Collaborators, Not Colonizers: Designing a Future for AI & Automation That We Can Live With

Part I: Automation & the Dissolution of Culture

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“Tesla Robot Dance” by Steve Jurvetson

How will artificial intelligence and automation change the way we live and work? One of the promises of technology in general was to make us more human, taking some of the tedium out of our lives, and giving us more free time.

The Greeks had two words for time: Chronos, or industrial time; the time of a scheduled meeting, our “alarm clock” time. The other type of time, Karios, describes a kind of time outside of time — watching a sunset, hanging out with family, falling in love. How much of our technology forces us into Chronos, and how much gives us more Karios? Is there a way to design products to give us more time, instead of less? To give us more time for culture, instead of taking it away?

It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for three decades. Because I watched my family experience the effects of automation first hand:

The Personal Cost of Automation

Back in the 80s, my mother had a job as a Master Control Operator at a TV station in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was responsible for putting all of the TV on the air by handling physical tape, physically cutting and slicing each TV show reel, and splicing commercials in real time. Her edits had to be speedy — sometimes, she’d add a commercial in mere seconds before the footage was set to air on TV.

At first, there were a lot of people at the station that didn’t believe she could even do this, partly because she started as a front desk worker, but when one of her co-workers told her she could have any job she wanted, she mentioned that she was interested in Master Control. It was one of the highest paid jobs at the station, but first, she had to pass a complex test. Management had a favorite candidate in line for the role. The station flew him to the corporate HQ in Denver, Colorado to pass an engineering test — which he failed twice. Mom studied for the same test all by herself, then drove to Denver on her own dime, as the station wouldn’t sponsor her. She passed it on the first try, then posted the results on the company bulletin board, and joined the station with the (awesome!) new title of Master Control Operator.

My mom met my dad at that same station, where he working in broadcast engineering. Three years later, now married, she took time off to take care of me, but when she returned to the workforce 10 years later, her job was no longer available. It had been automated.

I remember her coming back from work the first day. Instead of being excited, she was demoralized. She told me that her entire role was now being done by a program, and she couldn’t even sit in the room with the editing machines anymore. Her entire job was to monitor the automation process through a computer outside of the broadcast facility. And her computer’s job was to watch the computer that did her old job. There was a person who monitored my mom and four other employees scattered around the building — watching them watch computers that watched computers — but she was unable to talk with any of them. So a once social job was reduced to an isolated, anti-social process. Gone was the culture of the station she had once loved. With no reason to chat with other station crew, she mostly remained in her cubicle, grew depressed, and eventually resigned.

Meanwhile, my dad had to keep up with television technology automation to keep his job. One of the jobs had him digitizing a station for an international television company. I’ll never forget visiting him during a school break and seeing, posted everywhere in the station, this sign: “In case of fire, all oxygen will be removed from this room in 30 seconds.” The company treated the technology in the room better than the lives of its employees. For years afterward, I had nightmares of my dad trapped in his office during a fire, rushing to evacuate before he asphyxiated.

In the end, though, it wasn’t that variety of computer automation which hurt him most. As with my mom, many of my father’s roles were eventually subsumed by new automated systems which put many of his co-workers out of a job, and that he only had to occasionally check. With so much of the company’s staff gone, so was its culture; without anyone to socialize with, he’d often wander through the office building on breaks, meeting other demoralized employees. All they had to occupy their social time was vending machine food and chain smoking.

Over time, my father would get hired by a station to automate it, but once the process was complete, he’d get laid off. The last station wanted him to fire employees and automate their roles. When he refused to fire long term employees with families, he was deemed not tough enough, and fired.

People within organizations evolve a body of lingua franca, situational humor, and shared narratives that are unique and special to themselves. And they give workplaces essential moments of Karios time, when workers share the sense of being in a tribe or an extended family. Ripping that culture away can be devastating — even for the people who don’t lose their jobs due to automation.

Adding Automation While Preserving Company Culture

I believe we can work alongside machines, not as babysitters, but as equals, and we can do it without eroding the existing culture they are integrated into.

Automation can even empower individuals. At one company I worked at, admins were paid incredibly well and responsibilities across the organization. The admins were comfortable with the complex interfaces of the company’s automated software. They provided a human face to the automation, so that employees could interact with them instead of larger database. The admins became respected, friendly stewards of documentation. The admins had job security, and they were loyal to the company. Because they were highly paid, and the process for hiring them was a strict one, they were more likely to stay with the company for a very long time (admins worked for an average of 15–20 years), saving the company money on churn and rehiring costs. These corporate historians maintained consistently as the company grew, as they could train newcomers faster than a database could. There were admins of this caliber in offices all over the world, the company had a real-life social network.

If we understand the power of technology and the unique character of humanity, we can work to build systems that amplify each. Through carefully considering which systems we automate and which systems we keep human, we can design an approach that amplifies the best of automation (reducing our Chronos) and the best of humanity (enhancing our Karios).

I’ll discuss that in the next couple posts.

Written by

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology + Designing With Sound. Research Fellow at Institute for the Future.

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