On Technology

I was installing a document management system for an old mining company in Los Angeles when they merged with one of the oil and gas giants headquartered in another state.  There had been no warning; the people I was working with had less than six months to make a decision – relocate or lose their job.  My presence, and the new data processing equipment we were using was suddenly viewed with suspicion.  My relationships became strained and the impending move hung like a pall over every conversation.  It was the early 1980s.  I was just out of graduate school and this was my introduction to the real world consequences of what came to be known as “disruptive” business transformations.

A decade later, 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 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 given layoff notices three days before Thanksgiving.

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. Smart phones put the last nail in the coffin of businesses already hit hard by cheap answering machines; telephone operators and message 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.

In the more than a decade I spent as a corporate IT manager, the company I worked for probably shed half its U.S. office workforce. It happened with master-planned efficiency every three to four years between 2001 and 2014 following the successful implementation of SAP and other enterprise automation tools. After the second or third one of these ‘downsizings’, those of us who remained began to show signs of shell shock. Even the people in HR were affected.  In each job-cutting cycle, I would discover one of them, teary-eyed, dabbing at her makeup before leaving the sanctuary of the ladies room to go to her next “I’m sorry to have to tell you…” meeting.  One one occasion, an older women who had received that notice refused to leave her desk on the appointed day and had to be escorted out of the building by security.

Eventually, the company gave up on notifying employees individually. Instead, all employees were invited to group notification meetings.  These were held on the same day and at the same time, but in different conference rooms – one for the survivors, the other for the lost – and no one knew which was which until they walked through the door.

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 it was around that time that the typists I had displaced over a decade earlier swung back into consciousness and took up residence.

I am not one of the tribe of migrant foreign tech workers seeking their fortunes as agents of the global enterprise or the next public offering. I am a third generation professional women born and raised in California. The office workers and typists I displaced with an efficient IT solution are a part of local history. Foreigners cannot be blamed, and technology is not the villain. Technology is not an actor. Robots and other smart devices did not drive the autoworkers out of the manufacturing plants or coal miners out of the mines – humans did.

In the decade leading up to The Great Depression of the 1930s, the rapid mechanization of farm equipment seduced farm owners into believing they could convert arid grassland to cultivated cropland. The result was the agricultural catastrophe known as The Dust Bowl. Ultimately, more than three million people would flee the Midwest, joining millions more displaced by the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed. Most 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.

Less than a generation later, those who found salvation in factory assembly lines were living in The Rust Belt, displaced by robotic arms and process automation and cheap foreign labor. Oil, gas, and mining communities became ghost towns sustained only by the fading hope of a return to better days and the debilitating illusions of opioid addiction. Today, their grandchildren flee retail and the housekeeping and janitorial work that cannot sustain them, trying to sing, dance, act, blog or code their way into the living conditions once described as Middle Class.

My son’s generation – the millennials – will finish the post-industrial revolution that began while I was in graduate school.  My hope for them is that they can put the technological genie back in the bottle for a while, find a way out of the social chaos of disrupted industries and a lawless cyberspace, and beat a path back, or forward, to something better. Not the abstract ‘better world’ advertised in newsletters and mission statements, but something more human. If they cannot, I fear my grandchildren will experience a kind of disruption not seen in the Western world since the French Revolution.