For years now, conventional wisdom has warned that the rise of artificial intelligence and automation will put millions of people out of work. This assumption about the future of work has largely been accepted as a fact—unavoidable, even if troubling. Earlier this week, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) showed us conventional wisdom isn’t always right.
In winning key worker protections to guard against job loss to generative AI, the WGA demonstrated that workers are not passive bystanders, adrift in tides controlled by business owners and technology developers. Workers, properly organized and sufficiently determined, can bend the future towards their own goals, advancements in technology notwithstanding.
The unions battling bosses for protections against tech-driven obsolescence are fighting for all workers. But they are also demonstrating something crucial for those of us concerned about technology’s broader impact on our society, including on our most basic civil rights and civil liberties: technological determinism is not a law of nature.
Here in Massachusetts, we also know that to be the case. Back in 2019, the ACLU of Massachusetts launched a campaign to bring democratic control over government use of face surveillance technology. When we launched the effort, people laughed at us, shaking their heads like we were naive children. There’s no stopping technological progress, they said, and if a technology exists, it will be deployed in every conceivable context, by every conceivable actor, to do every conceivable thing. Like the WGA, we did not believe that to be the case. Like the WGA, we proved them wrong.
First, we worked with community partners and local elected officials to ban the government’s use of face surveillance technology in eight communities across the state, including Massachusetts’ four largest cities and towns, Boston, Cambridge, Springfield, and Worcester. Next we worked with state legislators to pass the nation’s first rules governing police use of facial recognition statewide, and created a commission to study further reforms. We are currently working with lawmakers to enact those enhanced protections, which the House passed by overwhelming margins with strong bipartisan support last year.
Like the WGA’s, our movement shows that in a democracy, ordinary people, well organized, retain the power to shape our future, even in the face of powerful corporations and advanced technology. This is not a theory; it’s a fact.
And it’s an important lesson for us as we consider the next wave of technology and civil rights issues facing lawmakers in Massachusetts. One measure, the Location Shield Act, would make Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban the sale and monetization of cell phone location data. Another, the Massachusetts Data Privacy Protection Act, would overhaul consumer privacy rules to limit how much information companies can collect and process about us in the first place, instead of relying on failed “consent” models. A bill filed just last week and supported by the robotics industry and the ACLU of Massachusetts would make our state the first in the nation to ban the weaponization of robots, to ensure these tools are used to help us and never to hurt us.
The future of technology’s role in human society is unwritten. The mere existence of advanced surveillance and generative AI tools does not lead us inexorably to a dystopian future without privacy or dignified work. We the people have the power to decide how to use these tools, and crucially, how not to use them. The WGA’s important victory this week isn’t just a message to workers about their power. It’s a message to all of us. The future is ours to shape together, not the purview of the world’s richest men. All we have to do is stay organized and fight. And that’s exactly what we plan to do.
This blog post was written by Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program