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From Lords to Lockdown and the Future of Work

I regulary go for walks with my dog Spike around Caludon Castle Park and often imagine the activity which would have gone on there hundreds of years ago when the castle was a hive of activity and significant local employer. The site has a rich and varied history as a home for nobility, workplace for local people and centre of culture across almost one thousand years. During Tudor times up to 150 servants were employed at the castle together with workers at the estate’s home farm, mills, brew houses, deer park and fish lakes. The heyday of Caludon Castle was at the time of the renaissance. Under the aristorcratic Berkeley family during Tudor times (Lord Henry Berkeley was godson to Henry VIII). Caludon hosted performances by famed and traveled lutenist John Dowland (performer to Royalty across Europe), theatrical performances and lavish entertainments. Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is said to have been commissioned for a Berkeley family wedding and Caludon is also mentioned in his Richard II history.


Science also featured prominently on the site with Lady Katherine Berkeley taking interest in earth sciences and astronomy (and owned an early globe of the earth). This was the time of the renaissance and scientific discoveries would eventually lead to the industrial revolution a couple of hundred years later. Whilst researching the Castle’s history it occurred to me that today’s technology has “democratised” culture. I am able to listen to Dowland’s music via youtube (his son transcribed his music in the 1600s) and get an idea of the sounds which would have graced Caludon centuries ago. Performances of Richard II and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are also at hand. This immediate access from home is something that has not been available to previous generations. The experience of lockdown highlights how culture can now be delivered to the masses and shared effectively with the spawning of such internet sites as Coventry's "Sitting Rooms of Culture" which has acted to highlight local artists, musicians, writers to a whole new audience.


It would be great if some of these local people could be brought together for events such as a themed day at Caludon featuring excerpts from Shakespeare's plays relevant to the site, performances of Dowland's music and perhaps mummers playing out the story behind the local tradition of St George's associations with the site as they did centuries back. Anyone out there with the resources, expertise and connections to make something like this happen? The internet as a research tool can be less than perfect however – my searches for details on the history of Caludon quickly threw up a Wikipedia entry seemingly full of inaccuracies when compared to some trusted sources. The article suggested that Caludon was ruined as a result of repercussions under Charles II in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Charles did give the orders for the destruction of Coventry’s city wall but there is absolutely no record to suggest that Caludon fell into ruin for the same reason. That process was more gradual after the Berkeleys had to sell off Caludon as a result of their extravagant (and philanthropic – regularly feeding the poor of the area) lifestyle. The Castle and associated buildings moved into the stewardship of tenant farmers of subsequent owners and fell into a state of disrepair eventually being used as building materials on the site for farm buildings. Evolving technologies are also a double edged sword in the wider world of work. Having previously worked in areas dealing with the upcoming “Internet of Everything” it seems to me that we are moving into an era unlike any other. It is true that in the past “new” jobs have eventually replaced “old”. In Coventry textiles and watchmaking gave way to cycle production and the motor industry (now a small fraction of what it once was). Both the textile and watchmaking industries were hit hard by changing terms of trade with continental competitors leading to relatively privileged workers relying on soup kitchens and the workhouse. Protests in our city against the impact of new industrialised methods introduced in the 19th century even led to rioting and the deportation of some of those involved. I shall be looking at this in more detail in a future post.


In more recent decades the national trend has seen the older manufacturing industries giving way to services. Although there is (and will continue to be) a need for skills in servicing the services (e.g network maintenance and cybersecurity) there are not many job roles which are not at least partially at risk through the use of automation and AI (Artificial Intelligence) systems and techniques. Visits to banks and supermarkets give evidence of front line staff being rapidly replaced with access to web based services and digital assistants. Even the “newer” sectors such as call centres are moving towards replacing human workers with AI alternatives. This was the case before the recent lockdown situation which will surely act as a catalyst to accelerate the process as businesses will be looking to protect against the continuing impact of the virus and similar future events. In an earlier post I have introduced my lifestyle describing how I have cut outgoings to the bone and looked for alternative ways to sustain myself. I have concluded that barring unexpected expenses I could live an enjoyable but frugal lifestyle on a relatively small amount per week. My “on foot” services – guided walks, leaflet deliveries, dog walking do not regualrly yet reach that (and have come to a complete halt recently) and I have been looking at any (appropriate!) methods to make up my income where possible. Included in my outgoings are internet and web hosting costs which are offset by small payments for on-line tasks including surveys, web site user testing and undertaking short tasks to aid research for academic studies. These do not tend to be particularly lucrative but do help to get towards my target (typically average"earnings" will vary between £1 and £3 per hour – a seemingly awful rate but much more than many of the world’s workers who don’t have the luxury of listening to Planet Rock from an armchair as they work!).


My morning routine also includes a visit to the Coventry Freegle (Freecycle) website. Another part of my “sustainable” strategy is to keep outgoings to a minimum and supporting groups that reduce waste is a key part of that. Looking around my house I can not find a piece of furniture or appliance bought as new choosing instead to recycle through groups like freegle,emmaus and charity shops. You tube also helps in tips for home maintenance! On-line tasks that I have carried out have included listening to call centre recording and classifying various aspects of particular conversations and sessions. This analysis would include identifying background noise, commenting on appropriateness of responses and recognising behavioural traits in the customer. After giving some thought as to how all of this data would eventually be used it occured to me that these activies were aimed at changing the nature of one of our largest service industries. The point of all of this analysis is to train AI systems to recognise and react appropriately to human behaviour as well as being able to carry out human like conversations. This technology is moving rapidly and being introduced in customer service across all industries. In a similar way to industrial jobs being replaced by automation service jobs are beginning to be increasingly replaced by AI systems. This is developing alongside a casualisation of the workforce with the trend being towards agency working and the “gig economy”. As in research, these leaps in technology provide a double edged sword in employment and working practices.I have referred to technology as being a “democratising” influence where culture is concerned. A “democratisation” of working practices could continue to see the trend of job sharing and the reduction of drudgery in the workplace giving a living wage to more people for fewer hours (in turn allowing more leisure time to access the “democratisation” of culture). However the downside could be that rather than a democratisation happening that the ownership and benefits of the latest technological revolution could continue to be concentrated into the hands of a relative few.


The biggest danger could be of an economy geared towards the requirements and luxuries of those few without the need of the labour of the mass of the population and the spectre of these two groups not seeing the need for the other group. It would seem that the economic upheavel which has been exasperated with the necessary lockdown measures will bring these issues even more to the fore and we should expect our leaders to recognise this reality and plan accordingly. As I continue my ramble I shall be expanding on what these developments could mean in Coventry and take a look at how shifts in industrial development and world markets have affected the City’s past.........

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