A recent series of articles by The Associated Press highlighted the fact that middle-class jobs in America are being replaced in large part by machines. Machines can more efficiently and quickly do the jobs of many human workers.
According to the articles, between 2000 and 2010, 1.1 million secretarial jobs vanished, replaced by automation. The number of telephone operators dropped by 64 percent in the same time. The number of travel agents fell by 46 percent and bookkeepers dropped 26 percent.
Self-checkout at stores and libraries have helped speed customers through, but at the cost of jobs. Online banking and ATMs have greatly cut the need for tellers. Digital devices that eliminate the need to be read manually are replacing gas and electric meter readers.
Machines aren’t just replacing humans’ jobs, they’re replacing other machines. Who uses an alarm clock anymore when you can use your cellphone or tablet? I’ve got a perfectly good Kodak digital camera collecting dust because my cellphone takes good pictures and automatically uploads them to the cloud so I have access to them on any computer I use. And I haven’t worn a wristwatch in years. There are no wall clocks or calendars in my house.
There’s another cost to all of this that’s not economic. While technology has made the world smaller, connecting us globally and reconnecting us with old friends and providing networking opportunities through Facebook, LinkedIn, FaceTime, Skype and videoconferencing, it’s also pushing us apart.
People are lying about themselves, “catfishing” over the Internet. You see people out for dinner in restaurants ignoring their dinner mates and texting others. And according to a recent study published in the online journal Injury Prevention, people who are walking and texting are four times less likely to look before crossing streets.
The distancing effect of technology concerns me the most. The last time my brother Scott and his family visited from Canada, I noticed one day that he, his wife, two sons and myself were all sitting in the same room silently engrossed with our own laptops and/or cellphones.
I went so far as to ban all technology at the dinner table for Sunday dinner so I could engage with my grandkids and not see the tops of their heads as they texted or played on a Kindle Fire.
When I recently found myself visiting a sleep doctor about my lack of sleep, the first thing he asked me was about technology in my bedroom. Sure enough I use my iPad and smartphone in bed. He said researchers have found that the artificial light of smartphone and tablet screens lowers the levels of the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our internal clock and sleep cycle. When I’ve avoided using the devices, I’ve gone right to sleep.
Unfortunately, my iPad often finds its way back into my room and into my hands.
This societal change of more machines is something we will be wrestling with for a long time. Science fiction movies have often warned of the rise of technology. However, I think we’re finding that the endgame isn’t the machines becoming self-aware and using us like batteries like in “The Matrix,” taking over humans as in “I, Robot” or launching a thermonuclear war like in “The Terminator.”
No, the endgame is a nation of chronically sleep-deprived social introverts with the only job left for us is inquiring, “Would you like fries with that?” Peace.
Kelvin Wade is a writer who lives in Fairfield. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.