By clicking “Accept All Cookies,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation and analyze site usage.

Skip to main content

Summertime Blues or Second Machine Age Ramifications?

August 19, 2015

In case you were on a well-deserved — and hopefully paid — vacation this month without your news feeds buzzing, it was a busy time for digital economy news. Media, such as Huffington Post, wrote effusively about Netflix’s announcement to “offer something completely unheard of in the corporate world: unlimited parental leave for the first year of a child’s life.”

“We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances…” Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer, was quoted as saying. “We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay.”

HuffPo called the program “Pretty Freaking Great” until the full details of the policy, and its exceptions, were also reported by the web site (see below).

This was all happening as word trickled out that Google Express workers are seeking unionization for better working conditions.Google, which Slate called the “Happiness Machine” two years ago, is a huge proponent of long maternity and paternity leave, gourmet lunch food, employee perks and free-flowing innovation. Apparently, though, the perks are different for contract employees.

The factory, workers who fill and ship the much-lauded same-day express orders at Google’s Palo Alto, Calif., warehouse, officially work for Adecco, an agency Google outsourced to do its hiring. The workers have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a representation election and The Wall Street Journal reported that they want to rectify poor conditions, low wages, and lack of benefits, pension and vacation time.

Fortune noted that: “Silicon Valley tech companies have long preferred to use contractors for work outside of core jobs as a way to save money on benefits and salaries. Facing intense criticism, companies like Apple and Google have recently started to reverse course and convert security guards to full-time employees, with benefits.”

Not to be left out of the debate, The New York Times ran a front-page article on Aug. 15, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, saying that hundreds of current and former employees report that “Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long hours” and forget about any work/life balance.

“Even as the company tests delivery by drone … the company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions,” the extensive article says.

CEO Jeff Bezos [also owner of rival Washington Post], declined to be interviewed for the article, but began his own campaign denying the reports. The company’s chief told employees that he didn’t recognize the “soulless, dystopian workplace” that he said was depicted in The New York Times article and that people would be “crazy” to stay if the report were true.

And getting back to Netflix, a few days after its glowing story, the HuffPo news service posted a blog noting that Not All Netflix Workers Will Get ‘Unlimited’ Parental Leave. Apparently, “Employees in Netflix’s declining, but very profitable, DVD division aren’t covered by the new policy,” a spokeswoman told the web site.

What’s going on and why should anyone outside of these firms care about this summertime war of words?

I’d say because it’s about much more than some slow, summer news days.

Hype and counter-hype aside, serious issues with broad implications for the future of the tech industry, automation, the digital economy and labor are at stake.

The human and societal ramifications of an intense focus on technological speed, productivity, data-driven decision-making and cost-savings are under scrutiny at the MIT IDE. For all those who thrive and benefit from the rapid-fire pace at high-tech businesses, many more may be left unemployed or underemployed in its wake. This isn’t new, but it’s accelerating. In their book, Second Machine Age, Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson examined these critical issues and others relating to the future of work.

Media exposure—even if it’s a bit bungled or naïve — reminds us that the digital economy, while hugely rewarding for some, can also be blistering and unequal. When that conundrum is rectified and businesses can also excel and thrive, it will be the biggest news flash of all.