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When Our Technological Futurism Fetish Really Misses the Point

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The inability to think the below the surface sometimes really amazes me, but no more than in this article arguing that automation will solve the problem of modern slavery.

Modern-day slavery has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, putting regulatory and consumer pressure on companies to ensure their supply chains are free from forced labor, child workers and other forms of slavery.

Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), with migrant workers and indigenous people particularly vulnerable.

But Ranganathan said there are new digital ways to stamp out exploitation, given humans have failed to end modern slavery.

“The technology can filter over 1 million articles a day using forced labor specific key words and highlight potential areas of risk in a supply chain,” she said.

Ranganathan works for information technology services company SAP Ariba, which helps companies better manage their procurement processes.

She said a new program could map weak links in corporate supply chains by culling data from a host of sources, from surveillance cameras to non-profits and other agencies.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning can use these huge volumes of data and extract meaningful information,” she said.

On the face of it, this is a good thing. But isn’t this really about making western consumers of these products feel good? Not a single mention here of the root causes of slavery. Not a single mention of what happens to these people when they are no longer forced labor. Moreover, not a single mention of how automation will also take the jobs of paid laborers or what will happen to those workers.

It does seem to me that discussions of work, including technological advancements that replace exploitative work, also have to take poverty seriously, working toward an understanding of WHY people end up in these situations and trying to alleviate that. Thinking hard about the relationship between poverty, work, and global capitalism in the developing world would be tremendously useful.

Or just write yet another article about how technology will save the day, primarily by reassuring consumers the goods they buy have no negative impact. I’m sure that will make all the difference in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

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