Skynet is Coming

Terminator1984movieposterWhen I got out of my business school many years ago, one of my first jobs entailed reviewing ground leases for gas stations written in the ’50s: perfect work for an investment banking associate. Looking back, a number of things strike me about those documents and how what the management theorist Peter Drucker would call “knowledge work” has changed.

First, these documents were the product of craftsmen, of people who knew and controlled their trade. Actually, a couple of trades. First, the lawyers who wrote the leases did so in opaque legal language that no layperson could understand – a kind of amalgam of King James’ English and legalese. And did so in one very long burst – 6 – 8 legal sized pages, no paragraphs, definitions, headings or breaks.

Second they were manually typed, perfectly, without typos. Remember, this was before the day of spell check or even whiteout (Invented by The  Monkees‘ drummer Mike Nesmith’s mom in 1956.). Actually, there were many hands involved in these leases – the lawyers who drafted them, the clerk who filed them the postal workers who hand sorted and delivered them.

Think how much the process of generating a ground lease has changed: no typing pool, filing clerk or mailman will be involved in its handling and you could easily cut the lawyer out by doing a bit of web research to figure out what a standard lease should look like.  Microsoft Word formats and spell checks the document, the Internet manages its delivery.  Machines are taking our work away from and, increasingly, we are working for them.

Actually, we have been working for machines for years – the Luddites were onto something in the late 1700s when they protested the expansion of mechanical looms and the usurpation of their trade. Their protest was futile and, 120 years later, Henry Ford had his workers working for a machine – the assembly line – improving efficiency and enslaving them to the clock, his efforts buttressed by FW Taylor’s efficiency studies.

Until now, this has been most evident in pink and blue collar functions: Call center software manages customer service teams, balances workloads and tracks performance; supply chain software deploys workers on assembly lines to produce products that an algorithm estimates the demand for; and workers in a fast food restaurant respond to demand management software, which anticipates hungry patrons based on market factors.

But increasingly, “Knowledge Workers”, the folks with the smarts and judgment to stay above it all and retain their high paying jobs, are being pulled into the sway of the machine. The folks at the NSA cannot possibly examine all the data they are gathering on you – they need machines to point them to what is relevant. Passenger airlines are flow by machines, which unfortunately mess up on occasion and confuse their human charges while doing so – witness Asian Airlines flight 214 which crashed at San Francisco because the pilots misread the autopilot controls.  The folks running the coal fired power plant which is energizing the computer on which you are reading this post are directed by software that tells them how to manage the electricity grid.

And, while well-to-do moms and dads convince themselves that their children need the thinking, reasoning, judgment and creative skills necessary to manage the machines, the fact is organizations – public, private, profitable, non profit –  just don’t need that many decision makers, managers or that much creativity, except at the very top.

My wife works for a firm that handles very large events and trade shows and part of this involves generating large graphics for display, which have to be generated on large complex printers. She has been advertising for a graphics production manager – someone to work for a machine – but so far has only received responses from graphic artists. 100s of them creative types, independent thinkers. That is not what the machines need; they need tending.

As best as I can tell, this trend is only going to increase; the Internet of Things will accelerate the pace at which humans are sidelined by machines.  Skynet is coming.

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