Future Work

Note: this talk was given in 1999; already some of Dr Cordell’s predictions have become a reality in the last decade. 

Computers allow for the same level of service that would have been delivered by a human. With wage rates climbing in the economy, the only way to deliver high levels of service is with computers and information technology. In the same way that the early assembly line and automation allowed for the substitution of machines for people we now see a substitution of machines for people in the service sector.

A successful transition to an information society is more than merely achieving a computerized marketplace. A successful transition is when we have put in place policies and technologies that ensure an acceptable outcome for all consumers.

New technologies are used to provide consumers with new services not available before and to deliver existing services more efficiently and effectively. However technologies can sometimes be so efficient that the consumer becomes an object rather than a subject.

The trade off is often one of efficiency at one end of the scale and humanity at the other. The key to a successful computerized marketplace is to implement technology in an efficient way without taking away the humanity of those who are supposed to benefit. How to achieve the balance.

The technology of service delivery carries with it benefits and costs. The benefits include speed, access, as well as new products and services. The costs include a change in what is meant by community and a dramatic change in personal privacy.

Two or three years ago McDonald’s hamburgers adopted the slogan ‘At McDonald’s we do it all for you.’ We have heard this jingle so many times we rarely pause to reflect on what it really means.

Consider what happens when you go to McDonald’s. And I am certain that everyone here even the most ardent health food fan has had a ‘big Mac attack.’

In the act of purchasing the product we pick up the food at a counter, pick up straws, napkins, etc., consume the food and dutifully throw away the refuse. Finally, we replace the tray in a stack of used trays.

So, in reality, at McDonald’s we do it all for them.

More and more, our society is coming to resemble this model. Microprocessors have made possible the self-serve gas station. Here we pump our own gas, and pass money or a charge card to someone behind a bullet-proof glass. Again we have done it all for them.

By substituting our labor for an attendant we have displaced workers and, ironically, the rate of automobile breakdowns has increased. Service station attendants used to check many items under the hood; harried consumers today are too busy or too uninformed and the rate of auto breakdowns is on the increase.

With the loss of attendants in neighborhood gas stations, we have also changed the community. What is a community without people?

The banks would also like us to do it all for them as well. The success of automatic teller machines, and soon, home banking, lead to computerized marketplaces where people interact with machines.

New home banking terminals will have a slot for insertion of a smart card. With this feature consumers will be able to achieve the ultimate in home banking. They can get purchasing power at home by transferring funds from their checking or savings accounts to their smart cards. The smart cards can then be used for making purchases in stores. We are on the way to a cashless society.

The question is: will people accept increased service when it is not accompanied by any human interaction?

We often complain about the growing impersonality of our society with clerks in stores and banks uttering the throwaway saying ‘have a nice day.’

We may come to miss the human touch. I understand that voice synthesis chips already are in place that say just this and, in Canada, they do it in both official languages!

These trends appear to be firm. In the future we will be doing it more and more for them. Them of course is the system. An the system is really us. It is our communities and social context that is changing.

Author bio

Dr. Arthur J. Cordell received a BA from McGill University and a Ph.D. (economics) from Cornell University. He has worked for the US Government in Washington and as a business consultant in New York City. He was a Science Advisor with the Science Council of Canada. Recently, Arthur Cordell retired from his position as Special Advisor, Information Technology Policy, Industry Canada, Ottawa. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, School of Mass Communications.