An Age of Machines?

Several days ago, I made a stop at the post office to find out if I had put enough postage on the letters I was mailing for them to reach their destinations.  Most post offices now have machines that can tell the amount of postage a given item requires.   As I was making the stop on the way from one appointment to another, I thought I would be efficient and use the machine rather than stand in line for the attention of a clerk.  To my surprise, the machine had been re-programmed; instead of telling me what postage was due, the machine now insisted I buy a pre-printed label.  I did not want a pre-printed label.  I had one stamp on each letter already; I simply needed to know if that was enough.  At first, I thought I was doing something wrong with this postal computer.  I focused, concentrated and tried again, several times. No luck.  The machine still insisted I buy a pre-printed label.  Frustrated, I finally left the machine and stood in a rather long line to get the information I needed.

If I am to believe what I am told, machines (especially computers or computer-facilitated machines) have been invented for our convenience.  Self-service postal machines, self-checkouts in stores, pay-at-the-pump gasoline pumps – all are there so a customer can quickly do his or her business without having to talk with another human being.   I use these as little as possible, as I like talking with people, so I am not an expert.  Yet, it seems that, at least in the post office case, the machine was commanding me – making me do something in a way I did not wish to – instead of serving me.  I am wondering to what extent that which was designed to serve us has morphed – or is morphing – into what we serve.

I am also in the process of looking for a summer position to provide me with work for the summer.  Many of the openings that I find online, such as data entry operators, or website maintainers, or operators of accounting software (not to include actual computer repair people), require people whose function it is to supply computer programs with information needed to keep the computers running at the top efficiency required by their employers.  These programs, of course, operate by methods and rules designed into their software, and provide their end users with specific and limited types of information.  They are useful, and they do calculate faster and store information in a less bulky way than paper files.  However, to what extent are they serving people, and to what extent are people having to adapt to and serve them?   I do not have a clear answer, yet it seems to me that frequently those of us who interact with computers, especially at the entry levels, are being required to operate using machine methods of process, increasingly becoming a part of the machines, perhaps beginning to become ersatz machines ourselves.

A machine does not need to eat, sleep or take a break.  A machine functions at high speed.  A machine requires certain specific means of interaction, but it does not require emotional support, such as compassion or appreciation.   In today’s workplace, what is being required of many employees, particularly those at lower or entry levels (even middle management) is an ability to work in tandem with a computer.   A high degree of competence in interacting with the computer (a machine) in the manner required by the computer is mandatory.  Being able to work faster and faster with complete accuracy is important.  Being able to accomplish more and more, even when necessary to continue without a break, and the ability to tolerate repetitive tasks is preferred.   Unless one is supervised by a sensitive middle manager, appreciation, compassion, personal interaction with co-workers is discouraged.  And as for compensation, which is not required by a machine, many if not most of these machine-like jobs are paid close to minimum wage, barely enough to house, transport and hopefully feed oneself.  Machines, of course, do not have many needs.  It would seem that some of us at least are being required to become like machines as we interact with them.

Medical practice, too, is more and more being run by computers and sophisticated machines.   Conversation is now often by computer interface, and it would seem that the doctor who can diagnose without a computer is a dying breed. AI, another upcoming development, draws ever closer.  AI is expected to replace many kinds of jobs, and whether people can be trained to do other jobs (maintaining the AI computers/robots?) fast enough to keep employed is another question.  Yet another touted invention and one of my pet peeves is the self-driving (computer driven) car, in which the passenger is to simply sit and give instructions in a language the computer understands and be driven from one place to another. All of this is billed as marvelous progress, but I wonder.  Are we not losing precious aspects of our humanity to this progress?

Perhaps things are not as dire as I am describing, and it is just that I am observing only that part of what is happening.  I hope so.  We do need our technology and our progress.  But if people would pause for just a bit to question what we are losing for what we gain, we might be able to keep more of what is precious to us from the past and present and still make progress into the future.  We are not machines. Keeping on chugging, faster and faster, without reflection is not the answer.   We, the people, need to retain our privilege of thought and reflection, and to maintain enough control over what we have designed to serve us so that our human needs take priority, for all of us.  An Age of Machines is not only destructive towards humans, but also inimical to the planet and its denizens.

It is time to pause, to observe trends and patterns, and to understand more deeply where they are taking us.

Peace, Diane