In the Brandenburg town of Wustermark, the new distribution center of a drugstore company was recently visited. Robots pack the pallets for branches in Northern Germany here. Only technicians are needed to keep operations going in the almost deserted halls. There are still manual picking stations for unusual package formats, but most of the work is done automatically. Computers ensure that the individual boxes of shampoo, tomato juice or baby items are stacked on the pallets precisely and in the right order so that the employees in the shops have to walk as short as possible to stock the shelves. Similarly, largely digitized logistics technology can also be found in many other industries.
As in Wustermark, the advancing digitization is changing the organization of production and work processes as well as the work content. At the same time, new business models are emerging, while “classic” models lose their attractiveness. The effects of the corona pandemic are likely to accelerate such processes, at least temporarily, as the boom in online trading and the lack of customers in stationary retail show.
According to a study by the Institute for Employment Research, digitization has a “relatively moderate” effect on the labor market. While jobs with routine activities disappeared, new jobs with higher qualifications would be created. By 2025, 490,000 jobs could be lost and 430,000 created in German industry. At the same time, the change to a service society is advancing.
“The problem with such studies, however, is always that those who lose their jobs are completely different from those who find new work, and that the studies deliberately keep quiet about this problem,” notes the economist Heinz-J. Bontrup. Researchers also ignored the “question of order”. Capitalism is not about the fair distribution of work and good working conditions, but about maximizing the rate of profit. If economic research institutes such as ZEW or Ifo assume that work that is no longer required creates space for other work that cannot be automated, then this shows “a complete ignorance of capitalist organized work,” writes the spokesman for the Alternative Economic Policy working group in his with the sociologist Jürgen Daub published book about the new world of work.
However, the debate is moving away from the question of the »substitutability potential« of digitization, i.e. which jobs will be dropped or new ones will be created. The authors praise the search for the design needs and possibilities of work within the digitization processes. The Federal Ministry of Labor has published a white paper on this, and the DGB-affiliated Hans Böckler Foundation has presented numerous “food for thought” to work in the digital transformation as a study by the “Work of the Future” commission. Verdi and IG Metall tried to conclude formative collective agreements for the future.
However, practice should be based on a good theory. The authors of Bontrup and Daub are less concerned with empirical research than with historical, philosophical and socio-economic discussions. Such as a »model of leisure« or the computer paradox: Rapid digitization does not lead to more, but to lower labor productivity. The variety of perspectives on the topic makes the book so worth reading.
According to the conclusion, digitization is not just any kind of productive force development like the steam engine used to be. “At no time has there been a society that has become so dependent on its technological basis as the digital society,” writes Daub. The whole of society is increasingly “delimited” digitally, not just in the area of wage labor. Up to Wustermark.
Heinz-J. Bontrup / Jürgen Daub (eds.): Digitization and technology – progress or curse? Perspectives of the development of productive forces in modern capitalism. Papyrossa, 321 pp., Br., € 22.