A New Workplace and a Changing Society; The “Two Faces” of Technology

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Those of you who have been following my blog for some time may be aware of my background as a Silicon Valley (California) electrical engineer (retired). You may also realize from previous posts that I view technology as a dual-edged sword which can cut both ways – for good and for bad. On the “good” side of the ledger, are the obvious benefits, both real and potential, that technology brings to our lives….and to our spirits when judiciously used. The “bad” side will be determined by us individually and collectively as we merge technology ever more into our lives while struggling to reconcile it with our basic humanity. Our decisions on both the personal and the societal levels regarding technology’s role will affect us immensely. In fact, we have now reached a pivotal point in that process.

The “Middle-Class” As We Have Known It
 Is An Endangered Species!

Reading a book review in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal inspired this post, but only because the subject has long been on my mind. The book is titled Average Is Over and purportedly states that American society is headed toward a dual-class reality with an elite 10-15% at the top and the rest in an “underfunded future of lower economic expectations, shantytowns and an endless diet of beans” according to the reviewer. Those at the top will be the high-achievers, the self-motivated ones who largely embrace technology and can adapt to its demands. Those at the bottom will be everyone else! In essence, the middle-class as we have known it disappears.

It appears to me that we are headed in that direction – due largely to the influence of technology. Long-gone is the widespread need for unskilled labor as exemplified by a union worker in Detroit whose only responsibility was bolting-on automobile rear-view mirrors for $25 an hour and excellent benefits. Replacing legions of such workers, today, is a two-tiered, much smaller team of workers: robotics engineers who design robots to do such jobs and tech-skilled workers who can monitor and maintain the complex machinery of the robots themselves. The ultimate cost-savings in high-volume production lines such as those in the automotive industry is staggering – and quality improves as well.

Many former hourly factory workers find themselves unemployed today; their prospects for good wages and benefits in today’s society look bleak – unless they have the motivation, capability, and opportunity to go back to school and acquire the higher-tech skills that today’s workplace needs, indeed demands.

Henry Ford pioneered mass-production with his Model T Ford assembly lines beginning in 1908. The new methods he introduced were based initially more on common-sense logistics (time-motion studies) than on advanced manufacturing technologies, yet the die was cast and manufacturing along with the workplace has been changing ever since. Tom Friedman, the noted columnist, commentator, and author has written extensively on the evolving workplace and its effects on society. He would be the first to endorse the importance of technology in the workplace.

Despite technology’s rapid pace, it has taken a while for us to reach this point in time, the point at which technology’s promise of cheaper mass-produced goods of superior quality and functionality critically impacts the employment fabric of our society. Even though we have just now arrived at that critical juncture, technology has had an evolving influence on product manufacturing and the work force for some time. The semiconductor industry has relied on very sophisticated production automation almost from its inception some 50 years ago.

When I was designing computer disk-drives in the late 1990’s, here in Silicon Valley, California, I spent time at our factory in Japan. Even then, the automated assembly lines could turn out 10,000 of those technically-sophisticated memory storage devices a day! When you scanned the vast assembly-line area, you saw only an occasional human being visible over the humming conveyer lines. Aside from the economies of manufacturing such volumes, the argument is easily made that robotics was the only alternative to insure the uniform accuracy and quality required.

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One humorous aspect of our factory in Japan was the way disk-drive assemblies were transported to other stations within the plant. As we walked through the factory isles, we had to be constantly aware of the little “robot-pallets” passing us by, busily moving themselves (except for computer control) from station to station within the plant by following a flat metallic strip on the floor. It was intriguing, almost comedic to watch a robot-pallet turn into a shipping area with a load of completed drives and begin to unload them onto the shipping racks for packaging – totally without direct human assistance! All of this took place over fifteen years ago; manufacturing technology has certainly not stood still since then!

Charlie Chaplin made a prophetic, satirical feature film in 1935 called Modern Times in which he acts and satirically spoofs the onset of the mechanical age of manufacturing and its effect on workers. The film has many funny and outlandish situations which bring to mind the robot pallets in Japan which I described. Who’s in control here!

The Reality Today

This is the reality of our industrial society today. I am led to believe that the middle-class in this country is an endangered species and that the impact of technology will continue to grow. The increasing flow of capital into the most affluent 15% of our population will increase unabated. I see this as very troubling. I cannot envision a happy and economically successful society in which 15% live an affluent lifestyle while the other 85% experience something well-below the heretofore accepted middle-class existence in this country. In addition to the great job opportunities open to the technically proficient in the society, there will be opportunities for talented craftsmen, accomplished musicians and artists, and others with significant niche skills to do well.

The vast numbers of hourly workers being put out of work by automation technology today along with future job-seekers who are shut out by the demands of a technical education will have a difficult road ahead. So will the rest who are not sufficiently motivated to retrain – to embrace technology, or to excel in the niche skills mentioned above. Gone forever are the formerly ubiquitous 8-5 time-clock, union factory jobs which paid well in wages and benefits.

A Caution: Retirement for Future Employees

Generous government, union, and private-sector pensions are now declining or non-existent. That is a problem middle-class hourly workers often did not need to face. Even talented, future tech-industry professionals who can look forward to jobs with good salaries face a three-tiered problem: Overseas outsourcing, technical obsolescence, and retirement. It is very difficult to keep pace with technology, and future engineering candidates would be well-advised to prepare to refresh their knowledge-base several times over during their careers. To remain gainfully employed with a good salary after age sixty in today’s engineering environment is, indeed, quite a feat – and there never were many company pensions for retired engineers.

Life will be harder for most, and I indeed worry about the society as a whole. Are we ready and capable to deal with the situation? Don’t count on Congress to be of much help; the outcome is going to be determined by choices made at the grass-roots level, person by person.

Author/historian David McCullough has noted that people have been claiming for decades that the country was going to hell, and the fact that it seems so now to some people is nothing new. However, I do think the country and its society will be quite different in the years to come due to the prevailing winds. Fasten your seat-belts.

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