Joe Lost His Job

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest


Who stole Joe’s job?  Joe was just an ordinary guy working at the fast food joint on 28th street, the local restaurant alley in Grand Rapids.  He was good with customers, greeting them with a smile and cheery “hello” while he got their beverage orders.  It never got too complicated.  The menu offered a handful of different soft drinks, plus ice tea or water.  He filled the cups with ice (unless the customer specifically asked for less) and then bumped the proper lever for the selected drink.  He was quick and efficient, often filling two cups simultaneously and rarely spilling an order.  He juggled new orders and free refills with calm self-assurance.  Joe arrived promptly for work—never late a day in his life.  He took his job seriously but he also got along with all the employees with an easy-going style and good sense of humor.  Joe wasn’t greedy—just simply trying to make a living.

As such an excellent employee, why would the boss fire him?  Technically he was “let go” because they were downsizing, but to Joe, it felt as emotionally hostile as being fired.  He had dedicated years of his life to this work.  Was there no loyalty?  Was there no compassion? 

It turns out that when they remodeled the restaurant, this included a new drink dispenser.  However, instead of putting the dispenser behind the counter, the new one was in the customer area.  Once customers could get their own drinks, Joe wasn’t needed anymore.  In fact, even Joe had to admit that customers didn’t mind it.  After all, they could decide just how much ice to add.  They could get refills faster—rarely with any waiting compared to the old system of coming up to the counter and getting Joe’s attention.  Sure, someone has to wipe down the counter area regularly and clean up the occasional spill, but the task no longer required full time attention.  The syrup and carbonation canisters needed replacing regularly, but that was a quick job too.  Joe didn’t know it, but the boss had made a simple financial calculation.  Joe was paid $9.20 an hour, plus he got some minimal benefits.  Add in various taxes, insurance, unemployment, employer share of social security, along with all the other overhead and it added up to over $15 an hour.  In just three months, it cost over $7,000 to retain Joe as an employee.  The drink dispenser was under $5,000.  The cost of supplies was the same either way.  Joe needed occasional breaks, needed vacation time,  and he got sick once in a while.  The dispenser was continuously on duty.  Plus they could actually run customers through the line faster during the lunch and dinner rush with the new machine than they could with Joe.  If the wait got too long, that meant lost business when people chose to go elsewhere to get their meal fast.  With the competition squeezing them, Isabella, the boss, saw this as a matter of survival.  She needed to produce the product quickly and inexpensively, else her customers would simply go elsewhere.  The boss wasn’t greedy—she was simply trying to make a living and serve her customers well.

Did the drink dispenser steal Joe’s job?  If it wasn’t for this insidious machine, Joe would still have his job.  It is easy to blame technology for job losses, a tradition that goes back to the Luddites who took to the streets in England after massive layoffs, smashing textile machinery in the early 1800’s.  The theme of man against machine has been common since the industrial revolution.  The ballad of John Henry honors the prowess of a railway steel driver competing to drive his hammer faster than a new steam-driven hammering machine, winning the race as he drew his last breath.  Today that debate continues.  The most recent round includes stories and editorials on the self-driving car .  Another recent editorial looks more broadly at lays out the case for “how technology is destroying jobs” .

While I concur that technology has a built-in bias which results in a diverse array of consequences (some unanticipated), I think this approach inappropriately demonizes technology.    Let me unpack that a bit.  First, I do not perceive technology as neutral.  When we design a solution to a problem embodied in a technological product, that technology inevitably reflects its creator.  We build in a predisposed bias that is intentional in some respects, since we intend for the technology to perform certain functions.  We also build in bias without realizing it until later, when unintended consequences arise.  Bias means that our tools work better for some purposes than others (a hammer is more biased to pound nails than a screwdriver).  Bias means we tend to use a tool in the direction of those biases, so we tend to use a hammer for pounding.  Secondly,  bias does not mean agency (defined as the capability to take action or cause something).  I do not fall in with the philosophers such as Ellul who perceive technology as a force in and of itself.  I think blaming technology for loss of a job is a very narrow focus that misses the real culprit.  The drink dispenser did not force its way into the restaurant and eject Joe.  Rather, the business owner chose to use a lower cost means to accomplish an end.  But is the owner the culprit here?  No, the owner felt that she had to make adjustments in order to keep the business afloat and retain the jobs of all the other employees.  Consumers demanded fast and very inexpensive service and that meant she hardly had a choice but to install the dispenser.  Are the restaurant patrons the culprit here?  The typical customers are on very short lunch breaks from rather demanding jobs that don’t pay all that well.  So while they can sympathize with Isabella for needing to squeeze her budget and even more so with Joe who lost his job, their own budgets are squeezed.  Thus technology is simply part of a long chain of causes and effects which touch on societal values and economic forces that form a large, complex system. 

However, this complexity doesn’t lead me to despair like Ellul.  Rather, I think it means we should roll up our sleeves and get to work tackling these challenges more thoughtfully.  Individually we often have at least a little latitude to make choices for the better.  As a society we have also have some latitude to organize the way we work and live together as a community with choices for the better.  Of course there are trade-offs and hard constraints.  Nevertheless, if we use some system engineering to look at the big picture and follow consequences through the whole chain of causes and effects, I believe we can make a positive difference. 

Christians should seek this positive difference and they have a good sense for the way things ought to be, for shalom.  Christians are called to be redemptive agents in this world, transforming our culture in service to our God and in love of our fellow creatures.  However, our pursuit of the Kingdom of God and of justice must be tempered with humility.  We can as easily get tunnel vision as the next guy.  When we cry “injustice” at the loss of a job, it is important that we step back and think about the whole system so that we tackle the core problem:  “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854).

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest