Humanity, Technology, and Fear of Moving Forward


I recently read an interesting piece in The Frailest Thing discussing humanity’s relationship with machines. In disseminating the threat that reverberates of ‘big data’ and an algorithm-fueled workforce, the idea of what constitutes an ideally respectable way to make a living is being redefined. During in the early 20th century, factory work was valued, but the growth of machinery reduced the efficacy of manual labor. Following the enhanced industrialization of the early 20th century, information-based work became of value in the mid-20th century, as companies looked to optimize efficiency, using machinery to reduce to costs of capital while maintaining output. Ability to gather, disseminate, and synthesize information was valued highly, replacing manual labor that commanded the most American-dream kind of respect. Now, information is being challenged in its value, as an increasing number of computational methods are no longer exclusive to the human brain.

As disseminating information in its purest form becomes more viable to machinery, determining one’s value in the workforce is becoming frighteningly vague. This encompasses an infinite informational reality, in the form of customizable analytics software in the likes of Tableau, which mitigate the need for anaytical minds translating datasets into trends and forecasts. With companies like Salesforce making historical information accessible across a company, access to historical information undermines the territory that often comes with tenure & individual memory.

Yet as crunching, consolidating, and optimizing data becomes a primary focus of many companies, it is also a trend that is met with intimidation. Companies, particularly in the financial sector, hire departments to centralize & accommodate the new need for efficient information, but they overlook the one factor that is seemingly obvious. They fail to recognize their data’s role across all segments of the company; they disregard those at the bottom, who would also show the highest marginal gain from access to information. They fail to understand the inherent value of ‘Big Data’ by taking overwhelming amounts of information and compartmentalizing it by department, as though each department operates in complete autonomy, isolated from the virtues of individualized customer service & client preference. They operate under the facade of compartmentalized information, leading under the false notion that informational silos optimize efficiency, employees wearing blinders are productive, and clients’ appetite for relevant data can be overcome with glamourous marketing & sugar-coated relationship management.

For anyone who has watched Mad Men (or better yet, lived in that era), it is safe to say that change is invariably met with steadfast resistance. This resistance is deep, it is insideous, and it is peppered in across various industries and levels of management. Particularly within the financial sector, an industry notorious for its resistance to change, information is met with an aura of what I can only assume is intimidation. Intimidation toward the future, toward replacement, and toward the unknown, popularly-presumed Orwellian society feared to be the result of widespread access to information. However, these fears are pointless; the NSA revelations of 2013 shattered the glass on any sense of security for personal data. Information is, arguably, one of the most formidable motifs of post-industrial modernization; it is a beast that can be fought, tamed, or trained. It has stirred an appetite for the unknown, however, and it arguably sparked an insatiable sense of wonder across multiple industries and cultures.

With Man Men clearly on my mind, I cannot help but be stuck on the episode in which the SCP office purchases a computer, sparking an inaudible sense of revelation at the office. The show makes no attempt to hide the obvious metaphor at their disposal here; the computer represents change, creating a diverse array of opinions, presenting itself as a willing challenger to the customs that define the industry, the workforce, and the societal norms. The computer stirs upheaval; it frightens an already-borderline employee, pushing him over the edge of insanity. It forces a challenging cultural conversation out of the traditionalists and the visionaries, addressing the societal change that began in the 1960s but continues today.

The piece discussed earlier, published by The Frailest Thing, stirred my thoughts toward the future in a way that is wondrous yet directionally coherent. In the article, the author indicates that the future valuation of one’s profession will be based on creativity. Far from the manual labor of the post-industrial age and the informational astuteness of the pre-information era, a data-driven society creates a need for creative capital. As the threat of information overload becomes overwhelmingly common, creativity presents itself as the next great mind and the nation’s newest American Dream.