Posted: March 7, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Paul Krugman has written a very interesting editorial in the New York Times on the belief that education will drive jobs in the future.  Krugman points out that more and more white collar jobs are being lost to software and automation.  Any routine, repetitive task can be done better by a machine.  Krugman thinks the only solutions are rights for labor unions and better health care.  I’m much more pessimistic.  What good are unions if  machines do the work?  How will the unemployed pay for health care?  I fear that at some point we will have too many people and not enough jobs – unless you are a machine.

Posted: February 13, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling explores intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

Humans and Machines

We have always had a love have relationship with machines and technology.  They make our lives easier, but we often lose something in the bargain. The computers that give us more time also make us want things faster and faster.  The cell/smart phones and computer technology that make our jobs portable mean that many people are never “off the clock.” 

The biggest threat from machines would seem to be artificial intelligence, the science that explores the computer’s ability to achieve human thought.  Writing in the latest addition of The Atlantic, Brian Christian talks about his experience as part of the Loebner Prize, an annual competition that uses the Turing Test to gauge a computer’s communication skills against those of humans.  Christian believes the fears of thinking computers taking over the world are overstated.  He maintains a great faith in human beings and their ability to think and behave in ways that computers never will.

In one sense, I agree.  Humans invented artificial intelligence, and they probably can invent a solution to a rogue system (Think 2001: A Space Odyssey).  My problem isn’t so much with the thinking machines as it is with those that work: those that work in place of humans and those that change how we work and think.

In the last year, two of my clients have been brilliant young men who were trained as accountants and computer programmers.  They write software programs that automate basic accounting functions, work currently performed by human beings.  From a business standpoint, automation makes perfect sense.  Work is performed more cheaply, and it is done with mechanical perfection.  Companies that can automate work processes often realize fast savings and increased productivity. The problem, of course, is that once a job is automated it is gone forever.  During his State of the Union Speech, President Obama cheered the efficiency of steel mills that only need 100 employees instead of 1,000. From the manufacturer’s prospective nothing could be better for business.  For working people, this example shows 900 jobs that will never exist again. 

Meanwhile, humans are taking on more and more mechanical habits.  Some of my younger clients always hold their phone in their hand or place it on a table where it is always in their field of vision.  Some can hold a conversation with one person while they text with another.  Brian Christian sees this development as a reflection of what is unique about human thought and communication, which is “reactive, responsive, sensitive, and nimble.  Our computers, flawed mirrors that they are, have helped us see that about ourselves.”  Many of my clients tell another story: 2 a.m. conference calls with Mumbai.  7 day, 70 hour work weeks in which there is no clear distinction between time on and time off the job.  Productivity is through the roof, and American workers are miserable.

Christian imagines a cultural shift in which we use our right brains more and develop better balance in our lives.  Earlier in the article, however, he cited Hugh Loebner, sponsor of the prize, who envisions a utopian society of 100% unemployment in which “intelligent machines” do most of the work.  In this vision of the future, humans would enjoy leisure.  Maybe I’ve read too many dystopian novels (or too much history).  My sense is that unemployment will mean what it always has – poverty and suffering.  The people who own and run the machines will be rich and live well.  The rest will be expendable (Soylent Green).

I hate to be downbeat like this.  My goal in these Sabbath posts is to be interesting and have fun.  However, automation and its consequences have been haunting me over the past few months.  More people combined with improved technology has not led to greater human happiness over the last 50 years.  Why should it change in the future?  At the same time, the genii is out of the bottle.  We can’t go back. We can only go forward and hope that there is still a place for humans in a world of ever more sophisticated machines.

Sunday Extra Helping: This is fun.  In today’s Sun-Times, columnist Neil Steinberg narrates his experience at Hot Dog University, a program that teaches people how to open a hot stand or cart.  It’s a great, lively read with some very interesting information about one of the most human types of work – feeding others.

Posted: December 31, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Professor Juan Cole writes one of my favorite blogs, Informed Comment.  He recently embedded a video from National Geographic about world population, which will soon reach 7 billion people.  That number and how quickly it has increased raise some big questions for the future.

Beyond the very important environmental and resource issues, what about work?  Both the U.S. and Europe have been affected by the shift of jobs to lower wage, developing countries.  Increased population means more people who need jobs, which could mean even lower wages and worse working conditions.  At the same time, new technologies are automating more and more functions once performed by humans.  We lose jobs as we achieve these new levels of efficiency.  It all adds up to fewer jobs and more people who need jobs.  This video is brilliant – and disturbing.

Posted: October 17, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling explores intersections of life and work in “Sabbath.”]

An Old Story about Work with a Very Strange Ending

I was talking with one of my clients yesterday who is an Engineer and Product Development Manager.  His work has come to focus almost exclusively on automation, the science of finding ways to replace human labor with machines.  That made me think about the 19th century folk song “John Henry.”

The story is pretty simple, but also telling for our time: Can a man really beat the machine?  IBM’s chess wizard Deep Blue consistently beat Grand Masters, including Gary Kasparov.  Long before the computer, some unknown genius told the story of John Henry, a steel-drivin’ man, who entered in a contest with a machine to see who could drive more stakes and lay more track.  In the simple version, John Henry beats the machine.  However, his superhuman effort breaks his heart, and he dies.

The version of the folk song printed in the Library of America’s American Poetry, 19th Century (Vol. 2) tells a much more complex story with an ending that is mind-blowing.  In the first two stanzas, we are told that from the time John Henry was a baby he knew he’d work on the railroad and that it’s “gonna be the death of me.”  So much for drama.  Wildly the next two stanza talk about John Henry’s women, Mary Magadelene and Polly Anne.  The first goes to the tunnel where her man is working just to “hear John Henry’s hammer ring.”  Polly Anne breaks this stereotype of passivity.  When John Henry gets too sick to work, she picks up his hammer: “Polly Anne drove steel like a man, /Lawd, Lawd, Polly Anne drove steel like a man.”

At this point, the better known story kicks in.  The boss, “Cap’n,” tells John Henry that he’s bringing in the machine and that it will “whop that steel down.”  The hero now has a challenge, and he answers defiantly:

John Henry told his cap’n,

Said, “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,

and befo’ I’d let that steam drill beat me down

I’d die with this hammer in my hand,

Lawd, Lawd, I’d die with the hammer in my hand.

The contest is on.  John Henry’s hammer makes his co-workers think the mountain is about to fall.  It throws fire.  Eventually, the machine gives out, and the man declares his victory.  The price, however, is his life: “He drove so hard till he broke his pore heart,/An’ he lied down his hammer an’ he died.”  After he is buried, every locomotive that pass his grave recognizes him as a “steel drivin’ man.”  The memory of the hero lives long after his body is gone, a pattern in hero stories for Gilgamesh and Beowulf to Pat Tillman.

This is where the story should end, but it doesn’t.  In the last three stanzas, “a little woman” appears wearing a blue dress.  She is not named as the women were earlier in the poem.  She declares that she has always been true to John Henry.  In the next stanza, a narrative voice asks who will put shoes on her feet and gloves on her hands.  “An’ who’s gonna kiss yo’ red, rosy lips?/An’ who’s gonna be your man,/Lawd, Lawd, who’s gonna be your man?” 

The last voice heard in the poem is this nameless woman, and she answers that her mother will put shoes on her feet, her father will give her gloves, and her sister will kiss her “red, rosy lips.”  Her voice in the last two lines is more defiant than John Henry speaking to the Cap’n: “An’ I don’ need no man,/Lawd, Lawd, an’ I don’ need no man.” 

This ending is not what one would expect given the rest of poem.  But it reminds that the hero who is maimed or killed leaves behind loved ones who suffer.  In an odd moment, this woman declares independence, and tragic story becomes. . . strange.

Ending aside, the story of John Henry is a noble myth with little real value.  Once people build some device to save labor, they will never do that work again.  Who in their right mind would trade in word processing for a typewriter?  Many schools are no longer teaching cursive writing because they recognize that students will be using a keyboard more than a pen.  The world changes, and it is senseless to fight technology – even for a “steel-drivin’ man.”

Posted: August 19, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Yesterday I blogged about Walgreen's sending 150 accounting jobs to India.  Today, while talking with a client, I remembered that I had recently worked with two accountants who were employed by software companies that are developing new ways to automate accounting functions.

If accounting jobs are outsourced or automated, what will be left here in the U.S.?  I'm a realist.  If any function can be automated, the job is gone.  If an employer can find cheaper labor, the job will move.  The question remains:  What jobs will be left in this country?  I'd ask the President or Congress, but they're on vacation.  Nice work if you can get it.