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luddite history

Luddites? Who Are They & Do They Matter?

Raymond Winters
2020-11-16 15:15:00

The Luddites were a secret oath-based organization of English textile workers in the 19th century, a radical faction that destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest. The group was protesting manufacturers who used machines in what they called "a fraudulent and deceitful manner" to get around standard labor practices. Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry. Many Luddites were owners of workshops that had closed because factories could sell the same products for less. But when workshop owners set out to find a job at a factory, it was very hard to find one because producing things in factories required fewer workers than producing those same things in a workshop. Over time, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization, or new technologies in general.


Over the last 9 months, I have participated in a variety of discussions with peers, business associates, clients, as well as friends and others that have been expressing concerns, brought to the forefront during what I am calling “The Great Adventures of 2020”. In these conversations, the common theme was how high the demand for automation and self-service has become. Interestingly, another theme arose, one that harkens back to the Luddites, is that there has been a small but very vocal group of people that have claimed all the changes are destroying or eliminating jobs or even “taking the humans out of it.” To be honest, that last bit is exactly what the technology is designed to do! However, these individuals, so vehement in their narrow assessment, are missing the actual intent and underlying results stemming from the application of all these new technologies. This is something that I believe warrants further discussion.


First, let’s look at the “why” of this rising trend. A recent article on IBM suggests that 85% of customer support interactions will be automated by the end of 2020. But they do not go into why this is happening. There have been a lot of numbers published, but let’s take a quick look at some of the anecdotal evidence and some of the events in World News and try to put together a few reasonable deductions. If 2020 is going to be “marked” by anything, it has to be COVID-19. Many people are scared, plain, and simple. Direct human contact is not really something people really look forward to in a public setting and limiting exposure has become a matter of the bottom line for many businesses. In some cases, limited exposure is designed to protect employees that are business-critical, and in other cases the sheer volume of contacts required for some employee’s position all but guarantees exposure to the virus. Most employers are risk-averse when it comes to the well-being of these team members, as they should be, and limiting the exposure of their employees AND customers is desirable. Another “why” is really more of a “how” and that is the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, as applied in customer service (think chatbots and intelligent ordering systems). While this is, indeed, how much the automation is accomplished, is it also a “why” in that the technology makes customer service more “scalable” for companies. When we put just these two things together, we see one of the driving forces for the rise in automation and self-service.

With a “why” established, let’s address the concerns of those that have voiced concerns about job losses. First, let’s define what we mean by “job loss”. “Job Loss” is the elimination of a specific “job” or class of jobs such as cashiers or customer service representatives and on the surface, this seems true. There will be fewer cashiers, but this does not mean these individuals will be out of work! It really means that their roles will change. Instead of scanning items and making change, the automated check out frees employees from these repetitive tasks and allows them to take on higher-value tasks, directly serving the clients. We have all seen the tremendous increase in drive-through pick and online ordering of groceries, right? The grocery stores are able to implement these services by shifting people away from mundane tasks and have them provide these very personalized services. In fact, many of the employees are paid higher wages to perform these tasks that cannot be automated. Another area that is now experiencing an increase in automation and self-service is “concierge” services for travel. Airports, hotels, and other venues associated with travel and hospitality have taken an enormous hit, as a result of the CV-19 pandemic. One way they have needed to respond was to limit the exposure of their staff. But can this be done while maintaining the “personal touch” that is so important to the hospitality and entertainment of guests? Once again, enter self-service. The PRSONAS products are a great example of how using intelligent systems and artificial intelligence can limit exposure, provide specific and detailed services for the more mundane side of the travel and hospitality industry while maintaining both the branding and level of service expected by the clients. Now the teams working at the information desk that answer the question “where is the bathroom?” 82 times out of 100 can let Daphne™ handle that question, while they are able to directly assist people truly in need of their help! Seems like a no-brainer to me!

In theory, automation and artificial intelligence should free humans from dangerous or boring tasks so they can take on more intellectually stimulating assignments, making companies more productive
and raising worker wages.  Time.com

Finally, I would like to address the notion that these technologies are eliminating jobs. While not initially intuitive, the new tech is creating far more jobs than it is eliminating. Programmers, engineers, designers, technicians, deliveries, maintenance, content creation, and more are all professions that are required to build and maintain these systems, and the last time I checked, all those positions paid pretty well. So while I understand the concerns surrounding these intelligent and self-service systems, I think the bigger picture reveals a truther that is far larger than the Luddite world view!

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