A worker used automation to do his job for him, but is it ethical?

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Amongst the proletariat automation is almost exclusively referenced with embittered tones.  Even though the procedure is and has been an established point of contention in society for centuries, it’s never managed to shed its distinction as the favored portent of economic downfall.

It’s not uncommon to come across think pieces about how robots will be flipping hamburgers, performing vasectomies, and telling jokes at the Catskills, by 2021, galvanizing a new generation of faux-Luddites to resist the hyperbolized technological revolution. What these calculations fail to take into account, is the central grievance that motivated the industrial protest that occurred more than 200 years ago.

The Luddites were not a collection of inept peasants resistant to industrialization wholesale-they merely wanted to interdict the preference of machinery as a way of circumventing standard labor practices. “Instead of paying skilled worker overtime to do a task exceptionally, I’ll save money on an inanimate machine that’ll do the work twice as long and half as well.” A true Luddite fears being supplanted by computerization at quality’s expense.  Remember humans are innately adaptable and automation only eliminates jobs, not the work itself.

The ethics of virtual collaboration

Recently, a worker set off an ongoing ethical debate after posting his story in a Slackexchange forum, titled Is it unethical to not tell my employer that I automated my job? The unnamed user expounds below:

“I currently work on a legacy system for a company. The system is really old – and although I was hired as a programmer, my job is pretty much-glorified data entry. To summarise, I get a bunch of requirements, which is literally just lots of data for each month on spreadsheets and I have to configure the system to make it work, which is basically just writing a whole bunch of SQL scripts. As you can guess, it is pretty much the most boring job ever. However, it’s a full-time job with decent pay, and I work remotely so I can stay home with my son. So I’ve been doing it for about 18 months and in that time, I’ve basically figured out all the traps to the point where I’ve actually written a program which for the past six months has been just doing the whole thing for me. So what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes to clean the spreadsheet and run it through the program.  Now the problem is, do I tell them? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me. This isn’t like a company with tons of IT work – they have a legacy system where they keep all their customer data since forever, and they just need someone to maintain it. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the right thing. I mean, right now, once I get the specs, I run it through my program – then every week or so, I tell them I’ve completed some part of it and get them to test it. I even insert a few bugs here and there to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.”

The discussion that followed got picked up by several online publications. The response variance survived on whether or not compensation was based on time or results. While keeping the program from his employers is inarguably deceptive in either scenario, the decision to do so can be forgiven if wages are not determined by hours put in. In fact, earning results as efficiently but quicker than a human worker would, might even justify a salary increase, under these stipulations.

At the time same, if the company was made aware of how much they could save by eliminating an unnecessary contributor to their overall earnings, they would certainly do so. The best-reasoned concession suggested the worker use their copious free time to search for a job better tailored toward their programming skills and then supply their current employer with the automation tools they used to complete tasks once a new position is secured.

The user wrote on Hacker News“A good litmus test to know if there is abuse is to reverse the role. Is it wrong for a company to charge market rate if they can produce an order of magnitude cheaper than their competitors? Sure the employee-employer relationship is not the same as B2B and we don’t know exactly the contract he signed … but if you, like me, are down that line of thought where you have already implicitly admitted that although it is clear the company is right but somehow it feels wrong for the employee? Well, in that case, the employee is right not to say anything. And to align with your advice, like the company above, use the opportunity to use the time to the most profitable fashion.”

Whichever side of the line you fall on, the wrangle effectively disciplines the purported catastrophe of economic change.  Human intuition will never be outmoded and technology is not the only molder of the workforce. The future of automation is a fluid exchange of resources and abilities-a collaboration, not a takeover.

That isn’t to say every worker will survive the cocooning process,  which is why adaptability needs to be given more credence early on. Wellness author, Ellen Rupel Shell implores us to be engrossed in our work as opposed to married to our jobs so that we remain flexible in the face of industry growth; labors that do not are expendable.

Ethical slights are fashionably lobed at employers that are allured by the temptation to automate activities. As it stands, 60% of occupations can conceivably be automated.  When this number is reported, it’s usually mimetic of a labor holocaust, the vitriol of which is impassioned by science fiction jargon.

The thing is, the idea of utilizing tools is a primordial one. So before you question the ethics of increased automation, ask yourself if there is a meaningful difference between employing a program to maintain data entry to save time, and employing a fire to stay warm.