Updated: Aug 6, 2021
People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. -Aldus Huxley
I knew a man needing a few extra dollars as his small business prospects took a minor hit from the pandemic. Observant, he picked up the word that Amazon was hiring all sorts of folk to do all sorts of work- delivering warehouses of goods to the locked-in proved to be extraordinarily profitable. They needed more help. The media reported they required thousands of people. Tens of thousands. They already employ something approaching 1.2 million individuals.
This particular individual found the link leading to an employment application online. It was a silky smooth process to apply for a job and took no more than a few minutes. The web page suggested that he be contacted not by a phone call but rather by email. Amazon sends out millions of emails each day; they're pretty good at that side of the business.
Sure enough, the very next day, the man I know got an email back. It was an auto-generated email never suggesting any reference to the application that makes him uniquely qualified or unqualified, or even human. The only attempt at personalization was his name at the top of the email. No worries. He was hired.
As promised, the follow-up auto-generated email contained the precise instructions for his very first day of work. It included a general outline of the type of work that was going to be expected of him and a variety of disclaimers as to his physical fitness, etc., and that his future employment would be subject to review at various times.
The man accepted the job, grateful for the $17 per hour he'd earn. But he admitted to some apprehension to showing up for work knowing no one- no name, no face, just a gate number to be at on this date at that time. "Surreal" is how he described it. "I don't know what this means to my dignity," he chuckled, not knowing if dignity and what one does for work is in any way connected anymore. "I always thought my experience, my expertise, my skills, if you will, was important. How I related to people, my handshake, my willingness to look you in the eye, the way I answered questions, the ability to solve problems were what employers wanted to know. Now, I'm not so sure," he paused, looking off into the distance. "I guess they just want warm bodies, and to do that efficiently, use a cold automated email system." Some call them 'Bots.'
Bots are clever pieces of computer software that have been programmed to simulate human decision-making. The software is essentially an algorithm that takes data elements, makes generalizations, and spits out something that approximates a human decision. They are machines that can make these presumably mundane decisions by the billions, never need to take a potty break, never call in sick, and pay no taxes. They contribute to the master's attempt at minimizing cost to gain a competitive advantage. And when someone is looking for thousands of warm bodies, algorithms work with incredible efficiency.
This man I know never did show up for work at Amazon. His small business prospects grew more robust as the mask grew more scarce.
It only stands to reason that if hiring thousands of warm bodies is left to machine algorithms, then firing the inefficient should be just as efficient. And so it is when job performance criteria is reduced to a set of predictable and quantifiable data elements. The algorithm- the machine, can root out the poor producers, automatically send them a 'dear John' letter, and exit them from the company taking back the employee number. Easy come- easy go.
And so it was for boomer Army veteran Stephen Normandin. He worked years for Amazon until Al Gorithm thought he wasn’t making the mustard. He received an auto-generated termination email in his inbox one day. Fortunately, he wasn’t the type to go ballistic and dispatch a few people before himself from rage. But he did tell his story here.
You might be thinking- is this true or your idea of dystopian humor. Unfortunately, it is true. Those who've written about the future imagined a time where humans would be plugged into the machine or put on some life-sustaining mist that fogs the soul. Sure, you're living, your body is warm, but your spirit has been extinguished. Spirits, free spirits, and creativity cannot be reduced to an algorithm. Nor can joy and fear and love and envy. But deciding who lives and who dies can. We're all just decaying data elements.
Aldus Huxley wrote a stark dystopian novel titled ‘A Brave New World.’ Somewhere in his life, he concluded this; “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
We must resist.