McMullen: Consternation over automation

January 8, 2011

Slowly, but surely, many of the jobs that were traditionally performed by humans have been mechanized and there have been some who have lost their livelihood to unfeeling systems, programs and robots who donít want for food, sleep or pay.

Now itís not nearly as bad as some people make it out to be: most companies try to find other opportunities for their displaced employees and some offer generous financial packages in order to tempt them into retirement.

But is it really fair? Should we let machines do all of our work just because they do it more cheaply and more efficiently? The robotic arm might build a car just as well, if not slightly better than the human arm but does that essentially mean that it should happen? Are humans only a stepping stone in the evolution of work - only useful as long as it takes to make an equivalent electronic employee?

I donít have the answers to these questions but there are some who are adamantly opposed to any machine performing any task that a human being could be doing because they foresee a future where weíve all been replaced in the name of progress. Itís not even an entirely unreasonable sort of fear: technology advances every day.

These are the people who refuse to use the self-checkout lines at Woods Supermarket or Walmart and even go so far as to think less of people who would dare even consider it.

And for months this has been one of the reasons why people have been opposing the Sedalia Water Departmentís plan to upgrade our water meters. They want to improve accuracy and they want to improve efficiency. These meters will measure each drop of water that we use and send the department that information as it happens.

So it seems, in the coming years, that the days of water department workers slowly making their way from house to house with their trusty clipboards will be over - at least in Sedalia, that is. Sure, theyíll come around occasionally to make sure the machines are still working but it will be a lot less often and wonít really constitute a full time job like field meter duty used to do.

They have assured us that former meter readers would be utilized in other ways and would still have jobs with the department. I sincerely hope that is the case - it's fine to harness technology and upgrade things when you feel it is necessary but you better find something to do with the people who used to walk through our yards. The people want progress but they donít want it at the cost of jobs, especially in a time where unemployment is still high and the economy is still recovering.

There are others who are opposed to such an initiative because of the price tag and the potential passing of that price to the consumer. They tell us that the price will eventually be covered in nickels and dimes because with the increased accuracy people who were paying for a little less water than they were actually using will start paying the correct amount.

But one would figure that if the current meters are giving some people a discount than they are also charging others too much. If itís going wrong itís probably going wrong both ways - and a batch of accurate meters could result in a remarkably similar amount of cash flow because anomalies on both ends of the spectrum have evened out.

People on every level have been assured that there will not be a rate increase associated specifically with the new meters (but you can rest assured that there will be rate increases at some point because everyone who provides anything wants a rate increase these days) but there are many who donít believe a word of it.

And it does make you wonder, that if these new meters are unable to pay for themselves, like the story goes, will the water department tack on some seemingly unrelated new subcharge in order to pay for them? Should we really believe that they will just eat the cost if things donít go exactly as they are projected?

Like I said, it is reasonable to upgrade your technology when you deem it necessary but the water users of Sedalia just wonít put up with a rate increase to replace meters that they have depended on for years that to them seem to work relatively well even if they are a few cents off here and there.

I think the water meter upgrade is ultimately a good thing but I do hope it is handled as advertised - some of the people could easily turn most of the people against you if certain assurances arenít kept.