Andrew Yang dropped out of the race for the presidential nomination last week. His announcement was not unexpected. Most eyes that night were focused on other candidates in the tightly contested Democratic primary in New Hampshire. Yang might have a bright political future. Or he might be the guy who is remembered only for his quirky proposal to give each American $1,000 — what he called the “Freedom Dividend.” In an age when we worship technology, Yang warned that automation is ripping the heart out of American workers. That warning helped get him a couple of percentage points in the polls, an appearance on THE VIEW and an early exit from the race for the presidency.
Many years ago, I wrote an angry rant about the effect of technology on my own job as a procurement agent for the Defense Personnel Support, then located in South Philadelphia. My ire was directed at a new computerized system being implemented by our headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. The system made no sense. It had been designed by computer programmers who had zero experience of an operations person like me. Some of my and my fellow employees’ resistance sprang from our fear of the unfamiliar. But much of it was due to the system’s design flaws and to the crushing effect it had on the nature of our jobs. When we raised our concerns, they were ignored. Totally. Some of us tried to maintain our manual records as safety nets. We were caught and forced by the boss — Capt. Dale Brown — to destroy our paper trail while he stood at our desks and watched us. Chaos followed. We were the Iowa Caucus before there was an Iowa Caucus.
I let my personal feelings result in a lousy column — an unfocused tirade against all things automated. The then-editor of this newspaper was upset with me. He was a lot younger than me. Loved computers. Wanted desperately to convert me. I’m using Microsoft Word to write this column, proof that my former editor and his generation won the battle. I wouldn’t want to return to a time when I wrote my column without a computer. I am not against technology. But some of my misgivings have proven true.
As Andrew Yang reminded us during his brief campaign, we lost 4 million manufacturing jobs in recent years, most of them in the industrialized states that went from blue to red and gave us the Trump presidency. Technology has brought us the kiosks at your local supermarket or pharmacy replacing clerks. That clerk who still has a job has been turned into someone who takes over for the automated check-out system when it breaks down or when a customer is confused by it. Soon, even his or her job will be gone. Those who warn against the brutal effects automation has on job security are called “Luddites” — anti-progress. The original Luddites destroyed their machinery in anger over automation. In retrospect, their anger no longer looks unfounded. Maybe the Luddites looked into the future and saw that robots were coming. And the jobs of many workers have been altered forever. Turned into mind-numbing, life-draining, dehumanizing shifts on assembly lines. Example — in the government job that I referenced earlier, the new system had essentially turned procurement agents into clerks filling out coding sheets.
We’ve been told that this is the price of automation. This is the price of progress. But workers were promised a different vision of the future. Robots were supposed to free us from boring work, not replace us. We were supposed to have more leisure time because of automation, not be forced into early retirement or the unemployment line.
Automation has affected our lives in other unseen ways. Hacking. Are there any of us whose private information has NOT been hacked? Chances are, if you’ve ever used a credit card, you’ve been hacked. There are people in China who, at this very moment, likely know more about our personal lives than we ourselves do. Someone in Hunan Province is sitting at a computer right now poring over the fact that some guy named Cardella in the USA likes his pasta al dente, voted for Sam Katz twice and gets turned on by hot women who have short hair and wear glasses. And by the time our American companies find out they’ve been hacked and fix the problem, they find out the hackers are two steps ahead of them. But maybe worse than the fact that our personal info has been hacked is the knowledge that so have our elections.
I don’t want this column to turn into yet another attack on our president, but our presidential election of 2016 was hacked into by the Russians. That’s Russia, Mr. Trump, not Ukraine. Not some obese kid lying on a mattress alone in a room doing it just for kicks. By all indications, we haven’t done much about preventing our enemies from doing it again in 2020. Do you really believe that the new high-tech voting machines or those fancy apps are the answer? Hello, Iowa!
New Hampshire was free of Iowa’s problems last week. Why? You can’t hack into paper ballots.
Technology has brought tremendous benefits. It has not been without its costs.
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