Recently, I interviewed some incredibly smart folks at UTD’s department of Mechanical Engineering regarding their latest Automation research project. You’d expect an automation project from engineers to be about robot arm ramp speed, stepper motor reliability or the effects of heat on rosin in a pick-and-place machine. None of those were the case.
These guys are documenting the “perception of automation” by three tiers within a manufacturing environment — C-level management, mid-level integrators, and line-workers. They’re analyzing the Delta between those perceptions and finding ways to mitigate the conflicts. That’s not exactly a project for the fainthearted, but it got me thinking about disparities in the perspectives of divergent social castes, especially in the work environment.
Back in the late 90’s, when my marketing company was going and blowing, I was constantly frustrated by employees’ inability to take directions. I often felt like I was speaking Hebrew and they were speaking Swahili. It would have been simpler for me to do the job myself rather than spend the time explaining it, only to have my directions ignored. At the time, I had no concept of how differently two people can interpret the identical message, based on diverse personal histories.
One day, I was hurrying through the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant to grab a soft drink on my way to a meeting. The barely distinguishable voice in the crackling speaker told me that my total would be $2.17 and, being conscious of the ever-growing cache of coins in my front pocket, I gave the nice girl at the drive-thru window, a $5 bill, a dime, a nickel, and two pennies. She stared…and stared…and stared. Finally, after enough time had lapsed for the ice in my soft drink to totally melt, she asked, “what’s this supposed to be”.
Normally, I’m the sort of jackass that would have told her where to store those coins, but on this particular day, I was feeling magnanimous so I told her it was all a tip and asked if I could please have my coke now. Driving away, it hit me that the young lady was probably working at the top of her game. Blame it on our failing education system, blame it on drugs, or blame it on recessive genetic traits due to being born in Arkansas, but she genuinely had topped out in her career development. That is in no way a judgement of her character. She may well have been the very essence of goodness but her career had peaked.
Imagine that I had met that young lady under different circumstances, say, sitting next to each other on a plane. Then imagine that we struck up a conversation about the wealth gap in the United States. Yeah, I know that’s a stretch of the imagination but you see where this is headed? There are people (lots of people) in this magnificent country, who cannot possibly comprehend how a CEO could be worth more than a hundred-thousand dollars a year. They have absolutely no concept of the myriad demands that the average CEO faces on an hourly basis.
Don’t get me wrong. There are incompetent CEOs in this country, making ridiculous amounts of money for no reason beyond having the right connections, just like there are professional athletes pulling down absurd salaries for no skill level beyond the ability to throw, catch, kick, or hit a ball. The average successful CEO has a brain-vault filled with knowledge of everything from real estate to asset management to politics to human resources, but he/she often lacks one thing – empathy for that McDonalds drive-thru girl who can’t count change. I certainly lacked any consideration but I was older then. I’m younger than that now.
So, I would suggest that the real threat to our culture is not AI or DEI or even the corrupt FBI. It’s our inability (and perhaps unwillingness) to recognize the humanity, and, yes, the “value” of that person at the opposite end of the totem pole. How can you and I work together as a team dedicated to reaching even the simplest goal if we’re so wrapped up in our own personal rights that we cannot relate to each other lest that besmirch our egotistic self-image?
I hope my friends at UTD can construct a bridge over that automation perception delta. And, I hope their findings can be adapted to the wider philosophical chasm threatening our whole culture. And, I hope they make it happen soon.
Note: If you’re a manufacturer in the Dallas area and would like to participate in the UTD study, email me and I’ll put you in touch with the researchers.
Want to talk about automation, or the value of people, or politics? I’ll buy you coffee. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can talk face-to-face. But don’t ask me to talk about sports. Even I have my limits.
Once we see the grace implied in our very existence, we are able to see God’s judgement and mercy at work in all of history’s ups and downs. This frees us up to face the paradoxes of life with honesty and serenity.
– Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)
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The Boys in the Boat
— Daniel James Brown
I haven’t mentioned this book for a while so it’s time for another pass. It’s an entertaining story with an excellent sub-text. More important, it does a far better job of conveying today’s message than my little missive ever could. Just meet me for coffee and I’ll bring you a copy.
A meeting of great minds who think alike