Maybe you heard that collective grumbling from the San Francisco Bay Area last month, when the region's main public transportation system, known as BART, ground to a halt for four and a half days.
Thousands of BART workers walked off the job in the midst of deadlocked contract negotiations with management over salary, benefit and safety issues. The commute nightmare that followed became a source of great frustration for many other Bay Area residents trying to get to their own jobs.
Some of the most vocal complaints about the strike could be found on social media, from folks in the area's booming tech industry. The complaints were not unanimous, of course. But the tension between the frustrated techies, many of whom drive the booming local economy, and the blue collar workers who help get them to the office, brought into focus two very different ways of looking at the changing nature of work in America.
Here’s a case in point. During the BART strike I talked to a guy named Richard White, the CEO of a tech startup in San Francisco called UserVoice. He'd been on Facebook, complaining about the traffic that had been unleashed on his staff. And he said this about the striking BART workers.
“My solution would be to pay whatever the hell they want, get them back to work, and then go figure out how to automate all their jobs.”
When White’s words went out over the radio and internet, a full-throated debate got going on Twitter. Some cheered White on. But many found his notion offensive, and a few threatened to stop using his software -- which happens to automate parts of the customer service experience for businesses.
Clearly a nerve had been struck.
But the discussion wasn’t going to go very far in volleys of 140 characters. So I went to White’s office in down town San Francisco recently to try to get to the root of the conflict.
A Bigger Point About Automation
White’s office had all the requisite tech startup accessories: Beer-filled fridge in the break room; not just an air hockey table, but “the largest air hockey table we could get in the building,” White said.
In the conference room next door, we sat down to talk. And White was quick to tell me that he probably sounded a little callous with his automation proposal.
“Here's this rich CEO asshole. He gets mildly inconvenienced and he says, ‘Let's just do away with all these people and replace them with robots,’” White said, imagining what some people thought of his comments.
“As a technologist, sometimes you do have sociopathic tendencies,” he continued. “You do things kind of in a vacuum. ‘The prototypical worker will be displaced by this’ is different than saying ‘Claire over here will be replaced by that.’”
But like it or not, ‘Claire’ will be replaced, White said. “Eventually these things are going to be automated. It's not just BART, but lots of jobs. My point was we need to think about these things.”
And these things are things that White thinks about a lot, he told me. As he moves through his day, going to work or doing errands, he imagines, as Silicon Valley luminary Marc Andreesen once put it, “software eating the world.”
“Everywhere I walk in San Francisco, I notice there's a job that I don't think will be there in 15 years,” White said.
And so we went for a walk.
A Walk Wearing Robot-Tinted Glasses
We headed from White’s office down Second Street, toward a BART station a few blocks away. We were in a neighborhood recently brimming with tech startups and booming with construction. On the way, a taxi driver cruised by in his cab. At least, that's what I saw. For White, it was a future self-driving car.
And the check-out clerk at the corner store that we passed by? Soon enough he’ll be a self service kiosk, said White.
In his view, automation isn't just an inevitable thing, it’s a good thing. We should take the routine jobs people do and “automate as much of their day as possible so they can have more time to do the more valuable things,” White said.
As we move down the streets of the technology capitol of America, looking at the world through tech-optimist-tinted glasses, there's this nagging voice in my head. Namely, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s voice. “The technological developments of the last three or four decades have totally transformed the U.S. workplace,” he has told me on more than one occasion. Most economists agree.
Acemoglu says that as technology advances at a faster and faster pace, it has been destroying, or at least displacing, legions of jobs, especially “high-paying or middle-paying jobs for people who don't have graduate degrees and who don't have very specialized skills.” That is, the kind of people that make up the majority of America right now.
The Anomaly of BART jobs
Back on the streets of San Francisco, Richard White and I had arrived at our destination, the entrance to the Montgomery Bart station.
What makes a BART station such an interesting place to have this conversation is that BART workers have become something of an anomaly in the New Economy. With so much automation across all kinds of American industries, the thousands of unionized jobs at BART are a rare breed today, in that they don’t require a college degree or super-specialized skills, but they still bring in a decent middle-class salary.
Take that station agent in the glass booth, helping someone figure out which train to get on. A job like hers makes an average base salary of about $64,000, not including overtime, health care or pension benefits. BART workers say the strike is about making sure those good salaries stay good.
In Richard White's eyes, “That's a lot of money to pay someone to answer questions about how to get from point A to point B. I have a map in my pocket at all times to tell me that,” he said, pointing at an app on his smartphone. Meaning, for White, that station agent job is “clearly a job that could be automated.”
We watched the station agent from a distance for a while. She was smiling and wishing her customers a good day. At some point I asked White if he'd be willing to ask the station agent directly how she would feel about her job being automated.
There was a pause.
“Well it sucks because she's such a nice lady, right?” he told me.
I told White that after our interview, I was planning on asking her, and felt like it was only fair to invite him to join.
“Sure. I'll be part of it,” he said.
New School Economy, Meet Old School Economy
We went up to the booth, and White was a little shy, so I explained the situation to the agent behind the glass: that the guy I was with thought she seems really nice, but also that a robot could probably do most of her job.
“What do you think about that?” I asked the station agent.
She gave us a confused look. “Um...” she said. “Well, I mean I don't just sit here all day.”
She said her name was LaNeese Landry, and at first she was a little defensive. Then she thought about it a moment, and tried to reason with White. She listed the stuff she does every day: helping people figure out the route maps, assisting the elderly and people who don’t speak English.
White smiled. Nodded. But he didn’t seem convinced.
“I wonder if you have to be right here,” he suggested to Landry. “Like, if you could just work from home and you could actually just have a screen here where they ask you questions.”
She laughed. “Honey, you’re talking about waaaaay futuristic stuff,” she said. “Come on now. I've been in customer service for about ten years now, and I do realize people don't read.”
As if on cue, a frantic looking lady with a suit case runs up to the window and interrupts our little debate.
“Hello, honey,” Landry says to her.
The woman explained she was rushing to the airport and couldn’t figure out the ticket machine. Landry came out of her booth to help, and with the press of a few buttons handed the thankful woman a ticket and wished her a good day.
Then Landry turned back to us, smiling.
“See, everything can't be automated,” she smiled. “A lot of people do feel better having another person there.”
But if her job was automated, I asked. What would she do? She thought about it for a moment.
“I would do my hobby,” Landry said. “Hair and make-up. And buy and sell houses.”
Then White was the one smiling. “See?” he said. “Wouldn't that be perfect if she could actually pursue her hobby?”
And that does sound great. But it's not what seems to be happening in the New Economy, at least not yet.
Where We Are Headed
In studies of what happens to workers who have lost jobs in the last few decades to automation and globalization, people usually wound up with lower paying jobs, or no jobs at all, says MIT’s Acemoglu. “It’s not been a dream come true for most people. It’s been exactly the opposite.”
Some economists predict that ultimately the future of automation will be a net good thing for employment, like it ultimately was when the Industrial Revolution ate up the jobs of the agrarian economy. Others economists aren't so sure.
Richard White of UserVoice says these questions trouble him, and that they are ones the tech industry should be thinking about. But that they're the kind of complicated challenge that a technologist like him can't solve on his own.
The trend toward ever-more automation is “obviously very painful in the short term,” White said. “But if we do this right, hopefully we have an economy which is stronger than ever before, and people are more willing to pursue their passions.”