Category Archives: Cuture Shock

Automatic or the people?

Automatic or the people?

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. 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.

More: AP video of Otto


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.

More: Amazon Go promo video

Whither the writers?

Even writers and content creators like me are vulnerable. The Associated Press uses a platform called Wordsmith that reads box scores and spits out a sports story. Google’s AI is writing poetry.

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.

Photo credit: Vinally2010 Robot via photopin (license)

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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in Cuture Shock, Uncategorized


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A Decade of 9/11

I’m frequently loathe to pile on to the popular Zeitgeist, but it’s hard to escape reflection on the eve of a decade where one date, 9/11, carries so much significance.

Even in the flurried cacophony of remembrances, specials, and tributes.

On Thursday, I attended a reception for new faculty at Wabash. As I was speaking with Prof. Crystal Benedicks of the English Department and Prof. James Cherry of the Theater Department. Prof. Benedicks is teaching a freshman tutorial entitled, “9/11 and American Culture” to students who were 9 years old on that fateful day.

As we discussed the course, I shared a few pieces of media that resonated most with me.

The Falling Man

For most of us, we first heard about the attacks as “a plane hit the World Trade Center”as if some nut or novice caromed off one of the towers in an ultralight.

Then we turned on the TV to see smoke billowing out of the side of the north tower. Then, the  second plane slammed into the south tower as reporters fumbled to report live information. By then, the great majority of us saw the towers–first one, then the other–collapse in plumes of smoke.

But what most of us never saw was something so disturbingly horrific that it’s remained largely hidden since. For a few desperate souls trapped above the impact point in the towers, the Hobson’s Choice offered was a jump to their death.

For me, this one image (right) greatly disturbs and fascinates me, even now. It boils the loss of life of thousands down to just one person–one soul plunging headfirst to his death.

Tom Junod writes a haunting exploration of this photo, capturing a lone figure against a symmetry of the World Trade Center. His article, “The Falling Man,” in the September 2003 issue of Esquire stands as a pinnacle of excellence, emerging from the ruins of true journalism.

For the tenth anniversary, he revisits his groundbreaking piece.

25th Hour

If one person needed to write to offer a meditation on life in New York after the terrorist attacks, it had to be Spike Lee in 2003’s 25th Hour. The film displays the director’s talky style in foreground of the the physical ruins of Ground Zero, contributing to the theme of broken lives trying to heal punctuated by a wonderfully haunting soundtrack by Terence Blanchard.

When the main character, Monty Brogan, looks himself in the mirror, he unleashes a screed of xenophobic epithets unearthing the subterranean ugliness of a city facing itself as the dust settles. No one is spared in this rant. But we’ve seen this before from Spike Lee in his classic, Do the Right Thing,

I think more poignantly about this last scene, especially in the context of all who lost their lives on 9/11. Monty serves as a stand-in for the families cut off by history. “You all came so close to never happening.”

Except, unlike many people in the attacks, he has a choice.

Reign Over Me

Apart from my conversation with Wabash professors, my mind continued to ruminate on other movies and such.

Advance another few years and you find Mike Binder’s wonderful Reign Over Me, which casts Adam Sandler in a very dramatic role of Charlie Fineman, recovering from the loss of his family during the attacks, partially through the help of his estranged college roommate, played by Don Cheedle. Yes, Mike, the name of Fine-man, in all it’s Arthur Miller panache, wasn’t lost on me.

What Resonates, What Lingers

Ten years later, what resonates from the period, and what lingers?

Unless you personally know someone in the military overseas, most Americans can barely pop their heads up from their iPhones to notice that we’re still at war. It takes movies like The Messenger, the even better Taking Chance, and the courageous The Tillman Story to remind us of the later sacrifices.

The government’s newest department, Homeland Security, is well established and has already abandoned its color-coded terror alerts like the USDA’s last nutritional campaign.

Saving you, dear reader, from the boring details of my account of that day–frantic calls to a sister in Brooklyn and family in DC–and the days following.

Here’s what resonates in my memory.

I remember sitting dazed in a boardroom at Barnes & Thornburg downtown with other board members of the Indianapolis Association of Wabash Men recounting the morning and wondering why the hell we all showed up to a meeting that day.

For days after, you could tell which cable networks were owned by which media conglomerate. ESPN showed ABC coverage, MTV showed CBS coverage, etc. Two of the only networks showing regular programming? The Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.

I remember that, at a time when all professional sports curtailed their contests in addition to many universities, Wabash and Wheaton Colleges decided to play that Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, at Hollet Little Giant Stadium in Crawfordsville. C. Jemal Horton expressed it best in his Sunday Indianapolis Star column:

“You still can play the game. You still can cheer. You still can believe. Even during the worst of times. Even while you grieve. The 3,034 fans at Wabash College lived that on Saturday afternoon. They were living witnesses who weren’t about to let the shedding of red-white-and-blue blood go unremembered. And that meant everything, since Wabash decided to go against most of sports America and play its college football game with Wheaton College.

“Thank God they decided to play the game. God bless them for playing the game.

In one community, at least, people were able to forge a smile and not feel bad about it. They were able to look around and see people just like themselves—people who had to at least try to see if this day could be an infinitesimal step toward a healing process that could take years.”

After a while, my friends and I felt stir crazy, so we went to watch Zoolander. I still think that a desperation to just be entertained enhanced that movie quite a bit. When Saturday Night Live finally returned on Sept. 29, Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” to which Rudi replied, “Why start now?” I think it was that point where we all felt that we could be funny again. (Funny how you can’t access that clip online. Hmmm.)

While a resurrected Bon Jovi song seemed to find the Millennials, for me, it was Billy Joel, not ’80s Joel mind you. “New York State of Mind” seemed to capture the mood perfectly along with the Ryan Adam’s serendipitous release of “New York, New York” with a video shot the Friday before the attacks with the WTC prominent in the background.

What lingers most for me is watching that first plane cross a sky completely erased of all contrails when air travel finally resumed. I just stopped, frozen, watching it traverse the azure backdrop as if I was a child, fixated on an object through the bars of the crib, across the room, out of reach.

But what really lingers is that magnetic American flag on my car. Yes, it’s the same car, then newly used and just bought, now, beaten up by time and hail and circumstance. When I get a new car (soon I hope), I’m transferring Old Glory to the new bumper. Everybody started the refrain “We will not forget” again this week, just like they did for Pearl Harbor and the Maine and the Alamo.

I surely know I won’t.

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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Cuture Shock, Media as Massage