Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't Replace People With Machines

Today I went to the post office. I took my many packages to the counter and just before the woman working waited on me, she asked the gentleman behind me in line if he had anything short before all of my packages. I didn't mind because I know I'm a pain to stand behind at the post office.

He needed a stamp and that was it. She explained that there was no stamp machine or automatic postage machine at this small branch and she didn't want him to have to wait too long.

This prompted me to say how I really love those machines. They are quick and easy. She responded with how the postal workers DON'T love those machines and that each time they get one at the other bigger branch where she works someone looses a job or hours. Also, because they have a "need" for less people, when you DO want to speak with a human rather than a machine, that the line is often longer because they are short staffed. (I know her pretty well so I imagine that is why she was so candid.)

I'm not writing this as a criticism of the US postal service or an expose on how the PO works in my area, it just got me thinking. We so often bemoan the fact that because of how our towns and suburbs are set up that we have lost a certain sense of community. We don't KNOW each other anymore. We don't have a butcher. We don't have a milkman and often we don't even know our neighbors. We replace people little by little in the name of convenience. What happened to communication and friendship? Is convienience our higest goal?

At Wegman's, my daughter has a friend named Ida. She's an older woman who works as a cashier. We look for her every week and have nice conversation when we see her. I swear the interaction benefits both Ida and my daughter. I would never for a minute consider a self checkout even if they had one. The human interaction is too important.

We worry about India taking our technical jobs and China taking our manufacturing jobs and yet we so willingly bow to technology here at home without thinking for a minute of the person whose job we replace each time we do so.

I'm guilty of this too. I usually print my postage here at home in my office. My printer is acting up (I know, another machine on the blink over here!) so I've been at the Post Office more than I usually am. (Now I actually do know my letter carrier by name so maybe I get some points for that) Also, not driving (the short distance to the PO) saves me money on gas and time. I don't know how to balance it all out really. I don't really know the answer.

Maybe I could split the difference and bring the boxes to the post office on days when I will be out and about and driving right by. I know one thing for sure, I probably won't use the stamp machine unless it's after hours.

And now I promise no more technology rants for the rest of the week!


Unknown said...

See, I think it's really different than outsourcing. The way I see it, every human job a robot takes, a human job making, designing, or testing the robot opens up.

What I object to is an American worker hired under U.S. labor laws being replaced by a third world worker exploited by a culture that defies labor laws, environmental laws, and basic human decency.

As for the other point about community and human interaction, that's well taken. I suppose there are some tasks though that I'd prefer a computer to do (stamps) and others that I'd prefer a human being to do (answer the phone).

Thanks for the thought-provoking essay!

Christine said...

Yes, theoretically, one job does replace the other. However, my woman at the post office is not about to start designing computer systems that replace people. So where does that leave her? Designing computers is obviously a much more skilled position than working at the post office. So now we have high skilled workers replacing low skilled workers. Then a low skilled worker can't even get a manufacturing job because they are all in China. (yes, beating the damn China drum again!)

I know realistically people get replaced. Heck, I buy butter at the store-Should I be raising my fist at butter making machines because butter churners went out of business??? (I think I'm a hypocrite as I want to pick and choose I think!)

And I completely agree with you on the third world workers.

Unknown said...

Yes, theoretically, one job does replace the other. However, my woman at the post office is not about to start designing computer systems that replace people. So where does that leave her?

I think that's a very fair point, and I'm not cold-hearted enough to make the economist's hand-of-the-free-market-taketh-and-giveth-away argument. I understand on a macro level how it works, but I think you're absolutely right to point out that these aren't just numbers we're talking about. They're people.

Of course, being a Democrat, my theory of government means that the state would help this lady out, feed and clothe her and her family while helping to retrain her for other work, and otherwise be the safety-net of capitalism. But I recognize that this is only my theory of how things should work--not how they actually work.

And I have to say, that every time I get caught in a phone machine circle of hell where you can't actually get a human being to answer your question, I curse technology!