Machines that took away jobs but I think it’s OK

Not long ago I got into an…interesting…conversation about machines that took away jobs. That’s actually not the conversation I’d been planning to have: I had watched a cool video on how the US Postal Service handles envelopes whose destination address cannot be OCR’d, and in the process of explaining it to a friend, I pointed out (as the video taught me) that a single “human powered” center with about 800 employees is sufficient to deal with all such mail in a timely way. Just 20 years ago there were over 50 such centers, giving a sense of how far OCR and ML have advanced beyond when it became possible to OCR zip codes.

But my friend’s surprising and rather deflating reaction was that that “advance” had put a bunch of people out of work, and was that really something to be happy about?

I was surprised by this reaction to say the least, not just because that hadn’t at all been the point of bringing it up, but because in general I’m a proponent of less paper mail overall in order to reduce the consumption of paper and fossil fuels that that entails, and this advance seemed compatible with that goal. That is, yeah, people did lose their jobs because of this, but I have no problem defending the conclusion that the overall effects of the change represented a net benefit to society.

And it’s not as if those displaced workers represented a major lost investment in training and experience: while the technology they use does require some training, this isn’t a craft apprenticeship where displacing a worker means tossing out years of experience (oppose, for example, a weaver, woodworker, etc.).

And then today during a lunch break, because I enjoy watching videos about how things work, I watched a great video about how automatic pin-setting machines in bowling alleys work…Guess what—they displaced workers who were hired to hang around behind the bowling lanes and manually reset pins after each frame!

Anyway, I got sufficiently irked about the whole thing that I thought to compile a list of machines that nominally took away jobs but that I’d challenge anyone to argue we aren’t better off as a society for it. Perhaps if a Luddite argued against these, that makes me a Dullite.

To limit the scope of my rant, I’m only including inventions that completely eliminated a job category, rather than ones that just diminished the number of people. So by my own definition, the automatic address recognition technology doesn’t make the list, since there are still people doing that job, just fewer of them. Similarly travel agents: many (most?) people now book travel directly online, but there are still travel agents, just fewer of them and serving more specialized markets.

Here are, in no particular order, some of the ones I thought of.

  • Automatic pinsetters. c. 1952. Displaced: about one “pinboy” (yes, that was a job title) per bowling lane in the country.

  • Refrigerators (1834, although they wouldn’t become popular commercially until the 1920s and residentially until the 1960s in the US). Displaced: people who worked in the supply chain of ice blocks, such as ice haulers. Presumably they were then free to do other things, such as not get permanent back injuries.

  • Movies with sound (c. 1920). Displaced: hundreds of live musicians who would otherwise have provided the live musical accompaniment to silent films.

  • Record players and the associated recording equipment. Displaced: Yes, we still have live performances, but I’m thinking here of Tin Pan Alley “song pluggers,” who would play sheet music in music stores so prospective customers could see if they liked the song. George Gershwin got his start that way, but when they let him go, he found his way to a new career, namely changing the face of American popular music.

  • Cable cars. (I live in San Francisco, where these are a thing.) Displaced: horses and their drivers and keepers, though I imagine they probably hired about the same number of cable car operators and mechanics. And of course the horses themselves were displaced, but that beats their existing career path, which was to be worked to death on some of the steepest urban streets in the country.

  • Direct dial telephone service (c. 1951 for US domestic, somewhat later for direct-dial international long distance). Displaced: telephone operators (“hello girls”), which was actually a skilled position in which experience mattered. But manually connecting every call by physically patching together a continuous circuit would probably not have scaled with the demand for phone service.

  • Electronic databases for keeping client records, business records, etc. Displaced: people who did filing work. But have you ever done filing work? It’s spirit-crushing. A special subcategory is library card catalogs and circulation systems moving from manual card-based implementations to electronic ones.

  • Food processors. Displaced: If you’ve ever chopped, grated, diced, blended, liquefied, pureed, and you loved it, you’re someone who might have been unhappy about these jobs being lost.