Covid 19 pandemic of 2020 introduced or pushed up quite a few so-called ‘innovations’. These include coinage of terms like ‘new normal’, ‘disruptive technology’, ‘work from home’ (WFH) etc. Associated with high-tech, digitization, artificial intelligence (AI) and their lot, these new terms are interrelated and bear significance in people’s life. Hence these demand attention and discussion.
To confront the pandemic, at least as it was proclaimed, the Union government clamped a country-wide lockdown in a 4-hour notice without any prior preparation whatsoever. The lockdown disrupted, rather paralyzed, the normal life, as people were shoved into home-confinement. With industries closing down, lakhs of workers were thrown out of their jobs. Having lost job and shelter, over 12 crores of migrant workers engaged in casual jobs hundreds of kilometres away from home had to walk back home to fend for themselves. The rulers, the monopolists and their corporate houses, as well as their faithful spokesmen, the government and ruling party leaders did not waste time to make use of the situation to reap commercial benefits trading on the hunger and destitution of the toiling masses. Their well-knit propaganda machinery and the pliant section of media were also geared up to make their well-woven ploy successful. They fiddled on a new tune : Start of a new normal. They assured that in the lockdown situation, people need not worry. Everything-starting from business, education, medical advice, financial transactions to fulfilling other basic needs including procurement of essential items would be available online. It hardly mattered, they affirmed, what percentage of population was equipped with means, materials and knowhow of online mode. Or what was the ground reality with internet connectivity, even required power supply. So the ‘new normal’ was characterized by a great divide: a digital divide, discriminating the country into haves with all requisites of online operation and have-nots scrambling to find way out. While the former scanty section welcomed new normal situation, the rest majority, the poor and economically backward, were in a severe disadvantage, resenting increasingly and tending to get frustrated.
Economy shattered before pandemic was further shaken during it
It may be recalled here that even prior to the pandemic, the economy of the country was sliding into dire straits, with growth limping beyond expectation, industries stagnating, acute recession staring at economy and unemployment reaching record heights. The only consolation was that it was not India alone which had been suffering. Countries of the entire capitalist world faced the same fate to a great or less extent. Adding fuel to the fire, the pandemic-induced lockdown stalled economic activities, disturbed daily job-routines, brought about unimaginable job loss particularly at the lower rung of economy, thus squeezed market because of drastic fall in purchasing power of vast majority thereby causing a massive shock to the economy. However, monopolists and their corporate houses, driven by their relentless profit hunt, were frantic for finding out ways and means to be creative and innovative. They found a new avenue to multiply profit in the ‘new normal’. With shutters being brought down in one industry after another, the IT- electronics industry made a giant leap forward. One CEO of an IT giant poured in Rs 70,000 crore in ‘Digital India’ campaign in only the education sector. The big medical facilities-providers started minting money through faceless treatment of helpless Covid19 patients lining up in tens , if not hundreds of thousands. The victims certainly included those falling back because of the great financial gulf arising out of the digital divide. So, the ‘new normal’ began baring its fangs as new aide to corporate plunder.
But to be frank, the ‘new normal’ is nothing new. Years back, the Union government had prepared a national education policy. It brought the policy to public domain as the Draft NEP (DNEP) in 2019. The DNEP affirmed “India is a global leader in ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and in other cutting-edge domains such as space”: p.339) but elsewhere in the same document contradicted the affirmation writing that “our present education system’s inability to cope with rapid and disruptive changes places us (individually and nationally) at a perilous disadvantage in an increasingly competitive world” (p.354). So it needed an all-out drastic change. And to get at what drastic change was envisaged, we need to go further back through about two decades. In 1997, when the capitalist world had been hopelessly scrambling for a way out from the then economic recession and market crisis, one Mr. Christensen from USA coined a term ‘Disruptive technology’in his book Innovator’s Dilemma. ‘Disruptive technology’ is an innovation that significantly ‘alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate., sweeping away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior’. For instance, Artificial Intelligence, e-commerce, GPS systems represent disruptive technologies of today. Though the protagonists of ‘disruptive technology’ tried to put discovery of automobile, electricity service, and television also in the same category, fact is that they represented developed and not disruptive technology. Clearly, by definition, origin and purpose, ‘disruptive technology’ has been a corporate innovation to somehow keep the sinking boat of capitalism afloat. And the DNEP advocated for this brand of technology for the education system of the country to get over the ‘disadvantage’ it faced. And the ‘new normal’ was based on that. It is true, the term ‘disruptive technology’ has not been used in the final NEP 2020, but it remained as the latent force to determine the outlook and approach not only in the field of reforms in education, but also in other fields like service industries, retail trade etc.. Digitization of social activities and use of artificial intelligence have become the slogans of the capitalist world today. So, the ‘new normal’ was a normal for IT-electronics giants to make a breakthrough in a pandemic stricken country. And the change from the old to the ‘new normal’ was designed to be made on ‘disruptive technology’ with a pretence to help consumers, industries, or businesses operate smoothly. But the actual intent was, and still it is, to mint profit on the pretext of running economy in an unsettling situation. Development of technology is supposed to come to the aide of common people, free them from giving otherwise unwanted labour, improve the standard of their life and thus foster their prosperity. But a development of technology in a class-divided capitalist society hardly comes to the benefit of the masses at large , rather is misused by the ruling capitalist class to reduce their cost of production by replacing manpower with machine by resorting to reckless retrenchment, lay-off etc. to maximize profit.
WFH: the new slogan following pandemic-lockdown
With such a background, there arose a third slogan of ‘Work from Home’ (WFH). Pandemic and lockdown prevented people from coming out from their home. No problem! You work from home! Only keep the wheel on!
But there has been a great digital divide even in this case. Establishments and enterprises that could make use of digital technology could ask their stakeholders and employees to work from home. It could be in education, health, business and such others, but the precondition was always there. Obviously, it required the infrastructure and resources to sustain the system of WFH. It was not meant for a farmer who feed the country, for a delivery boy who had to take pains to keep the lifeline of supply alive in the market; for a worker in the assembly line of a workshop which was yet to be automated; for an overwhelmingly large number of schools and their students-teachers and others who could not build up the infrastructure of online education or for a patient, say a Covid patient, who needed a one-to-one attention for his or her survival. So ‘WFH’ came really handy to a privileged few of the society.
Even then, the ‘WFH’ became popular. What else could be done in this difficult situation of lockdown; work cannot remain suspended for indefinite time– such were the common arguments presented by both the sides on the WFH route: the employer and the employee, the teacher and the student, the specialist doctor and the helpless patient or such others. The establishments and enterprises were happy; the larger they were , the happier they became. It cut down drastically the establishment costs including power tariff, water tax, security arrangements etc.; it could do away with travelling allowances for the employees and there were other avenues too. It meant huge drop in expenses for nearly the same output of service and production. In plain words, it meant a huge rise in profit. So those at the authority end, that is at the helm of the affairs, were elated beyond measure. And those at the other, that is down on the ground of work-activities were also pleased. It changed the daily routine, saved the rush hour hazards to and from the work-place or hazards of living in a distant workplace, kilometres away from home etc. Instead, it was the homely atmosphere of the home, in which they could work now. The corporate world, the monopolist-pliant media took up the cue and were all praise for ‘WFH’ to step up the campaign for it, to induce in the minds of the employees the convenience this mode of working has been providing to them.
But what is being suppressed in course of that is another important aspect. WFH meant a kind of self- isolation thrust in lieu of money. It did not necessarily fit with the work-routine hitherto followed. Hence it clashed with the daily routine at home. For home-makers such as working housewives, the two responsibilities tackled in a pattern earlier, suddenly took a wild turn. The two gradually became irreconcilable. Also for those without much to do with family responsibilities, the isolation ultimately was telling upon mind and body. Prolonged exposure to computer or smartphone also took their turn. Health hazards and even psychic problems started to grow.
After all workplaces were not merely a place to earn money. Those were and will still remain a part of the modern society. And with the normal working schedule, it covered or covers, a major part of the day. Man being a social entity, in addition to family, workplaces provide platforms to man to interact and be interrelated with others of the society. So from the day a youth, grown up enough to earn, enters a workplace, he or she builds up an association, which helps him or her to develop certain new traits of mind-set , cultural-moral structure. ‘WFH’ puts a stop to all this. It throws the person into a shell, where he/she loses even his/herself. He /she is simply a cog and screw of the workforce of his workplace, separate, singled-out and left face-to-face with the authority or the assignment. This is a position not normal for any human being, not even a ‘new normal’. This is not only abnormal for a human being it is an imposition of the capitalist system upon personal life and hence infringement upon individual liberty and self-respect. It, in fact, contributed to widen ‘social distancing’, a term misused during pandemic meant only to denote physical distancing necessary to keep transmission of the virus at bay.
But that does not deter the authorities, which normally include the owners, the corporate houses or their managers from carrying on with the system of ‘WFH’. The corporate houses are gleeful and not for nothing. It is not only paying them with huge profit as mentioned. It also unarms the workforce, disaggregated into discrete, separate, single individuals, placed face-to-face with the authorities. Any problem, any imposition, any exploitation from the latter will have to be handled exclusively between the authorities and the individual. So it infringes upon the hard-earned right to launch collective protest, right to association, scope for collective dialogue and bargaining -in short, the democratic and trade union rights of working people.
The monopolists and their corporate houses, particularly those associated with the IT- electronics industry, banks, financial institutions etc. are well aware of these benefits ‘WFH’ is bringing to them. And they are also aware that the capitalist system is generating various problems in people’s life, which may affect their workforce itself. So they have started a new campaign: how to use ‘disruptive technology’, namely the artificial intelligence etc., to make ‘WFH’ cool, free of hazards, less painful, even fun. They are out to introduce, for example, what is called noise cancellation technology, which ensures suppression of background noises like sounds of kitchen utensils, drilling in adjoining flats or such others when the WFH is on. They are also running after technologies that do error correction, that do speech enhancement automatically adjusting speech volumes. Besides there are technologies for transcription and translation. These are still not to their satisfaction. While new technologies deal with low frequency noises, those fail with sounds like that of children or dog barking, which AI systems are unable to distinguish from human speech with similar wavefronts. While technologies can help Tamil-speaking listeners understand a speech in French, plenty of mistakes creep in. Those make, for example, ‘pure’ to record as ‘your’, ‘SAP’ as ‘sleepy’ etc. In brief, though ‘WFH’ system is yet in its introductory stage, the corporate houses are hell bent upon making the system flawless, enjoying, because this is bringing in huge dividend to them.
Thus, the ‘WFH’ is proving to be the latest device for the corporate houses to reap huge profit and disorganize, hence unarm their workforce against the extant capitalist order. So working people should beware of it !