A Computer Took Your Job

05 Jun

For some reason, we’re not mad at them, either.

We love the computers. They make our lives easier – like our cell phones and laptops and DVRs. My DVR isn’t taking anyone’s job, because I hadn’t been paying anyone to record my shows.  I never had to say, listen, man, with the new DVR and all, I’m afraid I don’t need your services anymore – it just wouldn’t make sense to keep you on board.

I simply didn’t watch the television show if I wasn’t  home at the right time, or I’d have to suddenly get up and run, tell people, I got to get going, Oprah’s on.

But, really, the DVR most certainly is taking someone’s job, because DVRs in connection with digital, on-demand cable are making video stores obsolete. Those stores had people working in them. For the same price as renting a movie, you can get it on cable, and you don’t have to drive there twice.

Or you can go to one of those vending machines – really just stationary robots standing there, with a few jobs in their pockets. 

Good for you, bad for the guys from Clerks.

Cell phones don’t steal jobs directly, but they make things more efficient, and you know what that means.

It used to be if you drove a truck for a construction company, for example, then you’d have a bunch of change in your ash tray, for the pay phone, and you’d have a pager clipped to your sun visor. The warehouse manager would page you, and then you’d have to drive around, find a phone, call in, and you’d get whatever message they wanted to get to you.

It could easily add up to an hour every day, just grinding through the logistics of returning your pages. So if the company had nine drivers, that’s nine hours a day, so the day they gave all the drivers a cell phone was the day they could get rid of one of the drivers.

Multiply that by a millions of delivery and logistics employees, and suddenly, you realize our beloved cell phones stole millions of jobs.

Embezzled them, really, shaved the jobs down. Shawshank-Redemptioned them right out into the prison yard.

Early on it was the very first employee-bots – copiers. Benjamin Franklin used to be a copier, when he was about twenty. He wrote at length about it in his autobiography, in an eerie colonial-era description of a modern cube farm.

He and about thirty dudes would come in every day and work for twelve hours. All they did was copy documents by hand. They were in London, so there were myriad British business transactions flying around, and if you wanted something copied, you had a kid run it over to the copy dudes. That’s how it worked.

As a human copier you were given all the beer you wanted all day long – not joking. Benjamin Franklin, however, found that he could increase his own productivity by abstaining from the beer, and instead having bread and fruit and water.

It was such a controversial concept that he spent two pages explaining himself, explaining why it wasn’t totally crazy to not drink beer at work all day. He went into concepts like the caloric content of beer versus the caloric content of actual bread.   To be fair the beer they were drinking was probably stout, and a lot like drinking bread.

But he had to really put on an 18th century PowerPoint presentation like Al Gore, to get his controversial idea across. There were a lot of skeptics.

Fax machines put Kevin Bacon out of a job, too – or at least his bicycle courier character from Quicksilver. Then people started having fax machines built into their email drivers – putting fax machines out of their jobs as well.

Those of us who still have jobs get to use all the new computers as our own robotic support crew, and they make our day so much easier, don’t they?

No. They do not. They simply enable us to do things more quickly, and that enables our employers to expect more from us. The benefits of the increased efficiency are benefits to the company, not the employee.

For instance, imagine doing laundry , and then imagine doing it with a new super washing machine, with double capacity.  More laundry, less time.

Not really great news if all that’s going to happen is, you get handed two times more laundry to do. Suddenly more people have clean laundry, which is great, but you’re still working all day. Still doing laundry.

And if you’re doing the laundry because you work there, remember, your boss gets paid based on how much laundry gets done.  You get paid by the hour.

We let a bunch of robots take our jobs away, and we love the robots. Sometimes we even sexualize them, like in cell phone commercials. Sometimes they give them sexy names, and play stripper music and show the phones rotating slowly, on a little stage.  Creeps me the hell out.

The robots are not our support team, they’re the Matrix. They follow us around, keep track of what we do, tell anyone about it who asks, increase our stress and workload, and yes, they take our jobs, a little piece at a time.  Like digital Pharoahs whaling on the pyramid-builders, they make sure we know that we can be replaced and that we won’t be missed and that we won’t be found.

A big pool of unemployed people, like an alligator pit, is an excellent thing, from a management standpoint. Watching friends and colleagues get tossed in there might not be great for the morale, but you’ll catch yourself shoveling faster. The alligators are real.

We get mad at immigrants for taking our jobs, even though we put up a big statue right at the front door with a sign on it, that says “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor huddled masses.”

Then a century and some change flies by, and suddenly they’re an infuriating nuisance. Everybody’s suddenly saying, “Damn it, I’m so sick of these poor, huddled masses.”

Maybe we should put up a new statue, I don’t know.

Not to dwell on it, I know immigration’s a tricky issue, it’s just an observation. It’s a long way from putting up a huge “WELCOME” statue, to several million Facebook fans who are “tired of dialing 1 for English.”

And anyway, that’s another job a computer took away, the computer which answered the phone, and played a digital girl-voice asking you to press 1 for English.

There used to be a person who’d answer the phone, and they’d either speak Spanish or they wouldn’t. Either way, it still took slightly longer than it takes to press 1, to find out. You just had to start talking, see what they said.

One reason we’re not mad at computers for taking our jobs is that in many cases, they gave the jobs right back to us. Often, when they gave the jobs back, they were sharper, more sleek. You could look a lot cooler doing your job, once the computer took it and tuned it up and gave it back to you.

Like when cel phones came out – suddenly everyone was a big shot. Everyone so thrilled to look like an alpha dog, talking business so loudly and eagerly that they either didn’t notice or didn’t care when it suddenly meant, you’re on call twenty-four hours a day now. Did your pay go up when that happened?

People used to be a lot more annoyed by cel phones, when only a few of us had them. The etiquette took a while to work out – quiet rooms and loud, one-sided sales pitches.  Signs went up at the bank, and the BMV.   Old guys suddenly got comically proud of the kind of phone you can stick in your ear – they’d walk around talking on them, just quivering with enjoyment, like kids with blinking, new toys.

A cell phone call also cost a lot of money per minute when cell phones first arrived, so people would announce it – “I’m calling you on my cell phone.”

Like you were calling from the President’s office or something.

I’m sitting here watching one of those crime re-enactment shows, and they’re showing a murder from the eighties. To confirm the identity of the body, they filled out a form and sent it in the mail to California, where they produced a print of his driver license photograph, and dropped that in a special brown envelope, and mailed it back.

Imagine all the people involved in that procedure:

  • The person who obtained and documented approval for the request.
  • The person who filed a copy of it for later archival.
  • The person who received the package in California, distributing the request to the right department
  • The person who retrieved the copy of the license from wherever it was stored, producing a new print if all they had was the negative.
  • The person who filed a copy of the request, typed the reply, then shipped it back to the first place
  • The person who received the return package and distributed it back to the right desk, where the person who sent out the request would then visually verify the identity of the guy in the picture by comparing it to a picture of the body

Most of those people, replaced by computers, email, and facial recognition software.  It’s the wave of the future, we’ve said it for years, and I’m certainly not here to shake my fist at the sky.

There’s also an obvious and tremendous bright side; I’m sure glad the law enforcement agencies have the tools and integrated resources they have today.

It’s just that our jobs are being taken away by several groups.  One of them is illegal immigrants, though they are not taking away very good jobs. They are taking jobs that you or I would be very unlikely to want to do, except frequently, they are taking two of them.

But the main group that is stealing our jobs is our executives, and they do it to be efficient. They take away jobs, give them to robots, and then they say, watch your ass or you’ll be next.

So we direct our rage at the illegals, and not at the executives, not the employers. Not the people who hire employees whether they are legal or not, and not the people who fire you or your brother or your dad or your librarian. Not the people who replace them with computers.

One group is vulnerable. One group is powerful and out of reach.

So I think it says something, if you’ve got a screaming, vitriolic fury for the vulnerable group, and you completely ignore the corporate jet-riding supermen, who are guilty of the same thing for much worse reasons.

I think it says something, if you’re vocally angry about the guys yanking shingles off your neighbors roof, and then you let the millionaire white guy in the suit, for some reason, slide.

Like if you’re at the park, and a couple of huge dudes walk around yelling insults all day long.  Then later, a little old lady comes by and tells you you’re ugly, and you punch her in the mouth.  Not very impressive, you know.

But don’t worry, I know I’m being a hypocrite. For example, I’m currently in the process of replacing whoever was going to be my literary agent, and whoever was going to be my publisher, with this computer on my lap.

Sometimes the hard choices are the easiest ones to make.


Posted by on June 5, 2010 in Uncategorized


6 responses to “A Computer Took Your Job

  1. Anne

    June 5, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Good god, Tommy C, you’ve turned into Andy Rooney.

    • thomaschalfant

      June 5, 2010 at 8:43 pm

      Don’t worry Anne, I’ll turn into someone else tomorrow.

  2. Anne

    June 5, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    That was not entirely an insult, and I enjoyed your post, so I guess that means I’ve turned into an Andy Rooney fan. Worse things could happen to both/either of us, I guess.

    • thomaschalfant

      June 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm

      Wow, and holy Christmas, I just re-read it with my mental Andy Rooney voice – it works!

      I could make a new category for it!

  3. Bill V

    June 5, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Punching old ladies! You Rock!

  4. blue

    April 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Great Job


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