Thursday, August 07, 2014

We don't need a study to tell us that machines are taking our jobs―and making life more difficult

I remember standing in the hallway of the Hilton-Netherlands Hotel in downtown Cincinnati one day waiting for someone from the hotel to come fix at least one of the several broken computers in the "Business Center" with which I had planned to print out a speech I was scheduled to deliver in about 30 minutes.

As I stood there waiting, I noticed on the wall several large framed photographs of the old Netherlands Hotel from what looked to be the 1930s or 40s. The one closest to me was a picture of the phone staff. These were the switchboard operators who managed the hotel's phone system at the time.

That was back in the days, of course, when you used the hotel phones to call someone other than the front desk.

The staff consisted of what looked to be about 10 or 15 employees and consisted mostly of women, young and old. All of them were dressed nicely―in a way that we now would dress only for a formal occasion of some kind (This was back in the day when your job was a formal occasion). These were women who probably didn't have college degrees and didn't need them to do the work they did (as opposed to now when most everybody does have a college degree and doesn't need it for the work they do either).

This kind of job is nonexistent now. Phone systems don't need manual operators anymore. The function these women served is now performed by computers.

Not only are these women gone now, so are their jobs.

As I stood there in front of the photo I started to think of all the jobs that once required actual people to do them that no longer require people because their function has been eliminated or because their job is now performed by something mechanical or digital.

I wondered if the Luddites were right after all in thinking that machines were eliminating jobs and whether those who told us that it would all work out were telling the truth.

We were told that the jobs lost to machines would be balanced by the jobs made by the need to make the machines. But that was when machines were made by people. They are now made by other machines.

The other thing we were told is that the increasing automation of life would make things easier and more pleasant. Well, think again.

I submit that we don't need studies to prove that jobs are being eliminated across the economy by machines. All we have to do is think about all the jobs there used to be that are now gone―thanks either to machines that now do them or by the expectation that we should do them ourselves.

Remember gas station attendants? I guess you have to be of a certain age to remember them, but I am old enough to remember the guys who came to the window of your car when you pulled up at the pump and asked, "Fill her up?"

They were polite. They wore uniforms. And they washed your windows for you and asked if they could check your oil. You paid for your gas and sometimes, if they did a really good job, you handed them a little extra.

They are gone. Replaced by the self-serve pump with the automated credit card processor, which is not nearly as polite. But at least it takes less time―if there is enough paper in the receipt dispenser, which, if there is not, you have to go inside and stand in line at the cash register to request one.

But I'm on my way to the airport. I park in long-term parking and make my way to the ticket desk where I tell the person that I need to check a bag. "Please use the kiosk, sir."

The last time I did this (Recommendation: don't fly American Airlines) there were four kiosks, and it was unclear whether there was one line or two―one for each set of two kiosks. An employee who could have been checking my bag announced that there were two lines. I chose one.

But when one of the two kiosks I was in line for became available, I couldn't get to it because the person standing at the first one was in the way. I did my best, but someone else from the other line―the one that was supposed to be for the other two kiosks got there first. When I finally got there, it took me almost ten minutes to get my bag checked in because the computer was so slow.

Oh, and I got my boarding passes too―which I didn't need, since I had printed them off the evening before from the Internet.

Some twenty-five minutes later, I got my bag checked in when a person finally got involved and gave me a label with a number. Then I was able to get in line at the security checkpoint. And we won't even talk about that.

But the kiosks have this advantage for the airlines: they eliminate the need for the people who once were able to check your bag in a matter of seconds. They don't require health care or a retirement package.

So you arrive safely in the next town, hungry because of the meager fare on the airplane. Plus you need a few toiletries. You stop at the grocery store, where you can now check yourself out, eliminating the need for human cashiers. Having an aversion to self-serve anything, I go do the human operated checkout. The one with the conveyor belt which efficiently transports my hair gel, granola bars, and a travel size shaving cream dispenser about two feet from where I am to where the cashier is.

It must have saved, oh, I don't know, one step, which I have to take anyway to pay for my stuff.

But there's no price on the hair gel and it doesn't seem to be listed on the computer. The cashier has to stop the whole process and call the manager, much to the chagrin of the three people after me in line. But they eventually get there, swipe some card that hangs from the lanyard around their neck, punch a few buttons that allows the process to resume.

While I am waiting I am remembering the ladies that used to punch the keys of the manual cash registers when my mother dragged us to the grocery story when I was little. I remember watching their fingers flying on the keys as they grabbed one item after another and threw them in a bag at a speed at least as fast as the automated checkout process you see now.

When they came to an item that didn't have a price sticker, it didn't matter. They knew the price. Apples? They were ten cents each that week. What competent cashier didn't know that?

If there was a price they didn't know, they didn't have to call a manager, stranding numerous people in line. I don't know exactly what they did do to determine the price, buy I imagine they  probably just made it up on the spot and no one ever knew any better. And when she was done (a brief process), the guy bagging the groceries helped you put them in your car, a favor for which you often gave him a couple quarters.

But these cashiers are all gone, replaced either by people who are entirely dependent on a machine to detect the price or by self-serve checkout machines which have replaced some person entirely. And at some grocery stores there's a bagger, but he's just there to bag, not to help you with your groceries to the car.

No quarters for him.

But this new process allows me to use a card that the store gives me to use when I make purchases that the computer records so I can save money in some way that I have not exactly figured out because I never have time to read the pieces of paper they give me that explain what I have saved. So when the cashier asks me if I have a ****** card, I tell her I do not have one because not only do I not have time to figure out the process by which the card saves me money, but if I had a card from every store that offered one to its customers, I would have to carry five wallets around with me.

If you remember back far enough, you can think of all kinds of jobs that used to exist that are simply no longer there: from the guy who shined your shoes to the boy that delivered your afternoon paper.

But I am not thinking about that right now. I am thinking that I need a place to stay.

But it turns out that checking into a hotel is now a very lonely experience. Where once there was a bellhop to help with the bags, there is a cart―if you can find it. In fact, the only person you usually see is a person behind the desk who puts your name into a computer.

Theoretically, this should be quick and efficient. And since the computer can easily record information, if you stay there again, it should be even quicker.


But in fact, it is much slower. There seem to be multiple screens which the behind-the-counter person has to fill out, taking much longer than it theoretically should. If I didn't know better, I would think he was completely reprogramming the machine every time.

Every time this happens, and it is often, I think of the little motel I stayed at a couple of years ago in some little prairie town I stopped at late at night. An older gentleman took my card, swiped it on one of those old manual card swipers and handed my card back with a receipt, along with my room key.

Ninety seconds. Boom. No taking ten minutes to fill out useless computer screens. Just taking my money and giving me my key.

I stay at hotels in Louisville once every week or two. Sometimes I will stay at the same hotel several weeks in a row. I have yet to have the computer recognize me, despite the fact that I may have stayed at the very same hotel repeatedly. The hotel employee has to re-enter my information every time.

The process is slower and the only advantage the computer has over a manual process―that it can remember data―is not, in fact, an advantage.

And, by the way, where is the bellhop to help with the bags?

Tired from lugging my bags to my room with no help, I decide to arrange for a wake-up call. I'll call the front desk and the person there (assuming he's not reprogramming the computer again) will arrange it for me.

No need.

I pick up the phone and am confronted with a computer that allows me to punch in the time I need to be woken up. It should work. But then, so should my new smart phone alarm. But the last time I tried that, it never went off. Turns out there were multiple volume controls, one of which specifically controlled the alarm, and it was turned off. Since the last two wake-up calls I had arranged at a hotel never manifested themselves into actual calls the next morning, I set my smart phone alarm as well, increasing the chances that I would actually wake up on time the next morning.

But I am daydreaming. In reality, I am still standing there in the hall of the Netherlands Hilton, waiting for the human person to come and fix the non-human computer I need to print my speech. I am thinking that I could have spent that time rewriting my speech by hand.

I am still looking at the photo of all those ladies at the hotel phone switchboard.

I know that one of them would have remembered my wake up call.


Singring said...

I agree with much of what you say here, and I often make a point of going to an actual cashier when I have the choice.

I am a bit surprised, however, to read such a soliloquy on the worker from a free-market capitalist such as yourself. The reason workers are being replaced by machines is because the corporations make more profit that way. Simple!

I've been living in Ireland and The UK for the past six years or so, but recently visited 'home' in Germany. After years of seeing self-service checkouts in everything from supermarkets to bookshops in the UK and now also Ireland, back in Germany they were nowhere to be seen...

I haven't been in France for a long time, but I'll bet good money that they are not as widespread there either.

Now I wonder why that is?

What aspect of the labour market was almost completely stamped out and dismembered by Thatcher in Britain (and Reagan and then Bush in the US!), but has survived at least somewhat intact in central Europe?

Is it 'Clubs'? No...that can't be

And then of course there's the machines and who builds them. Funnily enough, that's another sector in which Germany does really well - in fact Germany is one of the world leaders in steel and machine engineering, production and assembly. In fact, one of the companies from my very hometown - ZF, a producer of steering systems - is expanding production in Germany and internationally and now also has a plant in Kentucky, of all places. This sector, once strong in the UK, is now almost dead (Thatcher again).

Part of the reason it survived in Germany is because workers were protected to some extent by...what was the word again...'Fusions'?

No, that wasn't it.

I'm sure I'll remember it one of these days...

Martin Cothran said...


I have to say I mostly agree with you here. But if you thought was merely a "free-market capitalist," you haven't been reading this blog very closely.

Like any traditionalist conservative, I am as skeptical of big business as I am of big government--with a particular loathing of so-called "multi-national corporations."

I'm not even opposed to labor unions per se, only their corrupt manifestation in the United States, which I am willing to bet is different from Germany in this regard.

I did find your account of German practices fascinating. I might ask you more about this.

Singring said...

' But if you thought was merely a "free-market capitalist," you haven't been reading this blog very closely.'

Fair enough, this was probably much too 'broad brush' a term to use, but remember that I am writing from a European perspective - to me, even Obama would qualify as a 'free market capitalist', though I doubt many Americans (especially conservatives) would agree with that. The political landscape in the US is different.

'I'm not even opposed to labor unions per se, only their corrupt manifestation in the United States, which I am willing to bet is different from Germany in this regard.'

Admittedly, I don't know much about the history unions in the US, though I would suggest that labelling them as 'corrupt' illustrates how successful Reagan was in tarring them with a label that has stuck ever since.

Yes, unions are in no way perfect - including European unions and even German unions - and they have their shortcomings and drawbacks like any other large organisation. But, for all their problems, the benefits they confer on workers far outweigh those issues and, aside from free-market ideologues, I doubt you will find many sensible economists who would disagree. It should be obvious that it bargaining is completely lopsided between a corporation and an employee if the employee is on his own. How is someone with little to no resources supposed to bargain fairly with a multi-billion corporation? Trade Unions level the playing field, at least to some extent.

'I did find your account of German practices fascinating. I might ask you more about this.'

The main reason unions in Germany have survived and have contributed to sustained German growth is that there are extensive laws protecting them and - in addition - integrating them into how corporations are run. Any company operating in Germany beyond a certain size must have what is called a 'Betriebsrat', in which elected unions representatives actually can influence how the company is run. This gives workers more power and in one sense makes for a better dialogue between unions and employers (unions in Germany in the past have frequently agreed to 0 wage increase years or even wage reductions to help carry industry over recessions, for example), but when push comes to shove, because they are so pervasive in the industry, they can develop massive bargaining power.

The upshot is that in good years, unions help get their members a bigger share of the profits (still not enough by far if you ask me, of course ;-). Which means that generally, unions are respected by both members and employers.

When I hear about unions in the US, I hear about anti-union videos, intimidation of workers and politicians doing everything they can to discredit and disempower them.

The current problem in the US (as far as I can tell) has moved beyond the issue of corrupt teamsters - now even grass-roots unionization is stamped out instantly.

There is a documentary on WalMart that covers this issue that is really quite troubling - and it specifically contrasts the condition and wages of WalMart employees in the US and that of WalMart employees in their German stores, which are all unionized and generally work at better conditions.

And then of course there's laws about vacation, health insurance, protection against being made redundant etc...

But that's for another day.

Anonymous said...

Before Thatcher, Stalinists were running major British unions. Seriously, hard core, non-apologist Stalinists were running British unions, and the country was constantly on strike.