I did, indeed, find a disappearing artifact... It was the employee.
I know I shouldn’t begin with an anecdote about Walmart. It’s like asking to fail, like asking readers to take your thoughts cheaply. Call them blue-light thoughts, even if they aren’t special. If, however, I tell you that I was deeply immersed in ethnographic research and found in the bustling theatre of Walmart some anthropological artifact of significance, maybe it would keep you just a moment longer. So, let’s stick with the latter explanation. I did, indeed, find a disappearing artifact in Walmart recently: It was the employee. Maybe my observation there will shed some light on a subject that is conspicuously absent from most of the punditry, policy-jockeying, and tired rhetoric of the contemporary moment.
It was late and I was still up working on a project and needed some materials desperately. Walmart was the only place with doors still automatically opening at that hour. “Just get in and get out,” I thought to myself as rain-drops pelted me on my sleep-deprived head. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to this particular store, but enough times that I noticed something different. Half of the checkout lanes and the attendants working the registers were gone. In their place now stands rows of self-checkout kiosks. The same thing is true of CVS and Walgreens—both replacing the cashier, just as we have replaced the cash for something “more efficient”.
I love technology and many of the affordances that technological advances offer us. You know the mantra by now: efficient technology enhancing lives. But, at some point common sense has to come in and say to all of us pubescent-techno-fiends, “This isn’t sustainable.” Not like this, it isn’t. Romeo and Juliet is a phenomenal story about love, but it isn’t a story of sustainable love. Our love affair with technology needs to be re-evaluated within the context of sustainability. The grand philosophical argument, something that is noble even if naïve, is that by automating all menial tasks, we can add better, higher paying jobs—like a game of economic Jenga. Ultimately we may win at this game, but not right now. When will our politicians and policy makers wake up to the fact that outsourcing to China and India isn’t our biggest problem; it’s just a current problem.
Been to your doctor lately? The shifting paradigm of information technologies will, no doubt, lessen the need for doctors, as computers routinely compare symptoms against possible treatments and make recommendations. Talk to your doctor will take on a new meaning in the coming years of telemedicine. The list could go on ad naseum. If machines can replace doctors, how secure is your job? The question, then, becomes one of justice, doesn’t it? Fair play and all that high-minded talk of ethics and concern for humanity. Again, I am not a fatalist about these things. If the experts are right, eventually we might have enough technological clout that we can generate whatever it is we need simply through reordering the pattern of atoms. But, that day isn’t today. And today is the day that we do all of our living and dying.
Let me end with another anecdote. One of my best friends recently returned from his last tour in Afghanistan. He also served in Iraq. College educated. Degree holder from a very well-respected tier one research university. Military trained. This guy is from a military family and would have made it his career too. He got back to the states, and like many of his cohort, found that his body had been ravaged by the intensity of too many tours. He was subsequently discharged for medical reasons (should be read as for getting blown up in combat). I was talking to him on the phone the other day and he asked haunting questions, “Where do I go now? What do I do? I mean who hires someone with advanced weapons training”? I know what you might be thinking at this point, that I’m conflating two different arguments. Bear with me. I am not arguing that we don’t have some companies that support our veterans when they return. Some do. Most don’t. Not like the way it's portrayed in the media. Don’t believe me, just ask a veteran. A rebuttal might be that my friend can utilize the GI Bill and go back to school to get one of those higher paying jobs that have been created by technological boon. What sounds like a lovely option is really his sole option at this point, precisely because there are no regular wage-earning positions where he lives. So, if he is to get a job at all, he will need more education, which brings me back full-circle.
What about the wage-earner at Walmart? She loses her job to a blinking machine that doesn’t work half the time. Horizontal movement is largely restricted due to similar trends in related sectors. With a family to support, now she has to go for additional education, which if it were for personal enrichment would be great—but it’s not, so it isn’t. It’s anything but great. How does she make the education happen? Where does the doe come from when you’ve taken her bread? Grants you say? Okay, maybe some grants cover a portion of tuition but usually not books and supplies. It’s certainly not enough for a family to live on. Loans then? Yes, maybe she can leverage her future for a degree or specialized training, but that is what you are asking. Education costs keep rising, while funding keeps diminishing. So, what about right now? What about so many todays that are being lost? As a society, we’re leveraging our future for temporary convenience and prospects of a better life.
As for my friend, formerly in the military, he takes no delight in the fact that remote technologies and drones are being used to phase out humans; and it has nothing to do with hyper-masculine aggressiveness and misguided blood-lust. He took honor in carrying on a family legacy, took pride in donning the American uniform, and took home a meager check. Times have changed though. Hopefully the day will soon come when we truly can beat our swords into plowshares and experience peace. I don’t think my friend would have a problem being displaced by peace. The problem in our country is that there is a war going on and machines are winning.