The work I’m doing now, around the Four Point Plan, (1) is a direct result of my work around the inroads of automation in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It was a time of blue screens and DOS commands. We had the novelty of computer games. Every day at 4:00 the office fell silent while people played Tetris, Freecell, Pacman, and other computer games.
What I discovered was that no one – not the leader of the BC Federation of Labor, not the Provincial Premier (whose student council I served on), wanted to hear bad things about the computer.
I gave up playing Cassandra, (2) predicting doom, and set about finding solutions. The Four Point Plan is the result.
This exploration, on The Essays of Brother Anonymous, (3) led directly to this plan. Little did I know back then that I’d be given the opportunity to do something about the situation.
This then is a preface to a study of automation in the business travel industry, written after my wife was automated out of her job as a travel agent. I’ve edited the piece for readability.
From “Automation and Business Darwinism,” at https://www.angelfire.com/space2/light11/travel2.html
At the beginning of the 1990s, defense cutbacks, corporate mergers, and global trade wars troubled America. In response American business turned to a particular social and economic philosophy to galvanize the corporation, make it “leaner and meaner,” and promote its survival in turbulent times.
Although more widely known as “social Darwinism,” I prefer to think of it as “business Darwinism.” It held that business was a struggle for existence (profitability, market share) in which only the strongest (nimblest, leanest, best adapted) survived. (4)
To create the leaner, meaner corporation, business-Darwinist leaders began shrinking employment across the economy through a process that came to be known as “downsizing.” Their tool for doing so was automation.
If asked to account for rising unemployment, business executives and economists pointed to the recessionary conditions they faced. But the impact of defense cutbacks was eventually overcome; corporate mergers calmed down for a while; and America seemed to pick itself up and succeed in the global trade war. In general, recessionary conditions seemed to lift after 1991.
Despite these changes, the return of good times brought fewer jobs, or lower-paying jobs, than expected. America watched with rising alarm the advent of what came to be called “jobless recoveries,” a name that described but did not explain what was happening.
As downsizing spread, so did automation. As automation spread, so did downsizing. A peculiar relationship emerged between the two that had little to do with recessionary pressures. It began to be recognized that, whereas downsizing for simple cost savings could demoralize and overtax the remaining employees, replacing people with technology was a much cleaner solution.
Downsizing unto itself came to be seen as an evil, but automating was seen as a good. It allowed the corporation to survive in the unforgiving global market, said its supporters. It allowed the company at least to save some jobs instead of losing them all.
In search of the lowest-cost, highest-productivity process, factories, plants, labs, warehouses, and offices around the country began to use automated systems wherever possible to replace labor.
Assembly lines and process controls were automated. Management information systems funneled statistics to corporate executives. The microchip was applied to more and more productive situations, producing a dizzying array of acronyms: ATM, CAM, MRP, SAP, etc.
In the office, automation ran at first in the background. Unobtrusive mainframes yielded to desktop computers as computing power multiplied. Desktops gained online, global access to each other. The computer became a vehicle and the world, a neighborhood.
Allied technologies like bar codes, optical scanners, LANs, WANs, lasers, robots, biometrics, and a host of other tools continually extended the range of technology, as it accelerated in capturing erstwhile manual work or reaching out into new forms of commerce.
If I could imagine the spread of automation, I think it would form a J-curve, with a slow beginning and a rapid acceleration. My thesis here is that we’ve released a genie from a bottle, which does as much mischief as good. As long as we allow it, harmful automation has the capability of replacing more and more workers. It promises to leave us, not leisured, but idle and anxious.
(Continued in Part 2, tomorrow.)
(1) See “The Big Change – Part 1,” May 8, 2020, at https://goldenageofgaia.com/2020/05/08/the-big-change-part-1/
(2) Cassandra was a Trojan prophetess who had the temerity to predict the downfall of Troy.
(4) For a modern example of this kind of appeal, see “4 Important Reasons Automation Is A Must For Companies In 2020,” IoT Business News, Oct. 31, 2019, at https://iotbusinessnews.com/2019/10/31/22076-4-important-reasons-automation-is-a-must-for-companies-in-2020/.