Flown By Technology - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Flown By Technology

In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach wrote the following about the Mercury Capsules that took America’s first astronauts to space, “the astronaut doesn’t fly the capsule; the capsule flies the astronaut.” Roach explained that this was evident from two test flights that took chimps to space and returned them to Earth. If a monkey could fly to space, then we could question whether the astronauts were really necessary, a slight tarnish on the otherwise impressive feat of being the first Americans in space. The question raised during the Mercury Capsules is still with us, and as technology in all areas of life automates, it is more common than ever. Do we need to drive our cars, or can our cars drive us? Do we need to go grocery shopping, or can the fridge order food for us? Do we need to work, or can machines work for us?
In our lives we all like control. We may not be piloting space ships, but still like to feel as though we are in control of the machines and destinies of our lives. We don’t generally like to believe our destiny is a pre-set course, and we don’t want to feel as though our machines are in control of us. Some of us may be fully ready for the world of self-driving cars, autonomous kitchen gadgets, and artificial intelligences that can end the world of work as we know it, but for many of us, each step toward automation is terrifying. Many of us fear what we lose, what control goes away, when we hand over more of our lives to machines and computers.
I think that for many of us, these fears are a little late. Our retirement savings may already be dependent on algorithms that direct computers to trade stocks at super high speed. We already depend on sanitary systems that are incredibly complex and virtually impossible for any single person to comprehend. Sometimes a single human error or ship run aground in a canal can disrupt global systems driven by humans, machines, and algorithms. The reality is that we really don’t have the control we always like to believe that we have. We are not flying the ships of our own lives to the extent we like to believe, quite often the machines, systems, and institutions on which we depend are really flying our lives. Fully automated or not, there isn’t actually that much that we have direct control over.
As we move forward into an uncertain and confusing world, many of us will have an impulse to push back against technology, innovation, and automation. We won’t want to accept that we are as dependent on machines, algorithms, and artificial intelligence as we are and increasingly will be. We will hold back progress and development, but we will only temporarily delay the inevitability. Humans won’t be needed for many things, and while that will be scary, it may open new doors for human potential that we can’t imagine now. We should recognize that humans have never truly had control over their own lives and destinies. We have always in one way or another been flown by forces bigger than ourselves.
Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

“There is some evidence,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, “that lowering the minimum wage does create more low-wage jobs. But that is not the same as creating more stable jobs in which workers come to care about the enterprise that employs them or take some pride in doing useful work.”
I like this quote and think about this idea all the time. Many of the low-wage jobs available to people at the lowest socioeconomic status in the United States are awful. They don’t pay well, they don’t have future growth opportunities, and society seemingly accepts that people working in such awful jobs will face repeated abuse from customers. We know these jobs suck and wouldn’t want our kids to have to deal with them. If we worked in a crummy food service job right out of high school or while going through college, then we know how bad they are, and hopefully have some sympathy for people working in such jobs. Nevertheless, many of us find it easier to criticize people for not working such awful jobs than criticize business owners for allowing such awful jobs to exist.
Our country often has debates about what the minimum wage should be, and while Jencks’ book is now outdated in terms of the research he cites, it is still the case that economists are often mixed on the debate as to whether raising the minimum wage increases job loss and whether lowering the minimum wage would promote jobs. Either way, the debate doesn’t get at the reality that many of the minimum wage jobs that exist are barely jobs worth having. When you factor in travel time, disrespect that comes with such jobs, and the sometimes overly demanding requirements of jobs, it is not hard to see why people don’t want to work them or don’t last in them once they do take them. Focusing just on a jobs count is inadequate compared to thinking about job quality and actual engagement and productivity. Moving forward we need to think beyond the numbers of people working and start exploring the role they are filling, whether the job is flat out awful, and whether there are more productive and rewarding things we could have people do. When viewing the jobs world in this light, future developments in automation are not as scary. Who cares if Walmart checkers lose their terrible jobs if we can find more rewarding jobs for them that suck less? This should be the mission of society and our economy, not simply hiring the maximum number of people for minimum wage work.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will help preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit and suggests that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of the people working with or for you. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and items that seem like extra and unnecessary steps. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future.