”3 On the one hand, the technology of computers, software design, AI, and robotics make it possible for India to venture into the interplanetary world, connecting its 1.35 billion people to the global field of advanced technology and superior lifestyle. But on the other hand, these technological advancements are the forces that are continuously driving a large section of the workforce to lose their livelihood.

Individuals carry two fundamental identities within themselves—a seller identity and a buyer identity. As sellers, we establish our value in the productive economy either by selling our physical or intellectual skills. And as buyers or consumers, we buy products and services manufactured and provided by others. Our effectivity, as sellers of skills, provides us with purchasing power, which, in turn, gets used to buy goods and services for our daily lives. The balance between the seller and the buyer identities maintains our positions in societies and reinforces our worth in the economy. As modern civilization has progressed, technology has started playing an intrinsic role in the overall ecosystem, thereby influencing both our producer as well as consumer identities.

In The Future ofJobs Report 2018, published by the World Economic Forum, it was noted that

[some] workers are experiencing expanding opportunities in a variety of new and emerging job roles, while others are encountering a rapid decline in a range of conventional job roles which were traditionally considered “safe bets” and gateways to [their] lifetime career[s].4

The digitomation and “second machine age” that is resulting in scientific, social, and economic growth across the globe is unique in the sense that it treats workers from two extreme perspectives. While it values a workforce with a particular type of skillset (commonly known as high-skilled workers), at the same time, it diminishes the role of a large section of the global labor pool in the productive economy. These “unfortunate” workers are those who do not possess the skill set that is needed in the digital era. This asymmetric treatment of new-age technologies toward human skills is forcing individuals to drift apart based on their skill possessions. So, when we view the world using our producer or seller identities, it seems exceptionally spherical. This perspective is very much different from looking through the lenses of an everyday consumer to whom, undoubtedly, with each new invention of digitomation, the world is getting flatter. The story of digitomation’s impact on societies is the saga of the conflict between our seller and buyer identities. Let us now look into the most-discussed one—how digitomation is forcing us apart in our work lives.

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