Monday, August 21, 2006


(News-Herald, November 2001) There really is no such thing as a labor-saving device. Such so-called advances don’t eliminate labor; they simply transfer it elsewhere.
Over the last century many devices transferred labor from humans to machines, which suits humans just fine, unless they are humans who were previously paid perfectly good money to perform the labor. But a washing machine or a continuous miner transfer labor from frail exhaustible flesh to tough tenuous metal.
The trick here is to be careful of how much labor we transfer to the machine. The more things we ask the machine to do, the more processes there are to break or fail.
We have seen the advent of labor-saving systems, which again simply transfer the labor. Garbage services transfer the business of disposing of garbage to guys who drive around and gather it all up for us. The last fifty years have seen the steady transfer of labor to places where sweat is a cheap commodity.
But the relatively recent self-service revolution is about the transfer of labor back toward the consumer. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that there was a time when we hired people to pump gas for us. Pumping our own gas saves no labor whatsoever, but it gets us faster service and we don’t have to explain what we want. Not that self-service is for everyone; I try to imagine my late Grandmother Binmore attempting self-service refueling, but that scenario always ends with a fireball and a frantic call to 911.
The computer revolution has brought a boom in labor-transferring systems. The instantaneous transfer of data and information brings an instantaneous transfer of labor. Everyone with a computer can be his own secretary; indeed, he may not have a choice.
Many offices in the last five years have seen this shift. The boss is in the office is patting himself on the back for how the new system saves his administrative assistant loads of typing, organizing, data processing, and labor. That’s because at a dozen other desks, his subordinates are now doing the work instead. No labor has been saved; it has merely been transferred. White collar workers all over the country are scratching their heads and wondering when they became part of the clerical and secretarial staff.
Perhaps the best example of this sort of labor transfer is the new self-checkouts currently on view at Big K (formerly K-Mart, formerly Kresge’s). Now, instead of standing in line to have a live human scan my purchases, bag them up, and collect my payment, I can stand in line to scan my own purchase, bag my own stuff, and stick the money in a machine that makes change for me.
My first reaction to this is to feel badly for the live human checkers whose careers, regardless of what corporate management promises, are clearly not made more secure by this innovation.
My second is, well, I’m not sure. After all, the amount of labor saved by this innovation is absolutely none. The labor has all been transferred to me! I am tempted to ask Big K management how many times I need to check myself out before I get put on the payroll. It seems like at the very least I should get an employee discount.
This is not like self-service gas. At the gas station, I have a particular mode of service in mind (“fill ‘er up” or “just five bucks”) and doing it myself is marginally more convenient than explaining it to an employee. But I have nothing special to say about checking out (“I’m sorry, but could you please run my Hershey bar across the scanner with a kind-of Zorro wrist swishing action?”)
This remind me much more of the old bag-it-yourself grocery store concept, only more high tech. The biggest innovation is in finding clever new ways to say, “In the interests of greater customer satisfaction, we will now provide you with less service.” The ultimate extension of this revolution will be the day when places like Wal-Mart no longer bother to build actual stores. Just back the delivery trucks into a giant parking lot and let the customer pay to uncrate the goods and load them in the car.
Imagine. I’ll cook my own food at Burger King or drive myself to the hospital (wherever it may be) in the ambulance. Some businesses will thrive as less time and effort has to be spent serving customers. Of course, other businesses will be in big trouble—what will Reese Brothers do when the day comes that I just call myself to interrupt my own supper with a sales pitch?
In the interests of improved customer service, I’ll let you write your own last paragraph for this column.

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