Moths to the Flame: The Life You Save
Too Many Secrets
Infinite in All Directions
The Power of Ideas
Just Connect
The Bloody Crystal
The Life You Save

The Machine Stumbles
A Creation Unknown
Order Online!

The Life You Save

If you sup with the devil, carry a long spoon.

Fourteenth Century Proverb

[I]f you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road.

Stewart Brand, The Media Lab

Never have so many understood so little about so much.

James Burke, Connections

Discomfort with computers often reduces to a simple and brutal question of money. And rightly so. Suppose, for instance, somebody invents a device tomorrow that answers the phone and takes dictation. Let's say it costs twenty thousand dollars and only does about 70 percent of what an employee does. You might think it obvious that such a machine won't change anything---it's too expensive and does a far worse job than a person.

If you think so, then perhaps you've forgotten that an employee costs, say, twenty-five thousand dollars a year, every year, whereas the machine is a one-time expense. Besides, a machine won't get bored or demand a raise. It won't need to sleep, have hangovers or family troubles, or need a parking space or a pension. It certainly won't have hurt feelings if ill-treated; it won't have feelings of any kind. Even if it does the job only 70 percent as well as a person, many executives would gladly spend extra time correcting its mistakes in exchange for such year-by-year savings.

Further, the more of us who buy the device, the more money its manufacturer has to improve it. Unlike a human employee, doubling the machine's workload needn't mean buying another one since such machines can often handle four or more times the original workload with only minor refitting. Consequently, in a few years that same device will cost only a few thousand dollars, will be much smaller and sexier, and will do a far better job. We humans can't improve anywhere near that fast.

Then, to compound the competition, because the machine is cheaper than an employee, the market will expand to include buyers who couldn't afford to hire someone. The bigger market will draw in more manufacturers, and the machine will get even better as competition heats up. As competition rises and the technology improves, prices will fall and wages for those still competing with the machine will fall too. Then wages in related industries will fall. And so it goes.

That's how it works for most new machines, from tractors to sewing machines to television sets: First, the lunatic fringe adopts the new device. Some do well; others fail miserably. Then the more cautious see the successes and ignore the failures. They adopt the new machine. Some fail spectacularly. As its developers pay more attention to control, safety, and ease of use, interest in the machine peaks, then dies down. But some keep taking the risk. They need to keep on the competitive edge and can handle the pace of change. Many of them fail too, but some prosper remarkably. In the long run, everyone adopts the new technology---because they have to.

As human employees, we have no chance in such a progression unless we can adapt faster than our machines can. Fortunately, we can change what we do. And that's why we must change. Because we have to.

NEXT: Talking To Machines