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Many years ago I was staying at a tony hotel in Zurich, Switzerland with my parents who were visiting Europe. Bored, I wandered around the hotel and stopped in front of the elegant elevator, the kind that has a ”scissor-like” gate on the inside that is closed by hand and an outside door that closes when the elevator operator moves the control to either “up” or “down.” The operator (in uniform) asked me if I would run the elevator for him while he ran to the loo. Of course I said yes! Would you turn down the chance to take over from the pilot of an F-16 if she asked you ton take the stick?
I took ‘er down to the lobby and there, waiting, were three well-dressed Philippine gentlemen who needed a ride up to their floor. I was a skinny, small, and friendly Germanic kid so they were amused and talked to me. When we got to their floor I deftly opened the elevator and wished them a good day. As they exited one of them reached in his pocket and handed me a crisp $100 US dollar bill and said “thank you,” laughing as he disappeared down the hall towards their suites.
I’ve recently wondered if that hotel still has an elevator operator. My guess is it does not, he having been replaced by electric circuits and maybe even a “smart” elevator computer that manages the flow of the lifts up and down the floors. Then I began to ponder how many elevators there had been then or exist now. I found in the elevatorbooks.com site that there are more than 900,000 elevators in the United States - so in the U.S. alone lets call it one or two million people who no longer can come home with paycheck, the satisfaction of a days work, and when asked can say, “Yeah, I’m an elevator operator at the Ritz Hotel!’
Of course the same is true of the “steno pool” of office workers taking notes and typing. Gas station attendants. Law firms cutting down on researchers in favor of search engines. One person can now do the job of who knows how many thanks to technology. Ain’t technology grand!
We are told that technology creates new jobs, but I have yet to see convincing data that proves we have created as many or more jobs than we had with older technology. That’s especially true of the 100 million or more people in the U.S with only a modest education who had job opportunities in a lower tech world. French author Jacques Ellul famous for his book “The Technological Society” published in 1954 and required reading when I was a grad student at Columbia in the 1960’s. His writings are powerful and frightening because he (correctly I believe) saw technology as ruthlessly in pursuit of one thing: efficiency. Efficiency regardless of the human consequences.
Am I a neo-Luddite who hates technology? No way! I have a smart phone, a desktop, a laptop, an IPad, a Flip Cam, a digital camcorder, a ShureShot, and … well you get the picture.
But I am deeply concerned that in the 2012 election there will be no discussion of the future jobs and “work” as a human necessity in the United States. That has to include a serious analysis of where technology has taken us so far. And even more urgently it requires a discussion of what the future holds as technology becomes even more pervasive and “efficient” which of course means fewer people needed to do any job since people are the biggest “inefficiency."