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How workers push back against unwanted technology

Karen Levy
Christianne White/Provided
Karen Levy, assistant professor of information science, speaks April 17 on artificial intelligence in the workplace.

There are 1.7 million jobs in the United States that involve driving a truck, and Silicon Valley experts predict that these workers may be replaced by self-driving vehicles over the next decade, with a devastating effect on the economy. But a gradual – and also unwelcome – intrusion of technology into the workplace is already in progress, according to Karen Levy, assistant professor of information science.

Doing interviews at truck stops, Levy learned how long-haul drivers push back. She explained how and why in a lecture, “Working With and Against AI: Lessons From Low-Wage Labor,” April 17. The lecture was part of a weekly series on “The Emergence of Intelligent Machines: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Levy, who is also an associate member of the Cornell Law School faculty and has a background in sociology, is particularly interested in surveillance in the workplace, and truck drivers get their share. Long-haul driving has been seen as a romantic occupation. Country songs glorify it. It’s thought of as masculine, although about 5 percent of drivers are women. Drivers enjoy their independence: On the road, you’re pretty much your own boss. But lately electronic trackers tell management where you’ve gone and how fast, and cameras in the cab “check to see if the driver is awake.”

Drivers see this monitoring as an intrusion on their homes, Levy said. In privately circulated publications, she found, they give each other tips on how to disable electronics with dry ice or unobtrusively block cameras.

Truck drivers have a long history of working together to beat the system, she noted, as in using CB radio to foil speed traps and report when mandatory weighing stations were closed. They were happy to adopt new technology for their own use.

Pushing back is not limited to the trucking industry, Levy added. In Florida, when library managers began to remove books that hadn’t been checked out, librarians created a fictitious cardholder who checked out 2,300 books over nine months.

In trucking, Levy found that older drivers were more likely to be unhappy with the new technology. Since older, experienced drivers are the safest, she said, “the best drivers are being driven out.”

“I’m not arguing that we should keep the status quo,” Levy concluded, “but we should be aware of the social content. I’m wary of using technology as a solution to socio-economic problems.”

The lecture series was part of a course, CS4732, “Ethical and Social Issues in AI.”

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