Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Inevitability Thesis

Daniel Chandler's "inevitability thesis" states that once a technology is introduced into a culture, what follows is the inevitable development of that technology.  In Europe and the United States, technology has been major factor in our cultures since the industrial revolution.  Technology has been at the forefront of increasing production while decreasing costs associated with production.  Sounds simply enough when you write it out but people still want to pretend that Chandler's thesis does not apply to them.  Two cases recently illustrate the fallacy of their beliefs.

First is the demands of workers at McDonald's to be paid a "living wage" of $15 per hour versus the current $8.10 per hour.  I'm not going to argue the merits or weaknesses of their proposition, only refer back to Chandler's thesis and the role of technology in our culture.  Technology may initially be developed with making things safer for workers (such as robots used for painting cars) but inevitability thesis takes over adding more technology and more technology which conversely requires fewer workers.  

Automats were an early example of using technology to reduce costs for restaurants.  Automats were early 20th Century innovations for New Yorkers to busy to wait for their food.  They simply went to the little window with the sandwich or salad they wanted, dropped a few coins in and they were able to immediately have their food.  While not truly automated they way we think of automated today (there were still people behind the windows preparing and stocking the windows), it was the precursor to the modern day fast food restaurant.

Automation in the form of robots have been a part of our culture since the early 20th Century.  Robots of today are able to mimic not only human movement but even human intellect and emotions.  Don't be surprised to see your McDonald's become more automated.  The once might McDonald's Corporation has posted a record 7 straight quarters of loss.  Technology versus wage increases is the most likely path McDonald's is going to choose to correct their negative growth.

Second, while reading about the trials and tribulations of McDonald's and it workers The Daily Beast posted an article entitled "G.I. Jane Grim-Gamer Drone Jockey:  'She Kills People From 7,850 Miles Away'".  It is a day in the life of piece on a drone "sensor" (the one who guides the missile as opposed to the pilot) ironically nick-named "Sparkle".  The article points out both through studies as well as "Sparkle" that increasing costs associated with the USAF drone-focused mission.  The virtual isolation of drone operators from the war and other warriors exposes them to much higher levels of stress and PTSD than first appearances would suggest.

The Air Force has managed to create create a McDonald's type of situation with drones.  You order a strike when you want, the way you want.  No more waiting for units to move into position while pilots spend hours ramping up their skills over the local terrain.  Drone operations don't require huge bases with thousands of support personnel.  Hell the drone operators even get to go home every night.  Or so it seems.

Much like the experience of corrections officers that get to go home every nigh from the prisons, they know the following day they are going right back into the belly of the beast so to do drone operators.  Worse, drone operators get to go home to the families and friends within hours of watching a target being blown apart by a missile they've just launched.  As the article points out, this has necessitated the Air Force to bring on a whole host of counselors to try to help drone operators operate the stress and emotion of conducting a long distance war.

Like McDonald's, the Air Force is also experiencing a type of negative growth.  There is still the demand for more drone missions but the Air Force is finding it hard to field enough operators to meet the demand.  The 18XX career field is a dead-end career by virtue of its own success.  Drones pilots and sensors are in high demand meaning they often can't change assignments as often as other career fields.  On active duty, PCS (permanent change of station) is the only way to get promoted.  The skills needed for the 18XX career field take too long to develop in comparison to the normal assignment cycle. The high demand, low density of the career fields means the drone operators remain at their assignment longer and miss out on new assignments and professional military education (PME) which are pre-requisites for promotion.

Compounded the poor opportunity with promotion with the high-stress of a job many still consider equivalent to a video game and you get the shortfall of personnel that the Air Force is currently facing.  The solution is going to follow a similar route to McDonald's, introduce even more automation.  Since much of the time for drone operations is spent merely observing the target, drones will be quickly introduced that will be able to handle this part of the mission autonomously, requiring a human element only when it comes time for fire.  Sounds great and saves a lot of money except that means the Air Force will need ever fewer people in the future.  The Air Force in is race to introduce more technology is also racing towards irrelevance.  Why do you need a separate branch just to operate autonomous flying machines?

If you read the article, "Sparkle" sounds like she has developed that "thousand yard stare" associated with other combat veterans.  She feels she can't relate to most men, and even other women, because "they don't know how hard the world is beyond our borders."  "Sparkle" is exactly the kind of operator the military wants and develops and her success is the very reason the 18XX career field are destined for obsolesce.  Robots can perform as many missions as "Sparkle" and her colleagues without burn-out.  Robots are 100 percent combat ready off of the production line and don't months or years of time to develop their skills.  Robots also don't require mental health professionals.

The "inevitability thesis" means we've already seen the final days of manned-combat.  Our culture is increasingly comfortable interacting with automated machines.  Robotic engineers are making robots more life-like so that it is easier for humans to interact with them.  While in the near-term this means fewer Americans will have to serve in combat, it means in the long-term we will have even less visibility of the consequences of future wars.  Atrocities will be committed with no one to witness or talk about it.  And I'm not sure there is a damn thing we can do about it.

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