What is digital labour?

The way we work is increasingly digitalised. For decades, paper-based organisational processes have been computerised. And now, many of those computerised processes are (or can be) automated.

A newly coined phrase that refers to this ongoing transformation is ‘digital labour’. But the phrase is used broadly, and can be applied to different practices and technologies.

So, what is digital labour, exactly?

What is digital labour?

 ‘Digital labour’ has two definitions:

  • 1. Digital labour is all about automation

Digital labour is work that is performed directly by digital bots, most commonly those that make up robotic process automation (RPA) systems.

In other words, it’s a name for all the laborious tasks we assign to automation technologies. That is, digital labour is work carried out automatically by a computer.

  • 2. Digital labour covers the tasks completed digitally

Digital labour is the name for the emerging forms of labour that rely on online ‘digital labour platforms’. In this definition, work is not performed directly by a bot, but rather enabled by digital technologies.

So, digital labour platforms are digital tools that give workers the opportunity and ability to work from anywhere, whenever they wish, in whatever tasks suit them.  

This answer to the ‘what is digital labour’ question places digital labour as any labour that produces value through interaction with technology. (Including, that is, the value that is provided by automation systems.)

How does it work?

Another way to look at the different sides of the ‘what is digital labour’ question is how each of them works.

  • Automated digital labour

Robotic process automation works by copying what a human would do to complete a task on a computer. That is, it’s automation technology that operates at the user interface level, just as a human user does.

RPA works using ‘bots’. Note, these are not physical robots, but software bots: computer programs that complete tasks automatically.

  • Digital labour platforms

Digital labour platforms work as a place for people to post jobs, and other people to find them. It’s digital work that’s being facilitated by technologies such as cloud computing, social media, data analytics, and machine learning.

Web-based digital labour platforms allow people anywhere in the world to work digitally for companies/job posters. It’s like outsourcing, but it all happens online.

There are also digital labour platforms in the shape of location-based apps. These digitally advertise local tasks that need completing. For example, Uber, which alerts drivers when there’s a fare to pick up.

The impact of digital labour

Understanding the answer to ‘what is digital labour’ can also lead to questions about the impact of each type of digital labour out there.

  • Automated digital labour

The impact of the digital labour completed by RPA revolves around the positives and negatives of automation technology.

For example, automation reduces the amount of tedious work and low-stimulation effort needed to keep businesses running smoothly. It can reduce costs, as jobs shift and change around the tasks that no longer need a human to complete them.

Additionally, automation-based digital labour leads to the generation of new jobs that support RPA development, deployment, and management.

On the flip side, however, is the disruption that this type of digital labour can cause. Automation anxiety is the worry that automation or ‘robots’ will take jobs. When not well-managed, this anxiety can have a negative impact on human workers that need to upskill.

  • Digital labour platforms

The digital labour completed by humans creates an opportunity for individuals to earn a living or find work without the barriers faced in a more traditional role. For instance, they can work around their childcare duties or other commitments. They can find work that best suits their interests, and they can do it wherever in the world they are.

Additionally, companies can attract a wide variety of talent. Digitalised work means businesses are no longer restricted to those within the vicinity of an office. Rather, they can gain a more diverse team of people completing tasks for them, without needing to set up off-shore offices.

With that said, there are issues with digital labour surrounding workers’ rights and compensation. Digital labour in the form of humans finding work digitally is not yet a well-regulated area.

In turn, this lack of regulation opens arguments about exploitation. This side of the ‘what is digital labour’ question sees a rise in a gig economy. While it offers more flexibility for workers, there’s also less security. There’s no sick pay, for instance.

What is digital labour?

Regardless of which definition you choose to follow, the true answer to ‘what is digital labour’ retains several key elements.

It’s labour — or work — that relies heavily on digitalisation. That is, it’s work that gets completed thanks to technology.

Useful links

The new buzzword: what is robotic process automation?

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in

Automation and the economy