In the early 1990s, I developed an office-automation solution that eliminated a small typing pool, the work of maybe fifteen or twenty people. Automating routine typing tasks was not glamorous development work but, as a recently divorced mother of a four-year old, I was happy to have the contract. I had saved my corporate client a lot of money, and the solution made it possible for many of their remaining employees to spend holidays with family and friends for the first time in many years. The typists whose jobs I had eliminated were handed their pink slips three days before Thanksgiving.
The slow erosion of the 20th century American workforce was under way. I did not live or work in mining country or Detroit, but I didn’t have to – the evidence was everywhere. By the time the new century rolled in, technology had slashed not only the typing pools and factory production lines but also whole floors full of accountants and filing clerks. Microsoft Office had decimated the ranks of secretarial staffs and small business bookkeepers. IPhones put the last nail in the coffin of services already hit hard by cheap telephone answering machines; telephone operators and answering services were a thing of the past. As the need for paper slowly disappeared, so did lumberjacks, mill workers, press operators, and the local boy’s newspaper route. Businesses of every size and kind had been affected.
Almost a decade earlier, I was installing a document management system for an old mining company in Los Angeles when, anticipating the industry contraction to come, they merged with one of the oil and gas giants headquartered in another state. They informed their employees that they would have to relocate or lose their jobs. There had been no warning. I hadn’t been there long enough to know many of them personally – IT consultants rarely are – but their fear and anxiety hung like a pall over every conversation I had there for months. Unlike most of them, I was still single and too young to appreciate the impact it had on their families and children, but that was my first glimpse into the ghostly world of an uprooted enterprise.
Nestlé probably shed half its U.S. office workforce in the thirteen years I was there while raising my son, and I was always grateful to find myself still at my desk after each downsize, which took place with master-planned efficiency every three to four years between 2000 and 2014. After the second or third one, the remaining employees appeared at times to be shell-shocked. The spectacle of a hard-working, older woman refusing to leave and having to be forcibly escorted out of the building never leaves you. Nor does the image of a direct report – divorced, with two sons still in high school – going into a full-blown panic in the mistaken belief that she was going to be fired, and directing her terrified rage at you.
The people in HR were not immune. In each job-cutting cycle, I would discover one of them dabbing at her teary eyes and trying to fix her makeup before leaving the sanctuary of the lady’s room to go to her next “I’m sorry to have to tell you…” meeting. It was so hard on them, in fact, that the company – one that always aspired to civilized business practices – eventually gave up on trying to give notices individually and just sent a single meeting request to everyone – same day, same time but with different conference rooms, one for the survivors, the other for the lost and, up until the moment of truth, no one would know which was which.
In one of the last of these purges, the only two conference rooms available at 10 AM on the designated day were on the same floor, right across from each other, and I had the slightly surreal experience of turning right when a co-worker I had been chatting with turned left, never to be seen again. And it was there, in that moment, that the typists I had displaced nearly twenty years earlier swung back into my consciousness and took up residence.
I am not one of the tribe of migrant tech workers seeking their fortunes as agents of the global enterprise or the next public offering. I am a local, a third generation professional women, born and raised in California. I have spent my entire working life in the American west – California, New Mexico, Nevada – and I and those typists are a part of local history, collateral damage and collateral damagers in the digital revolution that began in the 1980s. I was fortunate to ride the wave of technological innovation and to be able to raise my son doing it, but I have no loyalty to technology, and I have grown impatient with the ‘inevitability’ arguments – the ones we all use to convince ourselves that we have no control over what “technology” does to us. Of course we do.
Robots and other smart devices didn’t drive the auto workers out of the manufacturing plants or coal miners out of the mines – humans did. ‘Technology’ isn’t an actor. Technology is applied science and engineering. We humans are the actors, and we will have to decide when the ends we achieve through technology are no longer practical, no longer justify the means.
In the decade leading up to The Great Depression, the rapid mechanization of farm equipment seduced farmers into believing they could convert arid grassland to cultivated cropland. The result was the phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl and tens of thousands of displaced farm families joined the hundreds of thousands of others displaced by the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Many never returned to farming and moved instead into construction sites and gas stations, manufacturing plants and urban offices, and jobs like typing that required an education and training. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t get that education fell behind.
Their children and grandchildren are now scrambling to catch up, trying to flee factory work and retail, and placing their hopes on degrees and certificates in ‘technology’ instead. They will be the generation that finishes the post-industrial transformation that began while I was in graduate school, and what they do with their certificates and degrees matters.
If they spend their entire lives captivated by the creative puzzle of code, their faces bathed forever in the hallucinatory glow of screens, their education will mean nothing. If they begin to apply reason and common sense to the use of technology, it seems plausible that we can consolidate our gains and put ourselves back on a sustainable path to some future. If they don’t, they could be the generation that brings the American economy to its knees. And the ‘dust bowl’ they leave in their wake will make the 20-century version look like a minor economic downturn by comparison.
Excerpt from Christmas Past, a collection of short essays by the author.