Today marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. For me and many, his themes and observations on the human condition stand fresh and relevant as when he wrote them.
I mark today by revisiting his first book, Player Piano, published in 1952. In it, Vonnegut explores the theme of automation and its impact on people displaced by technology. For American workers caught up in “foreigners stole my jobs” fervor, automation represents a much more impactful threat to their work.
Currently, David Brancaccio (who interviewed Vonnegut a few years before his death) is airing a feature titled “Robot-Proof Jobs” on American Public Media’s Marketplace Morning Report. Great news for astronomers, veterinarians, historians, mathematicians, musicians, miners, and models, Robbie the Robot won’t be threatening your livelihood anytime soon. But for lumberjacks, projectionists, masons, and meat packers, Rosie the Robot may be coming for your job. This series expands on Brancaccio’s 2012 series of stories “Robots Ate My Job,” which documents a cross-country trip he took with no human contact. It’s great stuff and worth a listen.
Couched in all of this, I really wanted to explore two news stories late last year that created that buzz in the news cycle and quickly dissipated. They’re more than fluff presented at the end of your local broadcast. They can produce a devastating impact if—and when—industries implement them.
In late October 2016, Uber-owned startup Otto (get it?) in partnership with Budweiser outfitted a big rig and hauled 2,156 cases of the King of Beers 120 miles across I-25 from Fort Collins through Denver to Colorado Springs. The Belgian-based AB InBev said it could save upwards of $50 million each year with automated deliveries. (The news articles do not report whether all those cans were emblazoned with “America” in place of “Budweiser.”)
So let’s run some numbers. The American Trucking Association estimates that 3.5 million truck drivers haul freight in the United States. Indeed.com puts their average salary at $62,608 per year. So in aggregate, companies could save $219 trillion a year or more. That’s scary tempting, folks, and there’s not a damned thing a Teamster can do about it.
In December, we heard about that Amazon Go grocery store in downtown Seattle where you walk in, tap your app, grab your things, and go. The store keeps track of what you take off the shelf and what you put back. Now, I can’t seem to use those self-service check-out kiosks without them beeping for an attendant every five seconds, but automated checkout is definitely coming, and maybe faster than driverless Mack trucks.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the United States employed 3.4 million cashiers at an average annual salary of $20,670. In aggregate, retailers could save $70 trillion per year.
Whither the writers?
With news organizations still dreaming of an economical way to churn out SEO-garnering hyperlocal content, automation presents a chilling solution. Picture a computer program taking the audio from a city council meeting, instantly transcribing it, and feeding a completed story online and then into the next day’s edition. No reporter needed.
Failing to prepare
After the election, I heard a report from Coal Country where an unemployed miner groused about training for a different job. “I’m sick of hearing about retraining,” he said. “I want my old job back.”
Well, I thought, I’m sure the folks making VCRs, pagers, and CB radios felt the same way. Sometimes you just have to adapt. But, to what? I followed. You know companies will just downsize all of these workers with no plan for repositioning them within the company or retraining them. And I then asked the really naïve questions: Who’s responsible for retraining and outplacing these people to new jobs? Can industry create new jobs for these workers? Without a plan, we face a future of Vonnegut’s dystopian vision where we exile those displaced by technology to a new Homestead.
Here’s where I dead-end in proposing a magical solution. I only know that we as a society need to prepare better for it. So let’s quit devaluing our educational institutions, arguing about unproductive ideas like standardized testing and competition, disregarding the trades, underpaying our teachers, and falling behind the rest of the world in providing quality education to everyone. Again, I don’t have the answers here, but I do know that we’re spending too much time, as Vonnegut puts it, “farting around.”
If you haven’t read Player Piano, I’d recommend picking it up at a public library or local independent bookstore. Or you could have an Amazon drone deliver it to your house.