Carl Wernicke: An Ambivalent Relationship With Technology

Feb 3, 2016

Credit IHMC

One thing about being retired is that it lets you step back and evaluate the work world with an unbiased view. Or, without skin in the game, maybe it’s an unreal view.

Anyway, one advantage I see in retirement is being able to step off the fast lane that technology has put working people on. Right now it’s a young person’s game, and will remain so until technology is so advanced that even old folks can quickly and easily learn to use it.

It gave me some comfort several years ago when my 30-something nephew, with twin majors in computer science and math, confessed that he feared becoming technologically obsolete if he didn’t adapt to all the changes in social media. If he had those fears, there was no shame in it for a 60-something.

But it also scared me. That someone like him could feel overwhelmed indicated just how powerful and fast the changes are.

One of the more powerful changes is the shift from traditional employment to the so-called sharing economy. In journalism this meant watching talented reporters and editors be let go by newspapers and left to scramble for web-based piece work from faceless companies that paid little and limited hours to prevent workers from qualifying for benefits.

At its worst, it means that every day your job is based on your ability to bid the lowest wage. If factories could work that way, many would. And as more and more people with professional or technical skills are let go, maybe they will.

To be fair, the other side of the equation is that people without jobs, or who want or need real flexibility, can find work. This has led to business phenoms like Uber or AirBnB, where people can use their time, skills and assets to make money without a regular job.

A couple of years ago I started writing a commentary on the threat I believed companies like Uber represented. Basically, that they undermined jobs that, while perhaps not great, paid a living wage, such as driving a cab.

However, I discovered that Uber drivers could make as much or more than cab drivers. In places like Los Angeles, Uber became the new job of choice for aspiring actors and screenwriters who traditionally took jobs like waiter or bartender. Uber paid better and provided more flexibility. A restaurant might fire you for skipping a shift to attend an audition, but with Uber you just turn off the app.

So I scrapped that commentary and moved on.

But, it never plays to sleep on the inexorable march of technology. Now it turns out that the allure has attracted so many people that Uber has drastically cut what it pays drivers in Los Angeles, and so many are on the road that it can be hard to grab a fare.

So what now? Maybe Uber decides to limit the number of drivers to support higher wages. Or maybe in 5 years Google’s robot cars eliminate the need for Uberites or cabbies. In 10 years maybe Amazon’s delivery drones will carry people, too.

As for me, I’ll be at home chopping firewood and picking dinner from our garden … and maybe watching a movie on Netflix. Sorry about that, Mr. Ticket Seller.