Monday, March 10, 2014

Technology vs. Humanity

The headline read, "Staples to Close 225 Stores."  Apparently online sales are increasing as sales figures for stores are decreasing.  How sad to see another "bricks and mortar" fatality.  As a business owner, I was a frequent customer at our local Staples.  How I loved browsing through the huge aisles for my office needs -- from pens and paper to calculators to desks and shelving.  The staff was always helpful and knowledgeable, although many of them left for better paying jobs elsewhere.  As I read the newspaper headline this week I thought of one employee in particular.  He is an odd little man -- friendly, helpful, but obviously not a candidate for moving up to a better-paying job.  And I wondered how many people like him will lose their jobs and have difficulty finding work when these stores close.  It is a problem that compounds with each store closing, each downsizing, each manufacturing job which is replaced by technology.

The advances in technology have moved at a dizzying pace in the past few years.  There is so much to love about it.  Businesses do more work with less people and without the factor of human error.  Communication is instantaneous. The average person can shop for just about anything online and have it delivered to his door the next day.  We can conduct just about all of our personal business online -- handling our banking, insurance, investments, healthcare, and even friendships from the comfort of our homes.  The world is there for us at any hour of the day, at the touch of a keyboard or screen. 

Unfortunately, though, as a society, we are paying a huge price for this technology.  Just as well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared in recent decades, retail jobs are now falling victim to this cultural shift.  Why trudge through a shopping mall, comparing prices and searching for sizes and models, when we can sit in front of our computer and purchase what we want in a quarter of the time?  With apps for our phones, we can even compare prices while in a store to, in effect, narrow the competitive playing field between local stores. Job security has virtually disappeared. Technology has replaced many of the more menial jobs which provided secure employment for the less-educated, less competent among us. Computerized phone systems are more efficient than the operators of old.  Email has created job losses in mail rooms and in the postal service.  The jobs available for the less-skilled do not even pay a living wage in many cases. 

As politicians argue and place blame for our sluggish economy and the decline of the middle class, I think we must consider that one of the largest contributors to income disparity may be our technological society.  Those with the aptitude and education to thrive in the fields of technology and investment receive lucrative compensation, while those who once performed the less desirable jobs with pride are now either woefully underpaid or unemployed.

And yet, we continue down this road as we educate our children.  There is a tremendous emphasis on science and technology in our schools.  We believe our children must be able to compete in this society we have created, and most of our efforts and education dollars are focused on this goal.  In so doing, we leave behind the multitudes of children who are not "wired" for technology.  What is to become of those students whose abilities lie in the arts, writing, philosophy, or those whose abilities will never allow them to perform other than the most menial of tasks.  Aren't we at some point sacrificing our humanity if we attempt to place math and science above everything else?   We say that our children must compete in the global economy -- that Chinese and Japanese children are much better educated than ours.  We fail to consider, though, whether we really want our children's lives to center around education and financial success at all costs.  Maybe this is the time when we should step back and revisit the basic values of our country and try to reverse the trend toward personal and corporate greed.     

Where do we begin to solve the problems facing our society?  They certainly cannot be solved by computers or artificial intelligence.  They cannot be solved by politicians who spend half of their time pandering to their large corporate supporters, and their remaining hours spreading vitriolic half-truths about their political opponents.  Unfortunately, I am not even certain it is possible to reset the course of this nation.

I am certain, though, that we must all ask the questions.  How do we compete in this technological world without losing our humanity?  How can we grow small, local "niche" businesses that are not in direct competition with the huge corporations that have transformed our economy and devastated our quality of life in the workplace?  How do we educate our children so they are able to participate successfully in today's world, and yet lead fulfilling and worthwhile lives?  Our quality of life in this great country depends on how we choose to answer these questions.

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