It’s lunchtime in Mumbai. Millions of workers are looking forward to a meal. For some, that means being handed their lunchbox by a dabbawala – a delivery, usually via bicycle, that has been a familiar service in the city for 125 years. Increasingly, though, some customers don’t deal directly with the courier. They do everything via an app.
“I live in Mumbai and food delivery is now a big deal,” says Anu Madgavkar, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute. “If you walk into a Starbucks outlet there will be five delivery executives from [food delivery app] Swiggy.”
Here’s proof that a digital revolution is taking place: the app for the dabbawalas was developed by a 13-year-old boy. While this new-fangled way of doing things has split local opinion, Madgavkar says there are plenty of fans. While India has long had the building blocks of a gig economy, the internet has now forced businesses to be more organised and offer a more consistent service.
Here, though, is the twist. Internet coverage in India is low. Fewer than a quarter of Indians have access to the web or a smartphone. In rural parts of the country, internet penetration may be as low as 14%. It’s a similar story in many emerging economies around the world – from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and much of Southeast Asia.
More than half the world is still unconnected to the internet. While coverage is rising in the regions mentioned above, installing cables and mobile phone masts to hook up the remaining 4 billion people would be a very slow process. The distances involved are huge. But now a handful of companies are planning something different – the internet, from space.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink programme plans to launch internet-beaming satellites, and started doing so in May (Credit: Getty Images)
Big plans for connecting over half the world
It’s a spectacular-sounding goal: thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – of tiny satellites in low Earth orbit beaming the internet to anyone, anywhere. OneWeb is the name of one firm planning to do this. It launched its first six satellites in February. The ultimate aim is to broadcast a mobile internet signal that anyone, anywhere, can connect to with a smartphone.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX also plans to launch a constellation of internet-beaming satellites, as does Amazon. There may eventually be more than one satellite network competing to offer broadband internet around the world this way. The impact this could have on employment is staggering.
“OneWeb are looking to put up around 1,900 satellites. SpaceX are going close to 12,000,” says Christopher Newman, a professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University. Currently, there are about 2,000 commercial satellites in orbit around the Earth, so the increase would be massive.
“We’re talking about a genuine disruption to the space environment.”
He says the topic needs a “dose of realism” – it’s not yet clear whether these satellite constellations will be cost-effective to run or if they’ll create too much space debris, polluting the orbital environment. But if they do take off, Newman thinks it will change the world of work drastically.
How wider internet coverage will affect work
Madgavkar says that what’s happening in India is an early indicator of how other economies might change, should internet coverage reach all corners of the planet. She explains that the vast majority of Indian workers are engaged in informal or self-employed work known as “micro enterprises”. Like the lunch runners, this is work that could conceivably be arranged via apps – Uber for anything.
It’s not yet clear whether these satellite constellations will be cost-effective to run or if they’ll create too much space debris
There is evidence that the arrival of high-speed internet access, if it spreads widely enough, can enhance productivity and transform local economies. In India, for instance, farmers and fishers using mobile phones to check prices and weather conditions increased profits by 8%.
There may be less predictable effects. One McKinsey report explains that women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises in Indonesia generate 35% of the country’s ecommerce revenue. For offline women-owned businesses of the same sizes, that share drops to just 15%.
Madgavkar says greater connectivity means more opportunities for remote workers. Bank employees, for instance, can offer services to customers via phone. People can be trained remotely for service-based or advisory roles and do much of the work from afar too. With satellite internet, the numbers applying for such jobs could boom.
Dabbawala, a 125-year-old delivery service in India, can now be used with an app. With satellite internet, more Indians could access such apps (Credit: Getty Images)
Online freelancing platforms like oDesk could also swell. A 2015 research paper discusses how these sites are being used by online workers in Southeast Asia. The paper gives the example of Amy, a Filipina woman with five siblings. The main breadwinner for her family, she switched from working in a call centre to working as a remote personal assistant for an American woman selling art on Etsy. Amy found herself earning double what she made in the call centre job.
Soon, the biggest hurdle to all this won’t be technology but an older bugbear: lack of education. Literacy has improved slightly in India recently; however, a quarter of its population still cannot read or write. Many other countries face the same problem. Internet access – for those who can afford it – can’t solve everything.
Avoiding the downsides of internet-powered work
As well, there is a darker side to jobs created by the internet. Besides concerns that platforms like Uber and Deliveroo may disadvantage workers, there are also entirely new categories of job that will seem mind-numbingly menial to many. These include “click work” – such as highly repetitive image-tagging to train artificial neural networks in pattern recognition. This sort of thing helps fine tune the algorithms that big tech firms use in their products.
Mark Graham, a professor of internet geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, has visited huge offices in Africa where workers sit at desks doing tasks like this for hours on end. The scale of it shocked him.
“Hundreds of people all focusing intently on their screens,” he describes it. “And there is fierce competition on these platforms.”
There are more click workers than click work, it turns out. As the next 100 million people get connected, and the next, competition will only get fiercer.
“It makes it harder for you as an individual worker to command a higher wage,” explains Graham. “Someone on the other side of the planet can do the same job for a much lower rate.”
Hundreds of people all focusing intently on their screens. And there is fierce competition on these platforms – Mark Graham
Graham points out that it’s not just menial click work that can be farmed out to emerging economies. Opportunities in web development, programming and design are also coming to regions with improving internet access.
This raises the question of whether we all might find ourselves fighting to keep our jobs – once we become part of a truly global and connected workforce. To be fair, outsourcing is not possible for every role – there is a long history of companies failing to relocate operations to countries with lower wages. But if outsourcing does become easier and cheaper thanks to technology, some employees who were never threatened with it before will soon find themselves affected. A global race to the bottom, with terrible payments and working conditions, might ensue.
“I think we all need to be careful about making sure transformation and reorganisations don’t represent a fundamental erosion in the rights that we have as workers and the quality of our jobs,” adds Graham.
We’re at least five to ten years away from seeing one of these satellite networks come online, says Alzbeta Fellenbaum, a market analyst at IHS Markit. But in the context of a person’s career, that’s not a very long time.
Today, superior internet connectivity can still elevate one country’s workforce above another. But that might not last forever.