The Human Side of Automation Pt. 1: Will I be Needed?

For most of the industrial age, workers were a dispensable cog in a production scheme. Work was how you put food on the table and had a Buick in the driveway. You were paid by someone else to push their agenda and the company could quite easily do without you.

Exceptional people bring more value to a corporation but they also cost more if the company requires obedience and conformity; exceptional people have a gravity about them and large production schemes are wary of this.

The worker had relatively no power because they didn't control the means of production. Actually producing work required them to be at the office, the school or the factory and the physical means to do the job were not their property. The only thing they controlled was their labor and their labor was completely replaceable. If you controlled the means of production then you were an entrepreneur and you hired non-entrepreneurs to push your agenda. That's what work was, not what work is now.

"When labor is dependent on management for the factory and the machines and the systems they use to do their work, the relationship is fraught with issues over power and control. The factory needs labor, sure, but labor really needs the factory. It was always easier for management to replace labor than it was for labor to find a new factory."

Seth Godin, Linchpin

Dotted across the United States of America you see industrial-era graveyards. Entire towns where men & women all worked at the factory until the world became small and the factory left. As factories outsourced production and moved to South-East Asia their labor did not move with them. Humans move slowly, corporations move very quickly. General Mills, the steel plant or Ford are long gone, the people are still there.

Driving through Luverne, Alabama feels like being in the memory of a place; a past built on rust, steel, sweat and the American Dream preserved in state. The people were morose, moved slowly and were few. The old Pepsi signs, billboards, and dilapidated buildings were many. Pepsi left because it had options, the people stayed because they didn't.

In linchpin Seth Godin asks you to consider, are you indispensable? Pepsi's management may have gotten promotions to accept the offer to spend the next few years overseas; they were indispensable. The production line workers who had never left the small Southern town they called home were not only replaceable, they were replaceable quickly and at a lower cost.  Their dispensability was actually a bonus for the company they once worked for.

Work today is different because with next to no resources you can control the means of production. If you own the means of production, you own the product and if the product is remarkable, the customer will love you for it. If you have a community that loves you, serving them becomes your indispensability.

"Today, the means of production = a laptop computer with internet connectivity. Three thousand dollars buys a worker an entire factory."

Seth Godin, Linchpin

This era of producing great work at no cost is the next work-revolution we're currently going through. Rifkin reminds us that when the energy that powers how we move and communicate changes, entire economies change. One aspect of the fourth industrial revolution, where information is virtually free, is Yuval Noah Harari's warning of the arrival of the useless class. As non-humans get smarter and smarter, more humans will be pushed out of the economy because the economy, as it stands, doesn't need them anymore. Most of us are not producing indispensable work. Public education systems don't have a prayer in keeping up because few, if anyone, knows what the economy of 2050 will look like. Those who do, are predicting that billions of workers will become useless if work continues in its current form.

In the industrial era, it was physical labor being replaced by machines. Machines could do the work faster, more efficiently, more specifically, didn't need breaks and didn't ask for time off to spend with their newborn. In the knowledge-revolution, even cognitive abilities will be replaced. It won't be legacy coal workers or the production line getting automated, that's already happened; it will be lawyers, radiologists, and surgeons. This will be a completely different form of revolution because the world gives these people far more say than those in Luverne.

For some the prospect of automation is terrifying. Where do I fit? Will I be needed? What will bring meaning to my life? These questions are completely fascinating and present a unique opportunity; leaving mindless tasks to mindless things.

In the face of automation, we are tasked with redefining work.

How to begin? We begin by making great things.

Get a skill.

Pt. 2 of The Human Side of Automation will be about step 1 in countering the revolution; getting a skill.

#culture #business #technology #automation #work #future #futureofwork