In the early 1980s, 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; the people I worked with had less than six months to make a decision, and the impending move hung like a pall over every conversation. My presence, and the data processing equipment we brought in was suddenly viewed with suspicion, as if I had known all along what was about to happen – I hadn’t. I was just out of graduate school and this was my introduction to the real world consequences of “disruptive” business transformations.
A decade later, I developed a PC-based office productivity solution that eliminated a small typing pool, the work of maybe fifteen or twenty people. Automating routine typing tasks was not glamorous application development work but, as a recently divorced mother of a four-year old, I was happy to have the contract. I saved my corporate client money, and the solution made it possible for many of their 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. I was stunned.
By the time the new century rolled in, technology had slashed not only 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.
While my son was in school, I worked as a corporate IT manager for a company that was in the middle of the transition to technology-driven factory and business operations on a global scale. With master-planned efficiency, they probably shed half of their U.S. office workforce between 2001 and 2014. After the second or third downsizing, those of us who remained began to show signs of shell-shock. The spectacle of a woman refusing to leave and 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.
Even the people in HR were affected. In each job-cutting cycle, I would discover one of them, teary-eyed, trying to collect herself before leaving the sanctuary of the Lady’s Room to go to her next “I’m sorry to have to tell you…” meeting. Eventually, the company gave up on giving notices individually. Instead, they notified people in group meetings held at the same time on the same day in different conference rooms – one for the survivors, the other for the lost – and until they walked through the door, no one would know which was which.
In one of the last of these purges, the only two conference rooms available at ten in the morning 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, in that moment, the typists I had displaced over a decade 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. I and those typists are a part of local history, collateral damage 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 use to convince ourselves that we have no control over what technology does to us.
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. Others, less fortunate, have been stuck for generations in dust and rust belts all over the country.
We are at a similar moment in history. The college graduates of today will finish the post-industrial transformation that began while I was in graduate school, and my hope for them it is that they can resist the seductive power of today’s technologies and avoid becoming the authors of Dust Bowl v2.0