Written by Kevin Lee
Digital technologies have become such a large part of our everyday lives that they have faded into the background. On a moment-to-moment basis, we do not acknowledge the power they hold over us: they make possible much of what we do every day, ranging from ordering food to finding one-night stands to talking with friends and acquaintances time zones away. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything but normal, and amid its rise, we have become painfully aware of the importance of the technologies that we previously took for granted. Working from home has now become one of the core tenets of “social distancing” policies. And as we have been pushed more and more into physical isolation, our cell phones, laptops, and tablets are now our sole connection to the world, to other people, and to our jobs.
However, the presumption that most people can do exactly that reveals deep inequalities in how we value each other and the kind of work that we do. Specifically, those who have been able to keep up some semblance of normalcy (or at least keep their work lives going) throughout this crisis have mainly been “knowledge” workers: those of us who think for a living and participate mainly in an economy of abstract ideas. Included in this may be people like management consultants, professors, and software developers. Meanwhile, those who have not been able to work from home, and thus perhaps most affected by the pandemic, have been those whose work has been primarily “embodied”: those of us who supposedly work more with our hands and bodies than with ideas. Included in this are people like Uber drivers, restaurant waiters, janitors, and care workers, among others.
The distinction is certainly arbitrary and simplistic, even if it has dominated how we have talked about workers; all people, no matter who they are, work with both their bodies and heads. Waiters certainly do more with their memory than I do as a sociologist, even if we have labelled the former as more embodied than the latter. Similarly, my life in front of the computer necessarily implicates my body: without it, I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do, or at least have a significant amount of difficulty doing it.
And yet, we, especially over the past few decades, have increasingly valued so-called “knowledge” workers while devaluing the contributions that “embodied” workers make to our society. For instance, we have built our world in ways to reflect these symbolic boundaries. Most concerning may be the fact that our digital technologies have been built primarily by and for knowledge workers. But the pandemic has only reminded us that there are many forms of work, beyond knowledge work, that cannot be done remotely through the technologies that we readily have at our disposal. Certainly, video chat and email can serve well those who work primarily by speaking with each other and by writing PowerPoints and documents. However, video chat and email cannot allow our Uber drivers to work remotely and participate in social distancing while also keeping up with their rent payments. Instead, they face daily the possibility that they might not come back home.
This has been in spite of the fact that embodied labor has always made important contributions to society, and that their disappearance would fundamentally compromise its ability to function. Our reliance on these workers – whom I worry are predominantly people of color, women, and of low income – has only been made more obvious by COVID-19: they have held our society together, risking their lives while working on the front lines of the pandemic. They have taken care of our sick and elderly, facilitated our access to food and medicine, and religiously disinfected the spaces – such as our schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons – that we have entrusted to their care. Where would we, and the most vulnerable among us, be if they disappeared?
When we observe patterns of technology use throughout this pandemic, we hold up a mirror to society, revealing much about ourselves that we may have not otherwise seen or may have buried. Societal responses to COVID-19 have shown us that we are not simply dependent upon our technologies, but that those very technologies have perpetuated inequalities within society. Informed by all this, I challenge us to imagine an alternate future: what might our society look like if we built our technologies in ways that did not cater only to those who think for a living? More to the point, how might it change if we reconsidered how we see each other? And what technologies (and, more broadly, policies) might we build if we were to create an economy of respect and empowerment, rather than exclusion, hierarchy, and inequality? At stake is our ability to make a society that works for all.
Kevin Lee (@kwjnlee) is a PhD candidate at NYU’s Stern School of Business, where he has been studying some of the dramatic transformations in work and organizing that we have witnessed across today’s economy. His dissertation has revolved around artificial intelligence (AI) and its implications for inequality and the future of work.