Has it dawned on you that you work for everyone who is supposed to work for you? Have you noticed it is a lonely job?
You work for your bank, which pushes you to spend a long time navigating its automated telephone system after the announcement, “We have installed new features to better serve you.”
You work for your service repair companies. A friend recounts her hurdles getting Sears to fix an ailing refrigerator under warranty. After many telephone disconnects, an email said a technician would be out the following Saturday between 8 and 5. At 4:30 that afternoon a new message announced, without explanation, the appointment would be rescheduled. No one called to ask what was best for her schedule.
You work for your preferred airline (or any airline), which wants you to use its website to solve a computer screw-up to your upcoming ticket. When you call Delta, an automated voice urges you to send a text before it puts you on hold for an agent.
Then there is the discount travel company, Priceline, which recently sent me a customer service telephone number that did not have enough digits to be useful.
I use those companies as examples, but this phenomenon is ubiquitous.
The drive to put us to work for the companies that are supposed to work for us may be efficient for them. It’s often the opposite for us. That’s not all, though. The experience touches on one of the pressing issues of our time: our growing feelings of alienation.
These impersonal and unsatisfactory interactions make us feel frustrated and abandoned. Meanwhile, those companies are laying off paid workers, pushing them to the margins of society. You can have both of these alienating experiences at once.
Let's start with those recorded messages that say, no matter what the time of day you call, “Due to the unusually high call volume, there will be long wait times.”
As is obvious to anyone who hears this message over and over again, it is disingenuous. The problem is not the high number of callers. It is the low number of answerers. The intention is to discourage you from seeking human help, so more people can be laid off.
This is the culmination of a process that began decades ago. The first step in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution was automation of the shop floor; then came back-office functions such as accounting. These steps made machinery workers safer and created new opportunities for people with education. The euphemism in business schools for this development is “skills biased” technological change. It could also be called good-bye and good luck.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is to employment what the neutron bomb is to warfare. It aims to eliminate people and save infrastructure. Computers don’t get sick or ask for vacation or more pay.
Companies that adopt these measures always announce them as good for workers generally. Those who lose their jobs to robots and artificial intelligence are assured of getting retraining. But helping displaced workers cope is not high on executives’ agenda, and government programs are inadequate to pick up the slack.
When googling “automation, coping,” one gets a few articles by would-be consultants who have simple nostrums, such as, talk to your employees when you decide to automate. One also finds a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, who tied automation to rising “deaths of despair,” involving suicide and overdoses.
The total number of jobs to be eliminated in the next years is too high to count accurately. Forbes has reported that a whopping 73 million U.S. jobs could be lost to AI by 2030.
But here is a concrete number. Walmart, which operates abroad as well as in the United States, announced this year that it is planning for 65% of its stores to be automated by 2026. This came a few days after the company revealed plans to lay off more than 2,000 people at facilities that fulfill online orders. Much of this work can be done by robots.
Then there is this problem: Our arm’s length dealings with the companies that are supposed to serve us also exacerbate our disconnection from society. The only sense of community we get from working with impersonal machines is a collective sense of isolation. We are increasingly a nation united by our anger and estrangement.
Everyday dysfunction goes beyond disembodied automated voices on the telephone. More and more we live apart from others. We shop online. We check ourselves out at the pharmacy and the grocery store. We pump our own gas. We use mobile phones to make deposits and ATMs to make withdrawals.
Remember the smiling bartenders in a Norman Rockwell painting? That over-the-mahogany human connection cannot be made with a cocktail dispenser. Robots also check you into hotels and bring you room service.
Workers who keep their service jobs find themselves less frequently interacting with their colleagues. A worker is safer standing at a distance from an automated machine. But a supervisor on the Walmart retail floor is likely to find it less stimulating to manage robots than people.
One is reminded of the joke among automation enthusiasts: Factories will have lots of equipment, one dog, and one person. The dog’s job is to keep the person away from the equipment. The person’s job is to feed the dog.
Of course, automation can make some tasks better for the consumer as well as the worker. But at what social cost? And how far should we go?
If our society needs anything, it is more interaction with everyday people – people who have different lives and different points of view and a shared interest in solving problems.
Our politics cry out for this. Liberals need to understand why conservatives are alienated. Similarly, those on the right need to listen to ideas they find uncomfortable. Our society would benefit from more constructive personal interaction, not dehumanized confirmation of our biases through online anonymous social media accounts that promote bogus information or hyper-partisan news.
Congress is a microcosm of this siloing. Although it may seem like a fairy tale, once upon a time legislators mixed with each other, regardless of party. They had family dinners together. Today legislators censure each other, vote to remove each other from committees, and push each other in hallways, the latter even when they are in different factions of the same party. The idea of compromise is considered by many politicians today to be somehow unprincipled. In truth, compromise is, and always has been, an essential aspect of democracy.
Those of us who are reading this column while on a long telephone hold need to face it. Service, real service, is becoming a luxury item. For those who can pay for it, good for you. For millions of others, the message is, “We are sorry, but we have to disconnect you. Good-bye.”