27 April 2010

Conveniece at a price - but at what cost?

As Flo mouth-breathed on the cans of spray paint that I was purchasing, I realized that the only reason Home Depot still had people like her working was because the robots meant to replace her simply hadn't been built yet.

I watched her scan the items using a laser, and a computer on her terminal automatically add up the totals for how much money I owed. When prompted, I slid my credit card through a separate, smaller terminal, and my receipt came out a few seconds later without me having to sign. Flo's entire job consisted of wheezing me a "Good afternoon," putting my items in a bag, and handing me a receipt.

That's it.

I give it another 10 years before the cashier has gone the way of the do-do bird.

I haven't given much thought to this, but I'm struck by how dehumanized workplaces and regular business transactions are becoming these days. I went to Target after I went to Home Depot, and had the same thing happen: a clerk's sole function was to not look me in the eye, mumble and incoherent salutation, and hand me the things Visa said I had the money to afford. Each employee no doubt was a number in a computer somewhere, easily replaced with another combination of numbers 1-9. It makes me wonder when I as a customer will be replaced by a robot.

How many jobs has this mechanization taken? While the efficiency is no doubt appreciated by the corporate bottom line, how is it a beneficial long-term approach when jobs become scarcer due to people being replaced by machines? There is a double-edge to this: with the same technology that allows us this rapid-fire consumerist ease, we've managed to conquer or at least tame many of the things that kept human populations low for years (famine, disease, wolves, war, etc.). Where is everyone supposed to find some form of work? How are those mouths to be fed? We can't ALL be important big-shot people who can't be replaced by machines. Can we?

There are many people who are obviously very comfortable with the changing world around them. I am not one of those people. In the past two years, I've seen the job I worked for five years to get be usurped by changing media and people willing to do it for free. Other people have seen their jobs shipped overseas to cheaper labor markets because technology allows people in India to work on projects for people in Eden Prairie. It's not enough to be educated in this country anymore – and that was one of the best cards I think a lot of us had to play. I wonder how much of this current 10 percent unemployment rate is due to jobs simple vanishing. If that's the case, what is supposed to replace them?

My parents could enter the workforce with a certain expectation that they could spend a long time in a given career with the same company. I came into the work force knowing that I was simply a number that would be cut if the monthly books said it would benefit the bottom dollar. And all of the alleged "convenience" hiding behind the dehumanization I saw today has me convinced that I am closer to starving than I would ever think possible.

Welcome to the real world. Paper or plastic?

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