As Technology Advances, Don’t Forget About William

How do we ensure innovation does not outpace what’s best for our people?

I was visiting Detroit recently, and as I often do, I sought out a local establishment to mingle with the locals.

I sat down at the bar for a beer and pub grub. After a few minutes, a weathered man with a well whiskey and a water sat down next to me.

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The focus on our innovation must take into account those who are displaced by our advancements.

We started with some small talk about the pictures on the wall and the weather, but it turned into the story of a life, his life.

William was an electrical engineer by trade, and by all accounts, he had the world by the tail at one point. He grew up in another era – fixing analog electronics was his trade.

Then came digitization, and his ability to expertly solder wires was no longer needed. He was in his mid-50s and was out of work before he knew what hit him.

Commence the downward spiral. William was eventually evicted, and he now saves just enough for subsidized housing and a few whiskeys each night.

Could William have made some better choices? Sure. But it’s hard to judge unless you’ve walked in his shoes.

Right or wrong, many people view their self-worth through their career.

How many times have you met someone for the first time and their first question is: What do you do?

They’re not asking about your breakfast habits. They’re asking about your career, and your response shapes their opinion of you.

When you lose your job, you lose much more than your income.

A cautionary tale

In a way, this is an age-old story. When Henry Ford’s automobile took hold, shoeing horses wasn’t as in demand. And those workers on Ford’s assembly lines were not as prominent once automation entered the scene … and the story continues.

So this is just the price of progress, right? I guess it depends on how you define progress. If the change disenfranchises as many as it helps, is that progress?

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If the innovation hurts as many as it helps, it’s not progress.

Here’s how I see it: As a society, the focus on our innovation must take into account those who are displaced by our advancements.

This is not easy to do.

So if the innovation hurts as many as it helps, it’s not progress. If the innovation can be cost-justified taking into account the retraining and reemployment of those displaced by the innovation, that’s progress.

Will it cost more money to ensure we’re proactively retraining these individuals? Yes.

But what’s the cost of the lost productivity and ballooning social support programs? More importantly, what’s the personal cost to the disenfranchised like William?

Getting it right

I don’t have all the answers – I wish I did. Perhaps, here are on Longitudes, we can explore the potential paths forward.

As of now, I put this out as a challenge to those smarter and more experienced than I am. As a society, if we put as much effort into considering the displaced as we do the particular innovation, I have no doubt we’ll find the answer.

We owe it to all the Williams of the world to get this answer right.

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Alan Amling is Vice President of corporate strategy. He previously oversaw marketing efforts for UPS's global logistics and distribution services.

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