Vintage Tin Robot


My Automated Life

Automation, or the use of computers, robots, and machines, is efficient and presumably saves us time and mental energy. But automation still requires human involvement. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses some of the ways she experiences automation and how human involvement is still needed to make automation work, which begs the question as to whether automation really does replace human workers. 

I missed a mortgage payment. I found out 21 days after the payment should have posted. This should not have happened. I have my mortgage payment process completely automated — or so I thought. I have a dedicated checking account that I use only to make my mortgage payment. I have a portion of my paycheck set-up to directly deposit money during each pay period into that account. Once set up, I should not have to do anything to make it work.

Unbeknownst to me, however, my bank resets automated payments every 12 months. I learned this when I received a letter in the mail notifying me of my missed payment.  As soon as I opened the letter, I logged into my bank account and made the payment. I then called the bank to ask them to waive the late fee (which they did). I fixed the automatic payments so that they would begin occurring again. Then, I set up a reminder in Google Calendar one month prior to the automated payment expiration so that I can reset the automated payments before they are stopped in 2017.

If you were counting along at home, it took me four steps to fix the problem that saved me from logging into my account 12 times a year to make my monthly payment. So much for saving time by automating my mortgage payments. Further, several steps were involved to set-up this automation in the first place. First, I had to calculate my 12-monthly mortgage payments over 10 months of paychecks (I get paid August-May, like many faculty). Then, I had to go into my payroll system, which is online, and set up my direct deposit with the amount that I wanted directed into that bank account.

A couple of years ago, my family was driving in the mountains outside of Portland, Oregon. We had GPS and our cell phones for directions. At one point, however, the road our GPS instructed us to turn on was clearly a logging road. And our cell phones were now out of range, too. We opted to turn around and go back the way we came where we knew where we were at and when we last knew we had cell phone coverage. Using a GPS simply requires you to input your destination. Your directions, then, can be read out loud to you. You do not need to be able to read a map or even have paper map in your car (we now keep a US-Mexico-Canada Rand McNally Road Atlas in our car). In this case, if we trusted the automation system, we could have gotten seriously lost. Using this system also required us to pay attention to our route in case our GPS failed us (which it did).

When I first moved to online teaching, I set up online multiple choice quizzes. The computer program grades the quizzes and inputs the grade in the grade book. If I fail to keep tabs on the grade book, however, I miss students who are doing poorly on the quizzes or not taking them at all. I might not discover a student is missing several quizzes (and even assignments) or doing poorly in this environment unless I make it a point to review each student’s progress on a regular basis. You see, in a face-to-face course, you see who is attending and who is not and therefore notice who is missing work. In this case, automation reduces the time needed for grading, but increases the time needed to review students’ overall progress.

When I relocated two years ago, I moved to a larger house and went from hardwood floors to what can only be described as acres of carpet. I hate vacuuming. And there is just so much of it. (I know, what a serious “problem” to have, right?) Within four months, I bought a Roomba. I love Roomba. One floor of our home gets vacuumed three times a week thanks to Roomba. However, Roomba can’t climb stairs. And Roomba gets stuck sometimes. So Roomba only solves my vacuuming problems on one level of our home and only the times in which it does not get partially stuck under our couch or on a rug. I most likely will purchase another Roomba in the future, however, because it is still more affordable than hiring someone to come clean my house with any regularity. We can deal with the rest of the cleaning if someone (or in our case, something) will do the vacuuming. In this case, automation, has replaced the need for a house cleaner, but still requires some human intervention to run properly.

Have you ever signed up for a subscription from a company, such as Amazon? I have. They convinced me with that additional 5 percent discount and the thought of not having to actively remember to purchase a particular item before running out. It worked fine until I ended up with way too much peanut butter. First, I delayed my delivery. But that only worked for a little while and required me to log into my account to adjust my subscription. I finally had to cancel my subscription altogether and risk running out of peanut butter.

Automation has not replaced this work, but has shifted what I need to do and when I need to do it. Sociologists are interested in studying automation because of the implications it has for work and for its impact on human interaction (among other reasons).

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe automation in your personal, work, or college life.
  2. Pick one sociological perspective (conflict, functionalist, or symbolic interactionism). What would a theorist using this perspective say about automation?
  3. Think about your future career. What are the ways in which your future career could be automated?
  4. Observe automation. Go to the grocery store and observe the self-checkouts. Or order food online from a restaurant that you have previously ordered online from. Only this time, reorder whatever your saved order is. Perhaps, browse through your recommendations from your Amazon prime account. What works and what does not work in the scenario you explored? What human intervention is necessary in order to make it work?

Additional Reading: