Algorithm bosses: No yelling, but lots of micromanaging


Enterprise workers today use technologies such as computers, smartphones, mobile apps, and cloud platforms as tools that allow them to be more productive and efficient.

In the workplace of the future, however, the stakes will be raised: Employees will collaborate and interact with advanced technologies such as algorithms, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI). And some workers will even report to a machine or algorithm.

So what will that be like? While I can only speculate, Uber drivers already know. In her book, Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, Alex Rosenblat, a technology ethnographer and a researcher at Data & Society, examines how the rideshare service’s algorithms are impacting drivers and how they do their jobs.

Rosenblat tells Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that while Uber considers its drivers to be independent contractors and not employees, “they’re actually managed by a boss, it’s just an algorithmic boss, and algorithms are basically just rules encoded in software. They enact the rules that Uber sets out for how drivers should behave on the job.”

Sounds a bit cold. Yet Rosenblat, who talked with numerous Uber drivers and logged thousands of miles with them, says she’s learned through these conversations that “many drivers prefer to have a faceless boss instructing them on how to behave because it’s a little less disruptive than a human boss who is not great and might yell at you.”

On the other hand, she notes, “an algorithmic manager can intervene in much more granular ways in how you behave, like when you brake too harshly or accelerate too quickly, or when a passenger claims that you’re drunk.”

That can be seen as oppressive micromanagement or helpful guidance, depending on the employee. Even the context can determine how employees will view the invisible but constant presence of an algorithmic supervisor. Maybe it wears on some people over time; others might thrive because strict performance parameters and granular feedback are comforting to them.

As someone who works remotely, I can see the benefits of frequent feedback and contact. After all, working in a vacuum often is a prelude to disaster. But by eliminating opportunities for human interaction, enterprises may be setting themselves up for more problems. For example, lack of emotional support can cause employees to lose their enthusiasm and sense of belonging, and I doubt a pep talk from an algorithm is an adequate substitute for a face-to-face meeting or even a chatty phone call with another person.

Do you think you could handle being supervised (and judged) by a machine? Are you already? Let us know in the comments section below.

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