Should Technology Replace People

When calling a company’s customer service, I am very frequently greeted by a virtual receptionist, which more often than not is a huge waste of time and an exceedingly frustrating experience. Yup, I am forced to fit my unique issue with a programed series of questions, which rarely ever represents my need.  In addition, turning frustration into annoyance, the programmed voice tells me that I (as a customer) am very important to the business enterprise. 

So the answer to the question, does technology employed by business meet our needs, I suspect—if my experience is not unique–most would offer a resounding No, Not Usually!

Such use of (labor saving) technology serves the company’s bottom line, not the customers’ needs. The use of technology here, even given the company’s warning ‘our options have changed so please listen carefully’demonstrates that it hasn’t even dawned upon management in authority that customers are not monolithic.  There is a difference between attending to each individual customer and attending to each customer as an individual (i.e. as a person).  Doing the latter can’t be attended to by a virtual receptionist, but clearly this isn’t stopping the management of business enterprises from cutting labor costs by any and all means.

Could Implies Should

As reported in The Guardian, robots will be increasingly employed by corporations to replace actual people.   Why is this happening?  Simple, it is better for the bottom line: Robot labor is far less costly than people labor!  After all, the company’s profit matters most—profit wins out over individual personal service every time.  The business of business is profit.

What jobs might be considered or included in this increased use?  The business minded answering this question will likely say, those positions with tasks that are formulaic thus lending to automation.  Greater insight into where the likely focus for job displacement lies can be realized by looking at the business organization from the perspective of its hierarchical structure.

Using the hierarchy as a framework, we can readily see the bifurcation of jobs into thinking versus doing.  With management driving the organization to its goals, the thinking jobs are at the top and the doing jobs are those on the lower rungs. Ultimately, as technology advances, those jobs not performed by those occupying the upper rungs in the organization’s hierarchy would be on the table for consideration. Clearly in a similar fashion to the decision regarding which jobs should be off-shored.  

It appears as though the burden in peoples’ lives caused by job displacement is thought of as an externality and thus not a criterion concern of management in the decision to employ labor saving technology.

Critically Thinking The Decision

First note, automatable implies programable. That is to say, jobs that are formulaic and executed via algorithms are programable and thus automatable. However, rather than keeping with the thinking versus doing dichotomy, we need to understand that not all the thinking going on in the organization is either creative thinking or critical thinking.  There is a considerable amount of routine (previously established) thought being applied, even in the upper levels of management. So let’s include for consideration what management attends to as well.  

It is instructive to understand the work in the organization in its context, the capitalist economic system, which is particularly relevant to upper level management tasks.  As discussed in a previous post, capitalism encourages, if not requires, business enterprises operating within it to align with its material growth maximization maxim. To this end, management is tasked to monetize all aspects of the company in the process of driving for profit maximization.  

As previously explained here, management is thus laser-focused on driving for ever increasing profit by any means. Results is what matters!  Consequently, management doesn’t just manage for results they manage by results. Management sets higher goals, applying the thought that raising standards will lead to better results.  Using results to get better results is clearly not reflective of sound logic, yet it is a popular practice. Furthermore, people are held accountable for results. Though unintended, results by any means can cause harm to others in the pursuit of results.  

Further as discussed here, not only is most everything translated into monetary terms, it is accepted management practice to reduce the evaluation of both individual and organizational performance—very dynamically complex phenomena—to a simple either/or dichotomy.  That is, performance evaluation is reduced to a good versus bad judgment relative to what is desired. The common practice is to assess and evaluate performance with the aid of a variance report, this management practice is akin to painting-by-the-numbers: Making it simple and formulaic with no need for understanding and critical thinking.

Sounds pretty algorithmic, and quite automatable, don’t you think? 

When An Externality Is No Longer That External

Replacing higher priced (management) labor with lower cost robots would surely drive results!  But, in this case, the use of robots would not be considered, even though it would result in far fewer people becoming unemployed.  This option is likely not on the table. 

When what was previously an externality (i.e. the very personal impact on some ‘others’ becoming unemployed) turns to being quite personal—me losing my job. In this scenario, the externality becomes an internality; something that is very much personally felt. That is to say, the decision to automate one’s own job no longer fits the often-heard expression, nothing personal, it’s just business, which is often offered to absolve the decision-maker from responsibility of the very (personal) human cost of the decision.

Technology Alone Is Neither Bad Nor Good

The argument above is not to say that (labor saving) technology must never be brought into the work of the organization.  Those making this decision must not view—with one eye open–the organization as an independent entity.  Rather what must be understood is that it is deeply interdependent within the larger system of people in society; that is, there are no externalities to dismiss.  In short, the decision regarding the why, what and how of employing (labor saving) technology should not be made with one eye open and focused solely on the organization as an independent entity. Accordingly, some of the questions that need to be asked and fully explored include what is the intent, who is to benefit, who might be harmed as a result of employing the technology?  Are the benefits and burdens to each and all stakeholders just and equitable? What are the consequences—both intended and unintended as well as short and long term—of employing the particular technology? In short, having a systemic perspective and understanding must inform the decision whether and how to employ a (labor saving) technology. 

Dissolve the Climate Crisis

Carbon offset programs are failing as climate solutions.  Of course they are!  Paraphrasing Einstein, problems can’t be solved with the same system of thinking that created them.  In other words, one can’t solve a systemic problem by applying the same system of orientation that was followed in creating the system and thus the problem.
Carbon offsets or carbon allowances, are market-driven solutions to the climate crisis that cannot possibly work, since they are devised by the very same system of thought whose consequence is the climate crisis; it’s a capitalist resolution to a capitalism caused problem! Continue reading

Who’s for Business?

It seems opposition to proposals intended to help the greater mass of people, such as providing a livable wage or ensuring healthcare for all or having regulations that ensure a healthy and safe environment, quite often is that they would not be good for business. It does seem that business is opposed to being helpful to people in society, which is consistent with Milton Friedman’s (neoliberal) contention that a business enterprise has no responsibility apart from maximizing profit and shareholder value (over the next quarter).

 

So, who’s for business? Continue reading

Results Obsessed

We appear to be obsessed with results (further explained here)—the outcome of our activities—while we generally give little attention to the activity itself. Why? Continue reading

Avoid Change in the Extreme

The only thing constant in life is change—Heraclitus. With change being constant in life, change is not avoidable through life.

 

With this in mind, denying (the need for) change, is denying life. Refusing to deal with it in the present is refusing to be life affirming in the present. This way of being doesn’t stop change from arising—given its constancy—it only ensures having to deal with it in its extreme later. Continue reading

Potential Psychopaths Us All

In the article Three Things to Know to Hold Wells Fargo Accountable the author Lynn Parramore (Senior Research Analyst at Institute of New Economic Thinking) relays what William Lazonick (Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Lowell) identified as the three things we need to know: 1) American businesses have become stock manipulation machines; 2) focusing on short-term stock prices leads to corruption; and 3) punishment means little until executive pay is understood. The first essentially speaks to the profit maximizing intent of business and its executives and the second to the importance of it happening now if not sooner while the third is that the entire scheme is ultimately profitable because of the enormous size of the gains. So now that we know these things, what are we to do about it? Continue reading

A Drowning Class and the Invisible Hand

Whether as a symptom of or as a commentary about the state of affairs of the U.S. economy we hear many (pundits especially) say the middle class is declining… if not disappearing. A growing number of people the state of affairs is quite stormy as they are finding it harder and harder to stay above water, yet for a select few who are smoothly sailing along it has never been better. Continue reading

If We Cared About Our Development

A recent HBR article (Why companies are so bad at treating employees like people) by Herminia Ibarra speaks to the need to re-invent the workplace if there is to be human development at work. As Ibarra characterizes it, this re-invention requires “reimagining complex organizations so that they are more human and agile.” The implication seems to be that making organizations more human and agile involves solving the “thorny problem of developing people.” Continue reading

Is that all there is?

According to the mission of our materialist egoistic system of economics (aka capitalism) we are to accumulate, without limit, as much material wealth as we can and (individually) we are to do this by maximizing the satisfaction of our individual material self-interest. In other words one leads a successful life to the extent that one has realized material gain and amassed wealth—the greater the material gain, the more worthy and the more successful one is. Accordingly this is to be one’s goal in life, it is all there is to life itself! Necessarily, it follows that the pinnacle of self-interest behavior, of getting as much as possible for one’s self, having it all for one’s self, is greed—there is little doubt in this philosophy of life greed is good! Continue reading