Seeing All the Way to Mordor: Anthropology and Understanding the Future of Work in an AI Automated World

I spent yesterday in London having a very interesting discussion about the future of work, and what evidence might be fruitful for exploring the topic and for disseminating information to policymakers and the public. I was one of a few qualitative researchers at the table and ended up banging my drum for ethnographic research that might give a more granulated approach than an approach looking at ‘demographics’ might allow for. In my view, ideas around the impact of AI and automation on the Future of Work appeared to be more about effect: this lever is pushed therefore the economy (aka ‘people’) move in this way. Or the scales tip down in this direction, the other side rises up like so… Now, I’m not against big data sets per se, but I wrote a blog post before for the Social Media and Human Rights blog on Paolo Gerbaudo’s discussion on the use of big data in digital research, in which I agreed with him about the loss of nuance around culture, structures, dominant narratives, and the tendency to miss of the general ‘messiness’ of actual lived life in big data research. Ethnographic approaches are more about affect, and in my view they can illustrate how existing cultures respond to technological change, how communities might enable or resist such changes, and what accounts and narratives are being employed that might be affective in their lives.

Of course, making that kind of claim about the usefulness of ethnographic research requires evidence. In my opinion, the evidence for the usefulness of ethnography is clear in the quality of evidence being employed. The historical parallels that usually get cited with regards to the Future of Work such as the Industrial Revolution, where historians often note the role of institutions on the changes, necessarily have to employ the types of evidence that survives through time. And survival is perhaps more likely for the materials of bureaucracy, and therefore this reinforces the argument for the impact of institutions. Diaries and other cultural artifacts from individuals also give historical insight into worldviews, but documents about the movements of the unemployed such as census data might be more readily accessible and more permanent.

Ethnographic research means being in the field at the time of affect. Thus, individual accounts, community stories and tropes, objects, and observations of behaviors in relation to change can be collected. Ethnography, literally ‘writing about humans’, is not however a panopticonic approach – we cannot be everywhere, seeing everything – and it is also not about the brute force of numbers like quantitative methods. It can provide more subtle data. I’m avoiding saying ‘soft’ data, which I have heard before and which suggests weakness (as in the ‘soft sciences’ in contrast to ‘hard sciences’ – read, ‘proper’). Subtle data can be the key to understanding the source of changes and reactions – such as in the recognition of particular shibboleths or in-jokes being used in communications in movements and their shades of meaning (an example of this would be the word ‘kek’. Look it up 🙂

In the case of the Future of Work ethnographic evidence would include exploring case studies on the effects of unemployment on people’s lives in various locales and on various cultural backgrounds. The initial example I came up with during the discussion was the effect of the closure of the mines on communities in the Valleys of South Wales, an area I know still bears the scars of this shift and its later repercussions. The scars are there in the levels of unemployment, in the displacement of community, and in the closed up shops and derelict public houses. They are also there in their memories; in their commemoration of their mining past: a miner in bright orange stands by the Ebbw Vale Festival Park shopping centre, which was an attempt at regeneration on ex-steel mine brown-site that has only sped up the closing of other local shops.

coal mining

I haven’t done ethnographic research in this area, but I’ve been exploring some of the existing work on it and on Welsh culture and reaction to socio-economic change coming with the loss of existing industry. Wider reading around anthropology of unemployment and anthropology of work in other cultures present similar examples of local specificity around socio-economic change. In South Wales some ethnographies I came across considered masculinity in relation to social shifts. For example, Richard-Michael Diedrich’s 2012 chapter on South Wales communities highlights the connection between work and the construction of male identities (he references earlier work in Dunk 1994 and Willis 1988): “For men, the experience of work, in a capitalistic economy, can be both the experience of a subaltern position constituted by the relationship between employer and employee and the experience of moments of positive individual and collective (self)-identification in terms of gendered difference.” To explore this, Diedrich draws upon the concept of liminality – which I’ve referred to before in terms of liminal beings, such as AI – to argue that “prolonged liminality imposed by long-term unemployment paves the way for an extreme challenge to the self” – but that the liminality in South Wales may be never-ending with no hope of restitution of the self (“as ‘real’ men”) through a new job.

I argue that this endless liminality is definitely pertinent to questions around post-work futures thought to arise through automation. But these comments are still at the demographic level (‘men’), so Diedrich evidences his argument through interactions with different scales of communities, from unions and their members, to working mens clubs, to families, to individual informants. According to ‘Peter’, a retired miner and chairman of a working men’s club (a name which significant to the rhetoric of inclusion he espoused), to belong to the local community the individual had to be (or have been and then retired) a ‘worker’. Diedrich describes Peter’s view that men had to adhere to the “discourse of work and employment within its morally sanctioned ideal of the hardworking man as opposed to the irresponsible man who is not willing to work”, further that this adherence, “led to a perpetuation of the discourse of respectability and its individualistic idea of deservingness that divided the community and consequently the working class”. In conversation over a pint with ‘Emrys’ and ‘Arthur’ the latter explains that the work itself is a manly task because its “physical… although we got all the machinery and today, it’s still physical and requires even more skills”. The physicality of this endangered working site could be contrasted with the breadth of jobs, both physical and cognitive, that automation is thought to be endangering. But masculinity can also plays a role in the rhetoric of those engaged in intellectual tasks – particularly when rationality is coded as a male superiority and empathy as a female one, a division of duties quite often appearing in discussions about the impact of automation on demographic groups.

Women do appear in this ethnographic research, but his informants give the impression that “Although women could contribute to the survival of the community by assisting their men, survival was ensured by acts of loyalty, solidarity, honesty, and last, but not least, the demonstration of the willingness to work; all of these were regarded as core elements of masculinity.” Further the confinement of men to the space thought of as belonging to women – the men, and parallel ethnographies of unemployment cited by Diedrich, describe a fear of ending up just ‘sitting round the house’ – emphasises their liminality in the ‘no man’s land’ of the private space of the home, in effect becoming invisible to the public as well. A greater danger lies in moving out of liminality and into the role of ‘scrounger’ – being no longer counted in the community of those who want to work. In a future of increasingly precarious working would there be similar insider and outsider rhetoric? Being in the majority might ameliorate such discourse, but predictions of the impact of automation scale up over time, meaning that for a long time being out of work due to AI enabled automation will continue to be a minority position.

Narratives, embodied through stories, accounts, material and cultural artifacts, set the scene for reactions to change as well as persist through that change. Ethnography can pick up a variety of materials in order to examine cultural discourse. In work by Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan in 2003 they consider contemporary postcards of Wales as “auto-ethnographic visual text” –a text that a culture has produced about itself. The Valleys are an imagined community “synonymous with coal mining, community, nonconformity, political radicalism and self-education” – so what happens when one of those pillars is removed? For Mordor, J R R Tolkien is supposed by some to have been inspired by the view of the fiery steel pits of Ebbw Vale as seen all the way from Crickhowell, which was itself perhaps the inspiration for the shire of the Hobbits, and the working pits have been represented in many accounts as a “landscape of degradation” according to Pritchard and Morgan.


Why then do the postcards still show off ‘The Welsh Mining Village’, with the definitive article “elevating … [it] to a special significance (Bathes 1977), wherein the singular embodies the plural”? Pritchard and Morgan consider it as an evocation of that which has been lost – much like the miner in the orange overalls residing by the new shopping park. That the image comes from a museum’s re-creation of a village scene only emphasizes the overt nostalgia. What images and stories of nostalgia might be significant for shaping our memories of work in a post-automation future? Would another Tolkein, currently being inspired by the intellectual work mill of the open plan office rather than Ebbw Vale, ever write something as evocative as Mordor?


Do I really want to compare this man to Tolkien? Not sure about that…

Other field-sites of course present us with opportunities for understanding cultural influences on conceptions of work, as well as reactions to unemployment. Robert T. O’brien’s fieldwork in East Kensington, Philadelphia, involves participant observation with Community Development Corporations, schools, community health programs and public meetings, as well as interviews and survey with residents of the primarily white and historically working class neighbourhood which is showing the effects of under- and unemployment. He argues that, “the failure to see marginally employed residents as people with rights and membership in the community is consistent with the processes of neo-liberalism, wherein people who do not adapt to the dictates of the free market and bourgeois normativity are created as undeserving.” This creation of the ‘undeserving’ is clear in his ethnographic material – a woman complains that she doesn’t “know how it is that the word ‘community’ gets stretched enough to encompass the people who make it hard to live [here], by their habits.” Insider and outsider rhetoric is shaped by economic shifts.

An anthropology of unemployment must acknowledge the “pervasive material and symbolic value of wage labour within the context of capitalist markets” but without an “assumption of wage labour’s permanence or universality” (Angela Jancius introducing anthropology of unemployment in the same issue of the journal Ethnos as O’Brien’s ethnography).

In an anthropology of automation or AI induced unemployment there are things to be taken up from prior ethnographic work (and there are ethnographies being written about the gig economy and the Precariat already that might also be useful – partially perhaps because increasingly academics are living those lifestyles). Moreover, anthropological evidence for the impact of automation on people’s understandings, imaginings and accounts gives us a more nuanced understanding of change. In the liminality of unemployment prior cultural forms will be also be significant in the manifestation new ways of being. Paying attention to culture will give us clues to the influences on any new culture of the future of work, and what the world will look like as the future, unevenly distributed as it will be (cf William Gibson), will look like to the unevenly distributed groups and communities that make up society.

future of work


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