I’ve read so much about the way technology is changing our lives that my eyes glaze when I learn another app is about to revolutionize the work place. Mostly the trend is to eliminate jobs. China, for example, has long benefitted from a large population and an abundance of cheap labor. Even so, thanks to technology, the country is shedding factory jobs at an alarming rate and replacing employees with robots. (“China’s robots spark a jobs crisis,” by Martin Ford, excerpted from NY Times in The Week, June 26, 2015.)
Futurists point out that shedding some jobs is natural when change occurs. While farming in the U.S. declined during the industrial revolution, manufacturing replaced opportunities lost in agriculture. All true, but I’m not sanguine about the job market where technology is concerned, primarily because the work displaced is largely in the service sector. Once a robot ousts a bell hop what’s left for the bell hop to do? (Blog 10/3/14)
As an artist, I’ve always told myself no robot could write the great American novel, but now I’m not sure. Crystal, a new app, “knows the email style and preferences of just about everyone in the English-speaking professional world.” (Empathy, Thanks to Algorithms,” by Erin Griffith, Fortune, June 15, 2015, pg. 88.) Crystal not only coaches to improve style but it also forces writers to anticipate how the reader will react. As journalist Erin Griffith explains, “It’s like a spell check for empathy.” (Ibid pg 90.)
That empathy can be dispensed robotically is spooky. What might happen to our plastic brains if we stopped feeling and assigned that responsibility to a machine? Worse, another app, Conspire, analyzes our emails and by a variety of measures, reports the findings to an employer. (Ibid pg. 90.) The intent of the program is “to improve people’s understanding of one another” (Ibid pg. 90.) but my guess is that workers will suffer increased paranoia and insensitivity, over time.
In a way, our passion for technology is bringing a dystopian world upon ourselves. Do we really need to monitor every heartbeat, every fluctuation in our temperature or our moods? Most likely, in our quest for perfection, the information will keep us anxious. We’re not robots, after all.
But take heart, you few remaining troglodytes. Companies still exist that cater to the old ways. Believe it or not, AOL has 2.16 million subscribers who dial up each day to reach the internet; Western Union still wires money — last year to the tune of $85 billion; Netflix mails DVDs to 5.77 million subscribers who won’t stream; credit cards haven’t replaced traveler’s checks, either. People buy billions of dollars worth each year. Dating services remain old fashioned, thank heavens. And believe it or not, while Encyclopedia Britannica is dead, its competitor, WorldBook, sells 10,000 printed copies annually. (“Dial-Up Internet,” by Claire Groden, Fortune, June 15, 2015, pg.. 29)
What we cave dwellers need now is an app to help us find one another.