Mechanization Is A Feature Not A Bug: Part 4

Examples where our robot overlords are still gaining ground:

Fast Food: The minimum wage has gone up in a few places and there’s talk of Fast Food becoming more automated. I think it’s funny that this is even a topic of discussion. It’s not talk, it’s simply a mathematical calculation. There is a number on a spreadsheet where it’s a done deal. Opinions, from either side of the political spectrum, play no part in this decision.

Here’s one link among many.

“McDonald’s employees who picketed for a better living wage (whatever that means) may come to regret that decision. According to a Redditor, a McDonald’s in Illinois replaced their cashiers with machines.  The machines appear to be the cousins of the ones found in grocery stores, big box stores, and CVS that allow customers to complete transactions.”

Let’s start with the obvious. Fast food won’t become automated, it will become more automated. It’s already an assembly plant and not a restaurant. The other side of the counter at McDonalds is like the damn Space Shuttle but with newer technology. You’re not running machines, you’re in an automated system of smallish machines working in concert. Everything is either beeping or planning on beeping, there are big ideogram buttons for the illiterate, and all cooking that can be done in a factory has been done in advance and frozen. Whining about automation in McDonalds is missing the point.  McDonalds is already a soulless automated technological marvel and it already nearly put the corner coffee shop out of business.

Remember the corner coffee shop? Gladys’ sister Marge used to be the waitress and the cook was Spike’s Uncle.  Lets call him Ralph. Ralph made better food than any McDonalds. Marge would tell you all about her grandkids and bring you free refills of coffee. In the old days Marge smoked. In the old days she’d accidentally drop ashes in your eggs.

I preferred Marge and Ralph. I still eat there but it’s not McDonalds and it fills a different niche. When I’m in a hurry I go to McDonalds. You do too. Don’t lie to me. The NSA has records and darned well sometimes you buy a Happy Meal to shut up the kids or shove a BigMac in your piehole while driving.

McDonalds (and its ilk) are already automated. So automated that you pigeonhole yourself into its great unfeeling gears. You get whatever the hell Supreme Overlord Ronald McDonald puts on the menu. That means no steak with your eggs and the eggs can’t be served over easy. No mash potatoes, no collard greens, no beer (in America), no flavor, no class, no style, no bullshit. Get in, get out. Uniform shitty calories fast.

Suppose the dude (or dudette) at the counter was no longer there. Suppose you’re in Seattle where you’re smart enough to pump gas (unlike Oregon) but the minimum “living wage” is sixty grand and a weekly massage with a happy ending. Imagine the counter person is gone. So what?

All the counter dude does is listen to you in English (if you’re lucky) and push the buttons for your McGrease Meal #1. You slide a credit card and the computer does the rest. Or maybe you hand over cash and the change device on the side counts it so the victims of public education don’t have to count $0.74 and try to do it with quarters. That’s a job that is primed for replacement by robot. I’ve seen a couple test ordering kiosks over the years. You probably have too. Using them wasn’t hell. (The food was but you already knew that.)

At the right labor cost, it’s simply going to happen. No questions asked. No quarter given. Don’t wish it was otherwise because it ‘aint happening any other way.

It’s simply math and math never loses. So why fret about it?


P.S. Note the tone of the post “employees who picketed for a better living wage (whatever that means) may come to regret that decision”. I humbly suggest we let it go. There’s no need to be bitter. People learn to regret in their own time and in their own way. (Or perhaps they perfect denial.) Don’t twist the knife. Fate will do that and it’s not our job.

P.S. In the interest of complete disclosure I’ve seen both sides of this. A billion years ago I lost a job when the minimum wage went up. (Yeah, really. That shit happens and I didn’t have a thousand politicians giving me a parade over my “living wage” crap job.) I wasn’t bitter. I had been an excellent worker and was probably the best they’d had at it in years but the job sucked and always would. When the numbers took a dump on me I figured it was a hint applied with a sledgehammer and I moved on. Also, I have replaced a robot. This was at a different job. I was cheaper than the robot. I tried my best but had virtually no natural talent and sucked. I did my mediocre best a couple years, and like employees at most of these sorts of jobs, moved on. So there you have it, at the low end me and robots fought it out in the labor market. You win some you lose some. This is nothing new.

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

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21 Responses to Mechanization Is A Feature Not A Bug: Part 4

  1. Southern Man says:

    I was in Mexico a few weeks ago and got to tour a tequila factory. Very, very cool…but the bottling lines had lots and lots and LOTS of people doing very repetitive manual labour, like putting the labels on the bottles and swooping said bottles off the fill line into boxes. My first thought was “these people will be replaced by machines Real Soon Now.”

  2. me says:

    here’s a link to an automated burger making machine..

  3. Phil B says:

    Interesting story … Here in New Zealand we grow apples (LOTS of apples) and use a lot of them in country. No surprise there.

    McDonalds source their apples to make their apple slices here in NZ from America because (wait for it!) NZ apples taste better than the imported stuff and they want the apple slices to taste the same wherever you go in the World … LOWER the quality so everyone gets the same Charlie rap.

    I can’t see a robot making things worse and unless they make a “beans on toast” complexion part of the “features” of the robot, it’s GOT to be n improvement on Johnny No Stars, surely?

    • Bring in the crappy apples? That’s funny!

      Speaking of labor, did you notice that the apples are pre-sliced? They’ve utilized some people or machines to do the hard brutish work that is… biting into an apple. How did we suffer though the dark ages of paring knives and human mandibles? The horror!

      When slicing an apple can be outsourced to a factory you know the sky is the limit. If it’s done in America, apple slicing for New Zealanders might very well be outsourced to a different hemisphere!

      • Phil B says:

        Most likely China – ship whole apples to China, get them peeled, cored and sliced, boiled to puree and shipped back to India where they’ll make the pastry (from imported flour) and plenty of tartrazine to make it look nice and golden. The apple puree will be put into the pastry, frozen and shipped back to NZ as a “ready to nuke in a microwave” item and then they’ll claim it is locally sourced …

        I wish I was joking but it will probably be nearer the truth than not … All Johnny no stars has to do is ask if you want to go large with that.

        As a matter of principle, I refuse to eat at McDonalds until they offer a miserable meal.

  4. davefreer says:

    Hmm. But as a writer of science fiction I have to ask, Curmudgeon, what do these ex-workers do? – assuming that a sort Moore’s law type increase/improvement applies to automation and robotics, and, um, logically that fails on costs and raw materials (they get cheaper… to a point, but nothing is really free, not even lunch). Now I’m all right, I have pigs, and I make my own bacon with no more mechanization than a very old sharp knife, and that’s not going to change even if there’s a really good bacon-o-matic available for really cheap, with ‘easy repayments’, and you’re probably alright because you have curmudgeonly adaptiveness. But a lot of people don’t fit that bracket. And they’ve got very used to getting gratification really fast, (along with debt, for their lifetimes – but that assumes they get a check, somehow from somewhere). So: I am curious – what is the end of the line that you see? Bread and circuses? ‘re-skilling’ (yes, that’s likely)… or?

    • One can go up or one can go down. If your job at the buggy whip factory is replaced you can, of course, sit on the couch and watch Oprah. Some think this is the default of mankind. I disagree. Some flounder… but they would have anyway. After all, not everyone in America works even now and some of them pursue interesting things (or useless degrees) but many others sit on their butts.

      Many folks can find something to do and do it. People are not cogs in machines and “work” writ large is not a zero sum game. There is always more work that could be done. The more luxurious the society the more exotic the work… but “work” is endless.

      If you’re not tilling the soil with a hoe trying not to starve there’s still work making stuff that we simply want but don’t need. We’re already doing this. We, as a society have gone from Folgers instant to an entire industry of elaborate artisan lattes. If we were in dire straits we’d have neither the time nor the money to support latte makers and backpedal. We’d choke down instant coffee on the way to the cornflake factory in a hurry.

      Where people get hung up is thinking of jobs as something that already exists and which is allocated by an HR department. Freeing a person from drudgery only gives them the opportunity to do more. Think of it this way, gas powered lawnmowers didn’t kill the lawnmowing industry, it convinced us to have bigger lawns. Not a perfect analogy but you get the idea.

  5. PJ says:

    The appeal of McDonalds (to my wife anyway) are the relatively clean restrooms. We are willing to buy a cup of coffee in order to pee (makes sense, eh?). Maybe they will come up with self-cleaning bathrooms pretty soon.

    • I have heard that one of the big social changes in Portugal after the Carnation Revolution in 1972 was that McDonalds arrived with free and plentiful toilet paper in each of many stalls. Apparently this was something of a big deal.

    • Southern Man says:

      For me it’s the free WiFi. Most any fast-food joint will have SOMETHING that I’ll eat so it really is the WiFi that brings me to Micky Dees.

      • I agree. Free wifi is a big selling point.

        In the old days (when I was more nomadic) they’d dump some ice in your cooler for free if you asked nicely. I don’t know how many big macs I choked down to get the free ice but McDonalds probably made a good profit of their ice machines back in the day.

  6. Tim says:

    With regard to economics, you’re preaching to the choir. I guess I’m just nervous about my own future, given that my job is ripe for automation. I will be starting from scratch in a new line of work at roughly the same time as a bunch of other similarly experienced people. My labor will be worth a whole lot less. That’ll suck.

    Can you conceive of a situation where a rapid, unprecedented wave of automation leads to an unprecedented glut of labor? What would happen to a society where a large plurality of the population suffers a sudden drop in their standard of living? I don’t think think there is a good historical analogy.

    • Yes it’s unnerving and yes life entails risk and uncertainty. If you’re not nervous (or at least paying attention) to the future, you’re not paying attention.

      But it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m pretty optimistic about automation even if it might personally kick my career’s butt. Automation and specialization are the explanation as to why we’re not living in mud huts and planting wheat in holes dug by sticks. It’s nearly a tautology: every improvement in producing stuff leads to us all having more stuff. Sure, it’s a scary ride but stuff is good and more is better. Cavemen spent a hundred thousand years accomplishing nothing but cave art and rabbit stew. They had certainty without growth. So many wasted and boring generations.

      The same optimism comes from streamlined information. I don’t pine for the old days of driving to fifteen car parts stores looking for a spark plug. I don’t miss book stores that never had what I wanted. I don’t regret on demand “television”. My life was not improved by fifteen car parts guys that didn’t have the right sparkplug, the bookstore lady who hated Heinlen but loved cat books, and “network television” was a black hole. I’ll take Amazon, a Kindle, and Netflix any day. Streamlined information benefits me and everyone else too.

      Going further into the light, I don’t think there’s a historical analogy to “a rapid, unprecedented wave of automation leads to an unprecedented glut of labor” because that’s only one side of the coin. That sort of change doesn’t go exclusively negative. More like it balances out in unpredictable ways.

      Consider, for example, the many handmade bespoke car factories and their associated brands that got nuked by Ford. Henry got all assembly line on their ass and they were doomed. Ford’s immense power of automation presumably dealt a hell of a blow to a factory, an industry, or even a town that depended on the handmade car industry. Surely it sucked to be an employee in those industries. Perhaps they felt like a “glut” of labor.

      But that’s not the only story. Every dirt cheap, cookie cutter, mass produced, Model T led to what? It led to more people having vehicles. It led to more miles driven, more stuff hauled, cheaper shipping, increased commerce, etc… Gains elsewhere and widespread made the world of the cheap Model T a lot more pleasant than the world before it. People had been chained down by the expense of non-assembly line vehicles. The cheap Model T hit broadened horizons. Many people, perhaps most Americans, gained and gained plenty. Not even the most overwrought, whining, earthy crunchy, eco-green, hippie really wants to go back to riding a mule. Why? Because living your whole life in a ten mile radius and walking to get places… sucks.

      It’s not a straight line from the guy who lost his job to Ford’s assembly line to the guy who gets hired because it’s cheaper to ship lettuce to the supermarket… but the latter more than offset the former.

      As always there are winners and losers. Stay hungry and good luck.

      I believe we’ve been trained to see only the negative “this new burger machine will put people out of work” and to ignore the positive “these burgers are so damn cheap I’ve got money to spend on something else”.

      None of this dispels the pain and confusion of loss. There are winners and losers always. Only to say that a million Americans cruising Route 66 is better than a thousand Americans hand hammering fenders on pre-automation Studebakers.

      • Southern Man says:

        I hadn’t thought of that. We already spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than pretty much anyone else in the world, but automation leading to even CHEAPER food? Wow. Just, wow.

      • PJ says:

        “Cavemen spent a hundred thousand years accomplishing nothing but cave art and rabbit stew. They had certainty without growth. So many wasted and boring generations.”

        Oh, I don’t know. There is probably a lot of meaning to life when you are being run down by Smilodon.

        Edward Abbey used to refer to civilization as “syphilization”. I can see both points of view.

  7. Pingback: Mechanization: Video Epilogue | The Adaptive Curmudgeon's Blog

  8. Rick C says:

    I don’t know that Tim’s going to come back, but one thing worth pointing out is that if he can see the end of his job coming, now is an excellent time to start thinking about what he might want to do next, and an even better time to start preparing for it, if possible.

    Ideally, he’d figure out what that is, and move NOW…before everyone else in the factory or whatever gets laid off. That way he’s got a jump on the competition.

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