The rise of the so-called ‘gig economy’ – a labour market characterised by freelance work and short-term contracts – in combination with peer-to-peer and managed marketplaces, has had a profound impact on our modern lives. Enabled by our ubiquitous mobile technologies, platforms like Uber and AirBnB have opened up entirely new ways for users to access services, providing convenience and pricing previously inconceivable.
This does not come without controversy, however. Just look at how Uber has disrupted the metered taxi industry around the world, and the protests and violence associated with this in South Africa over the past couple of years. Even the people who actually drive for Uber are disgruntled, particularly in the US where the company has come under heavy fire for its labour practices, with many drivers complaining that it is next to impossible to make a decent living, and what’s more they do not have the security and protections that a more traditional, permanent job would provide. On the AirBnB side, I’ve read stories from users that range from horror, to awkward and embarrassing, to just plain funny.
Analyses and predictions about the gig economy vary wildly, and are being updated almost by the minute (so don’t hold me to any of the figures I’m about to quote). Staffing Industry Analysts’ president Barry Asin gave a keynote speech at the ‘Collaboration in the Gig Economy’ conference on 4 October 2018 in which he estimated the size of the global gig economy in 2017 was $3,7 trillion. Research from another source showed that in 2016, 34% of the US workforce (nearly 53 million Americans) were freelancers, and predicted this to rise to 43% by 2020. I haven’t been able to find any South African research, but it’s reasonable to assume that it will follow a similar trajectory.
While some types of jobs and some classes of workers are suffering collateral damage, the gig economy does also give rise to new and often surprising opportunities. A really interesting one I read about recently is in autonomous driving, and I’m not talking about that area of the industry where the technology is being developed.
The idea of new jobs being created for people, in an application area whose primary aim is to reduce human involvement, sounds counter-intuitive, but the story in question, which I read on the BBC website, revolves around a small company called Phantom Auto which specialises in teleoperation safety technology. (If you just read ‘teleportation’ please go back and read the previous sentence again before continuing, or the rest of this is going to make no sense at all.)
Besides being trialled on public roads, autonomous vehicles are also being used in industries such as mining and airports. When one gets stuck or a passenger hits a button requesting intervention, an alert is sent to Phantom Auto, at which point a remotely situated human operator logs into their computer and takes control. The setup they use is similar to what you see the racing drivers test with nowadays, with full steering wheel, pedal and other controls, and widescreen monitors streaming various camera views from the vehicle – in real time and high definition. The wonders of the Internet also mean it doesn’t matter where in the world the vehicle is, or where the human operator is.
Maybe a similar opportunity lies in the world of sport, specifically on the refereeing side. I’m thinking about the decision made by Aussie referee Angus Gardner in the dying moments of the rugby test match between the Springboks and England at Twickenham on 3 November. In the interest of objectivity, let me just state for the record: we were robbed.
England’s co-captain Owen Farrell clearly shoulder charged Bok centre André Esterhuizen – any half-blind or blind-drunk South African supporter could see it. Had one of them been put in charge of refereeing, even from half way around the world, they would have been able to make a better decision than the referee who was standing right there.
Brett van den Bosch