When we talk about automation in the workplace, one normally thinks of the boss laying off workers and replacing them with technology. But it automation doesn’t always come from above – sometimes workers automate themselves out of their tasks.

The Atlantic digs deeper into this phenomenon. And it’s more common than you might think:

In 2016, an anonymous confession appeared on Reddit: “From around six years ago up until now, I have done nothing at work.” As far as office confessions go, that might seem pretty tepid. But this coder, posting as FiletOFish1066, said he worked for a well-known tech company, and he really meant nothing. He wrote that within eight months of arriving on the quality-assurance job, he had fully automated his entire workload. “I am not joking. For 40 hours each week, I go to work, play League of Legends in my office, browse Reddit, and do whatever I feel like. In the past six years, I have maybe done 50 hours of real work.” When his bosses realized that he’d worked less in half a decade than most Silicon Valley programmers do in a week, they fired him.

The tale quickly went viral in tech corners of the web, ultimately prompting its protagonist to delete not just the post, but his entire account.

About a year later, someone calling himself or herself Etherable posted a query to Workplace on Stack Exchange, one of the web’s most important forums for programmers: “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?” The conflicted coder described accepting a programming gig that had turned out to be “glorified data entry”—and, six months ago, writing scripts that put the entire job on autopilot. After that, “what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes.” The job was full-time, with benefits, and allowed Etherable to work from home. The program produced near-perfect results; for all management knew, its employee simply did flawless work.

The post proved unusually divisive, and comments flooded in. (It’s now been viewed nearly half a million times.) Reactions were split between those who felt Etherable was cheating, or at least deceiving, the employer, and those who thought the coder had simply found a clever way to perform the job at hand. Etherable never responded to the ensuing discussion. Perhaps spooked by the attention—media outlets around the world picked up the story—the user vanished, leaving that sole contribution to an increasingly crucial conversation about who gets to automate work and on what terms.

Call it self-automation, or auto-automation. At a moment when the specter of mass automation haunts workers, rogue programmers demonstrate how the threat can become a godsend when taken into coders’ hands, with or without their employers’ knowledge. Since both FiletOFish1066 and Etherable posted anonymously and promptly disappeared, neither could be reached for comment. But their stories show that workplace automation can come in many forms and be led by people other than executives.

Read the full article here. Were those workers cheating, or were they simply innovating? These are the sorts of questions employers – and policymakers – need to answer. Are we ready for the future of work?

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