Man vs. Machine
October 19, 2000
“It’s not that I have anything against you, personally …”
Most of us have heard something like this at one time or another. The first time it happened to me was in the 60s. The engineers set up a big new stamping machine in the middle of the factory. It did the work of 10 men, and the technician with his loving arm around its iron shoulder could probably run five of these monsters at once.
Machine envy?We all leaned on our lowly, smaller machines, watched in awe, and rubbed our arm muscles as the monster gave a deep sigh and started churning out brake drums faster than we could count.
“I don’t have anything personal against you, but …”
Well, I had been fed up with the factory dirt and noise for a while anyway. A few classes later I was in a nice clean office, shuffling paper and signing forms in quadruplicate, with no more sore muscles.
I arrived just before the computer.
It arrived on a truck, and we watched as the workmen hauled it gingerly up to the fifth floor, where it was given a whole room to itself. Three technicians dressed it up and polished its tape-drives. It seemed we were all going to have to learn the new technology, so I became a keypunch operator, and married the pretty young keypunch operator who worked across the way. We fed the computer thousands of punch cards, and it printed paychecks for us.
The white picket fenceIn those distant days technology moved fairly slowly, so it was a few years and three children later before the next computer arrived. It was smaller, but much more powerful. Lots of operators and programmers danced around it, and the new data-entry clerks talked to it via little TV sets with keyboards.
Management told me that it only talked to programmers and operators and really quick, young data entry clerks. They doubted that it would bother to listen to anything I had to say.
“Personally, I’d like to keep you, but this new computer cut our data entry staff by 50% …”
In England, 30-something was considered too old to learn new tricks. I went to the American embassy where they were looking to drain brains. They didn’t like what was in mine. The Canadians offered to send me down the hard metal mines of Northern Saskatchewan.
“I, personally, would like to accept every aspiring immigrant, but …”
Re-partitioning the driveSo I went down the road and signed up for some computer classes. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. My wife became a hairdresser. “Let’s see them automate that,” she said grimly. Two years later, we emigrated to the USA, the kids all got upstate New York accents, and we all lived happily ever after.
Technology got into everything. First they downsized the computers and put little ones on all our desks, then they downsized the staff. What was left of management outsourced our data processing department.
“Really, myself, personally….” I didn’t listen to the rest.
By now, I realized that I enjoyed moving around and learning new skills. We moved to Los Angeles, and my wife started hairdressing for movies and video shoots and record albums. However, companies were still downsizing and outsourcing and automating to the outer limits.
Listen to your motherEveryone I knew confidently forecast that the mainframe computer was dying, being killed by its ungrateful PC children. Programmers left in droves, to learn the new, glamorous PC skills or to haunt Venice Beach, and the kids coming out of school turned their noses up at the cranky, awkward low-tech mainframes.
It began to dawn on management that mainframes were needed to keep the little PCs organized. And –even better, mainframe programmers were becoming scarce and marketable. My colleagues and I metamorphosed from harassed has-beens to arrogant, um, prima donnas. It began to dawn on me that I could relax and gather cobwebs for the rest of my working life.
“Personally, I’m so glad that there are still some steady workers like yourself that we can rely upon …”
After a few managers had said this sort of thing to me, I began to feel old and stale. Far from doing me any harm, technology has kept me young, on the move, and still fairly nimble.
Mmm … GuinnessWithout it I’d be sitting in a pub in a decaying post-industrial city in England, looking at the chipped bar and thinking nothing. If being a computer nerd means being paid to travel, being paid to surf the Internet, being paid more than my bosses, hey, I’m up for it.
“Personally,” I said to my last real boss, “I feel that my best opportunity is as an independent contractor. I can learn more and earn more. My wife and myself are going to travel. As long as there is technology, I’m OK, and as long as there are heads, so is she.”
- Mike Morris has been a computer consultant for 20 years.