When It Hits the Fan by George Merrill


In Arkansas, according to an article in the “The Week,” for poor Jesse Newton it really hit the fan.

His robotic vacuum cleaner, programed to run in the early hours of the morning, encountered pile of dog poop left on the floor. The Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner) indeed sucked it up flinging it all over the house. Newton lamented that his house, “looked like a Jackson Pollock poop painting.”

‘R2D2’ may be lovable as a companion while you’re in space, but he has a dark side. Robots can make a terrible mess of things.

I’m not technologically savvy or good in math. I barely got through algebra and my checkbook looks like Jesse Newton’s house. But I read and hear things and grow concerned. I’d like to share the concern I have about ‘outsourcing’ – a technological and economically complex phenomenon that is radically changing the world’s way of life.

I became aware of outsourcing when Obama was first elected. By then it was taking its toll on American workers. Unemployment was significantly rising. I remember being struck by the ramifications of sending jobs overseas. I kept thinking to myself, well, the nature of a business is to make money. So, if having my widgets made in Mexico at half the price it would cost me in Detroit, it’s a no brainer; I’d go south of the border. Since 2015, some 3,320,213 jobs have been moved overseas – gone south in a manner of speaking. How does anyone deal equitably with a problem as thorny as that?

During his campaign, Trump made the return of jobs his battle standard. I wondered how anyone could reverse this trend. I can’t imagine any industrialist who would elect not to outsource. Trumps own businesses are outsourced so I gather he has had no idea what to do.

Three things are particularly jarring about outsourcing and technology.

Software developer Martin Ford writes: “In 2013 a study by researchers at Oxford concluded nearly half of all occupations in the U.S. are “potentially automatable, perhaps within a decade or two.” That’s not good news for workers.

Writer Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, reports: “In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp for 22 million dollars. When a 22 billion dollar company can fit its entire workforce into a greyhound bus, the concept of surplus labor would seem to have run its course.” Her point: how million dollar industries, while creating radically fewer jobs, can produce more and more.

Another scary scenario is how the countries we’ve outsourced to, are themselves increasingly automating. Industries in China are automating as fast as if not faster than those in America. The jobs we’d want to bring back simply wouldn’t be there.

This brings me back to poor Mr. Newton and his Roomba. At the mercy of his own robotic device, he created far greater problems for himself than the convenience and automation was ultimately worth. The design of this marvelous invention did not take into account the impact it might have on the lives and habits of those who lived in his house. There was Mr. Newton and his dog, both living, breathing creatures with their own ways of being in the world. The dog did what it had to, as did Mr. Newton as he programmed Roomba and turned in for the night. Mr. Newton didn’t see ahead far enough to consider the impact this might have on his way of life. I imagine the poor dog got his nose rubbed in it big time.

It will take great wisdom, political even-handedness, cooperation and rethinking to level this playing field that has increasingly tilted toward industries that favor creating efficiency, and ever larger profit margins. The good news in any of this is that it may force the reintroduction of conscience into capitalism. That is, that a durable paradigm may emerge: that a company’s responsibility and commitment is to provide viable employment for its workers, a good product as well as generating profits.

What to do?

Last Christmas, I received one of the latest electronic devices as a present. I’m a Luddite and my wife is a techy, she likes to broaden my horizons. The device is called an Echo. An Echo is a black cylinder-shaped object that knows all kinds of things. Like a high functioning Jeopardy winner, all you have to do is ask her. You say aloud, “Alexa” and that gets her attention. When a surreal blue light appears at the cylinder’s top you then pose your question. The salutation “Alexa” is not to suggest that Putin has hacked Echo. It’s just her name.

Despairing of this painful outsourcing and technology issue one day I turned to Alexa for understanding, asking her “What is outsourcing, anyway?

She replied: “Outsourcing is contracting out a business process, operational or non core functions to another party.” Then I asked her, “ Is outsourcing a good thing?” She emitted a reflective “Hmm” and replied, “I can’t find an answer to your question.”
Since Alexa was manufactured in China and sold by Amazon, there’s no way she was about to give me a straight answer. If she had, I’ll bet Alexa would have gotten it a lot worse than Mr. Newton’s dog.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


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