GULLIXSON: Our new self-service lives
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 4:04 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 8:36 a.m.
Among working moms, Yahoo's CEO and attention-magnet Marissa Mayer scored high on the grouch meter last week for pulling the plug on telecommuting at the Sunnyvale-based company.
"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings," noted a leaked company memo. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with being physically together."
Speed and quality. That seems to be the slogan for this new post-Great Recession era where employers are far more interested in productivity than workplace flexibility.
At the same time, we all shouldn't be too hard on Mayer as she has the challenging task of making the company's less-than-yahooing investors happy, and there are no doubt some real accountability issues when employees are allowed to work in their pajamas.
The fact is I'm not too worried about Mayer or anybody else in Silicon Valley, whether they're working in cubicles or terry-cloth robes. Those who work for companies that supply free food and smartphones will find a way to muddle through, I imagine.
It's the sudden workplace changes for those at the other end of the employment food chain that I'm more concerned about these days. Such as the people who handle our food.
Recently, I walked into a local Safeway to find that two of the checkout stands had been ripped out and replaced with several banks of self-service stations.
Given that I'm predisposed to avoid those things unless all of the other lines in the store resemble those for a newly released iPhone, my reaction was not favorable.
How many checkers lost their jobs because of this?
Then one day, I was picking up bagels and bananas for a sunrise meeting and found I had no choice. No humans were at their post. Then my worst fears were realized when moments later I found myself stuck, trying to explain to a bar code scanner how many bagels I was buying.
Without going too deep into detail of my plight, my inaugural "self-service" experience took twice as long as usual checkouts, required the assistance of twice as many people as normal and left me with a half a mind to grow my own food.
But the hard truth is that these mechanical merchants aren't going anywhere, and those who are being replaced aren't alone.
A recent Associated Press investigation found that one reason unemployment rates are slow to come down is that more middle-class jobs have been lost due to advancements in technology. An AP analysis of employment data from 20 countries found that most of the jobs that are falling victim to automation range from $38,000 a year to $68,000 a year. In the United States, half of the 7.5 million jobs that were lost during the Great Recession paid in that middle-class range. But many are not being filled even as the economy improves.
The problem is even worse in Europe, where, according to economist Maarten Goos of the University of Leuven in Belgium, roughly two-thirds of the 7.6 million middle-class jobs that have vanished in recent years were the victims of technology.
"Everything that humans can do a machine can do," Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston told Associated Press. "Things are happening that look like science fiction."
Secretaries, travel agents, meter readers, librarians, all are seeing positions disappear. Even train operators are going by the wayside. Tokyo's Yurikamome rail line, which runs along Tokyo Bay, is completely automated. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto, a large British-Australian mining company, announced last year that it has invested more than $500 million in developing the world's first long-haul driverless train system, serving its iron ore mines in Western Australia.
And here's another occupation that could be at risk: journalists. One of the new features for users of Yahoo Fantasy Football last year was that at the end of each week they received an in-depth analysis of their team's performance. For statistic geeks like myself, it was interesting reading.
"(Your opponent) got 20 points from Andrew Luck and another 20 from Alfred Morris to steal one from (your team) 96-95," one 500-word recap noted last fall. "The playoff victory was notable, with the 1-point margin of victory being the smallest recorded in the league this season."
What's so interesting about that? Not one word was written by a human. It was computer-generated text produced by a company called Automated Insights in Durham, N.C. The company uses cloud computing to crunch massive amounts of data to produce automated sports stories.
And it doesn't cost a dime.
But I write this not just out of concern for checkers, train engineers or even reporters. I'm concerned about losing something else.
If Safeway goes all self-service, for example, I would miss telling someone how many bagels I have in my bag. I would miss complaining about the price of raspberries, which I never do, but I could. Most of all, I admit I would miss having someone look me in the eye, look at my receipt and proceed to mispronounce my name as he or she wishes me a good day. Some days it may be the only smile that I get outside of home.
The problem is that we can now spend our day going to the gas station, going to the bank, checking on our investments, stopping at the hardware store, buying airline tickets, checking out a movie at a kiosk and even posting a dozen photos on Facebook, and never actually interact with another human being. You can't tell me that's a good thing.
That's where, in the end, I think our Yahoo guru may be onto something with her come-back-together edict. Some of the best decisions we all make in life ,as well as in the workplace, and insights we gain "come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people" and having impromptu meetings with real humans. And, yes, we all do better when we are "physically together."
Someone should develop an app for that.Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixsn @pressdemocrat.com.
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