|Issue No 40||19 November 1999|
Art Shostak on Work, Wearables and CyberUnions
Nothing in the world of work may be the same if we begin wearing computers on our person early in the 21st Century. By 2005 or so our insatiable appetite for information should have us carrying a compact picture-phone/computer on our wrist and dictating to it by voice, even as we enjoy listening to its "voice" in turn.
We are likely to use it to access any type of information, anywhere, at anytime. Use it to stay "in the loop" and stay in touch with significant others all the time. Use it to send and receive messages in and all languages, as if our own. Use it to surf the Internet and Web with the stress-less help of "smart" software (Intelligent Agents) that provide useful information even before we ask for it. And, feel empowered by these information aids as never before!
Intelligent Agents, as pieces of software dedicated to studying us and serving us in cyberspace, resemble nothing so much as a weird combination of British butler, Asian Mandarin, Scotland Yard detective, and doting maiden aunt. We can each compose our own (housed in the "wearable" on our wrist) by agreeing for the rest of our lives to answer honestly its each and every question about us, the answers to which it will be programmed to use to creatively build a profile that may eventually tell it more about us than we probably know ourselves.
At the outset we will probably be dazzled, and enormously empowered. Whether or not we will get increasingly comfortable with our newfound dependence on them to advance our cause in cyberspace -to get us the best buys, to help us chose the best candidate, to guide our decision about whether to vote for or against a union drive - remains to be seen.
One of the major benficiaries of this computer use renaissance, this ubiquitous presence of computers -as-wearables, and our new "partnership" with Intelligent Agents, may be a revived Labor Movement, for even as the Millennium Year progressed, savy union activists moved to take full advantage of computer potentialities.
For example, smart unions are already busy creating interactive, rather than static Web sites. They intend to invite prospective members to use e-mail to send them tough questions the union can answer in public for all doubters to read. Their Web sites will feature typical contract clauses, the better to advertise concretely what organizing can help workers secure. They will highlight recent success stories of how being a unionized workplace actually helped an employer improve his or her bottom-line, thereby bolstering the chances the workers involved would continue to have a payroll. And they study one another's Web site so as to adapt American and overseas innovations continously and increasingly offered in cyberspace.
Reinvented now as a "CyberUnion," these 21st century labor organizations will be able - for the first time ever - to match the formidable progress business makes with computer applications, thereby showing an appreciative membership that these modern unions proudly "compute."
Imagine the difference this could make when added to the newfound ability of the average worker to learn nearly anything, anytime, anywhere merely by asking it of an Intelligent Agent housed in the computer worn on one's wrist. It is not to hard to forecast the emergence of a workforce, CyberUnion member and non-union member alike, more inquisitive and zesty than any in modern history. It is likely to re-write the rules about what can, should, and ought to be known by average blokes and ladies. It may force a redefinition of power and priviledge in the workplace and in the labor union - to the likely benefit of both.
Above all, the imminent arrival of ubiquitous PC-plus (or post-PC) computing makes it likely work in 2005 will have far less in common with the 20th century than many of us may be comfortable with. CyberUnions, Intelligent Agents, and virtual damn-near-everything promise one hellova turbulent time. It should be invigorating and memorable, provided we take care to care about one another. Intelligent Agents, for all of their intellectual prowess, are not likely to give a damn about whether we care for one another ... that soul-saving responsibility will always be especially ours, and all the more so in a Chrome-like 21st century.
Arthur B. Shostak is a Professor of Industrial Sociology, and the Director of the Center for Employment Futures, at Drexel University,Phil. PA. His 19th book, CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology, was published by M.E. Sharpe in July, 1999.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005