Digitalization is for the Poor
“Human contact is now a luxury good,” Nellie Bowles claims in her famous article published in the New York Times. Until recently, everyday online communication has been a privilege of the wealthy, but today the situation reverses: the wealthy prefer personalized services involving the emotional labour of living people. The specificity of the new trend is that automation and digitalization become a destiny of the poor, while human contact becomes a luxury good and an item of conspicuous consumption.
At first sight, the situation resembles a well-known process described by Robert Allen, Professor of Economic History, as it applies to the industrial revolution in England: long-term demographic effects of the depopulation caused by the St. Sebastian's disease in the 14th century resulted in driving up wages. The employable population had declined, which led to a reduction in competitive pressure in the labour market and an increase in wages. In turn, too much expensive human labour made the introduction of technologies not only possible but indeed beneficial.
Tamagotchi Comes Back
Nowadays, the use of electronic gadgets, mostly smartphones and pads, is being actively promoted as a means of cutting costs, first of all, in the operation of some sectors such as education and public healthcare. We may recall recent discussions about the adoption of online education in Russia.
Technology startups in the USA, such as Care.Coach, supplying nurse programs, allow health care providing institutions saving substantial amounts of money. Bowles briefly describes in her article the principle of operation of the program: it is some kind of Tamagotchi, an electronic toy children of the 1990s are very familiar with: a virtual character living on a pad. The user can keep company with the program approximately in the same mode, in which it can talk with personal digital assistants in smartphones; the difference is that employees hired by Care.Coach via outsourcing ‘play’ for the virtual cat.
Patricia Richards and her digital pet Bella / Source
Yet, the main function of programs like Care.Coach is to satisfy the users’ need for contact and emotional attachment. Bowles writes with reference to the company founders that the virtual pet allows health care providing institutions saving up to 90,000 US Dollars because the patients, who came to the urgent admitting office just to get moral support, stay now at home with their pads. In terms of financing, the hospital staff should not perform ‘unrelated’ functions to be performed by care workers; and in theory, the programs like Care.Coach remove them from the burden of additional time and financial expenditures.
Digitalization is for the Poor
Care.Coach is just one example of the use of digital technologies to substitute the labour of care and medical workers. However, this example is illustrative because it prominently demonstrates the basic features of the trend:
Firstly, technologies save time and power of social workers, so the emergence of a commercial niche for similar startups in the long run is the result of the neoliberal reforms aimed at cutting social expenditures of the state.
Secondly, the simplest technologies are used for this purpose. Contrary to the rhetoric accompanying the implementation of such programs, the startups like Care.Coach have little relevance to high technologies; in other words, it is in actual fact just a pad with a cam connected to a technical support which employs low-skilled workers with paltry wages.
Thirdly, this kind of ‘digitalization’ is initially focused on the most vulnerable segments of the population: poor, single, elderly people who do not have access to any attractive niche in the labour market or to the active life within their community or their district. The British film of 2016 ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a good illustration of these processes.
At the same time, the rich and the super-wealthy people strive for exactly the opposite: they spend big money to be able to return from the ‘digital’ world to ‘analog’ one. According to Bowles, today the technology elite of the Silicon Valley increasingly appreciates the possibility of ‘disconnecting’ digital networks (the need to be online around the clock has become part of the compulsory labour discipline for employees of middle and lower echelon of the corporate hierarchy), and, in particular, the schooling with the minimum use of digital technologies for their children.
Human Being Sounds…Expensive
Bowles wrote that that dynamics was in some measure explained by the pursuance of the conspicuous consumption, i.e. a response to the intrinsic democratic nature of digital technologies: computers and smartphones are relatively cheap, and belonging of certain gadget models and ranges to the luxury good segment is not connected with their features, most online services are for free and do not make it possible to demonstrate the social status.
The second reason is moral panic related to studies of psychologists and specialists in learning processes, which indicate the negative impact of gadgets on cognitive abilities of children at a young age.
In addition, the transformation of human interaction, involving emotions and contributing to the socialization of children and adolescents, into luxury goods may be related to the fact that in an era of rapid development and reduction of technologies in cost ‘human’ qualities and abilities, which cannot be automated, yet become more important and more expensive.