Metropolis, the Fritz Lang masterpiece, depicts a futuristic urban dystopia and follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city master, and Maria, a saintly figure to the workers, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classes in their city and bring the workers together with Joh Fredersen, the city master. Fast forward from 1927 to 2020 and a new, automated dystopia looms in an excellent The Verge essay titled How Hard Will Robots Make Us Work?
To whit ...
The robots are watching over hotel housekeepers, telling them which room to clean and tracking how quickly they do it. They’re managing software developers, monitoring their clicks and scrolls and docking their pay if they work too slowly. They’re listening to call center workers, telling them what to say, how to say it, and keeping them constantly, maximally busy. While we’ve been watching the horizon for the self-driving trucks, perpetually five years away, the robots arrived in the form of the supervisor, the foreman, the middle manager.
These automated systems can detect inefficiencies that a human manager never would — a moment’s downtime between calls, a habit of lingering at the coffee machine after finishing a task, a new route that, if all goes perfectly, could get a few more packages delivered in a day. But for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves of respite and autonomy, and as these little breaks and minor freedoms get optimized out, their jobs are becoming more intense, stressful, and dangerous. Over the last several months, I’ve spoken with more than 20 workers in six countries. For many of them, their greatest fear isn’t that robots might come for their jobs: it’s that robots have already become their boss.
It gets better.
The worker who used Cogito, for instance, had only a minute to fill out insurance forms between calls and only 30 minutes per month for bathroom breaks and personal time, so she handled call after call from people dealing with terminal illnesses, dying relatives, miscarriages, and other traumatic events, each of which she was supposed to complete in fewer than 12 minutes, for 10 hours a day. “It makes you feel numb,” she said. Other workers spoke of chronic anxiety and insomnia, the result of days spent having emotionally raw conversations while, in the words of one worker, “your computer is standing over your shoulder and arbitrarily deciding whether you get to keep your job or not.” This form of burnout has become so common the industry has a name for it: “empathy fatigue.” Cogito, in an ebook explaining the reason for its AI, likens call center workers to trauma nurses desensitized over the course of their shift, noting that the quality of representatives’ work declines after 25 calls. The solution, the company writes, is to use AI to deliver “empathy at scale.”
Read the essay in its entirety to see why Metropolis was prescient to a fault.