Once again, the amazing Venkat Rao of the RibbonFarm blog has given me more food for thought about a post-scarcity related topic: The NYTimes article “Our Unpaid Extra Shadow Work” - which talks about how technology in many ways has forced even the wealthiest amongst us to do tasks like scan groceries, etc.
The article refers to all these little areas of our life which used to be staffed by humans: check-outs, gas pumps, steno-pools, etc. - that have all turned into technological solutions that actually require everyone to do this low-value labor. I don’t think for a second though that this is some trend - from personed services to tech enabled self-serve. Instead, I think that there have always been tasks that are on their way to being automated but which pass through a hybrid model stage - because that stage is actually viable at the current degree of technological / social development.
For instance, it seems like all of these have in common that they all would have consumed our time, but not our effort: gas pumping is probably actually faster to do yourself that wait for an attendant (have you been to New Jersey?!?). The same can be said for grocery scan/bagging and even the dictation of mail. I know executives that still dictate instead of write their email, but it really consumes the same amount of time. There’s still no replacement for a secretary screening calls / email which is why that practice is no where near replaced - though I’m sure they’re getting to that point.
Trying to think of things that get past this stage completely is hard - it’s really more of a gradient. I was thinking about dish washers: far better than doing it by hand - it definitely frees up real time, but it’s no fully automated. You still need to load/unload it. It’s still a stretch though to say that this isn’t just in this middle stage.
Telephones are an interesting case - we went from telegraphs that required a written letter to be given to an operator to fully send. Then to early telephones that let us talk directly, but needed an operator to do the connection, and now to our system of full-auto communication as quickly as you press the button on your cellphone - no low wage labor there.
Likewise, maybe you can’t do food full auto, but Amazon let’s you order nearly any non-perishable good online and have it directly sent your door - that’s pretty amazing. We can see a similar pattern to the telephone though: first you manually went to a store, then you could mail order over the phone in minutes, and now you click buttons in seconds.