I walked into my bank a few days ago and found that the lobby had a different look. The space had been rearranged to highlight a new addition: an automated teller. While I was being helped, I overheard an exchange between a customer in line behind me and a bank worker whose new role appeared to be determining whether customers could be served by the automated teller and directing them in that direction.
She was upbeat about the automated teller and how it would speed things up for customers. The young man talking with her posed a question that occurred to me as I listened but that I’m not sure I would have had the temerity to raise: “Aren’t you afraid that pretty soon they’re not going to need you guys anymore?”
The bank employee was entirely unperturbed, or at least she pretended to be. “No, I’m not worried about that,” she said. “I know they’re going to keep us around.”
I hope they do, but I don’t share her optimism. I was reminded of passage from Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Writing in the early ’90s about the impact of television on education, Postman commented on teachers who enthusiastically embraced the transformations wrought by television. Believing the modern school system, and thus the teacher’s career, to be the product of print culture, Postman wrote,
[…] surely, there is something perverse about schoolteachers’ being enthusiastic about what is happening. Such enthusiasm always calls to my mind an image of some turn-of-the-century blacksmith who not only sings the praises of the automobile but also believes that his business will be enhanced by it. We know now that his business was not enhanced by it; it was rendered obsolete by it, as perhaps the clearheaded blacksmiths knew. What could they have done? Weep, if nothing else.
We might find it in us to weep, too, or at least acknowledge the losses, even when the gains are real and important, which they are not always. Perhaps we might also refuse a degree of personal convenience from time to time, or every time if we find it in us to do so, in order to embody principles that might at least, if nothing else, demonstrate a degree of solidarity with those who will not be the winners in the emerging digital economy.
Postman believed that computer technology created a similar situation to that of the blacksmiths, “for here too we have winners and losers.”
“There can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax-collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extend has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies …. In a word, almost nothing that they need happens to the losers. Which is why they are the losers.
It is to be expected that the winners will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners … They also tell them that their lives will be conducted more efficiently. But discreetly they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.”