Rumination 61: Automation Visualised

Something that we hear about frequently these days is how we need to prepare for the future of work. With the growing use of automation, artificial intelligence and online services, many different jobs that are currently performed by humans will continue to be taken over by efficient machines.

People will apparently have to focus on developing soft skills and creativity—the very things that make them human and superior to a machine. That is, at least until machines are so advanced that they can replicate or outperform humans in creative endeavours. Really, nothing is safe.

We’re already in the midst of this seismic societal shift and for those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s generally referred to as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0’ (I cringe at the second moniker).

As far as I’m concerned, although many of the technologies that are replacing (and will continue to replace) humans are new, the trend of replacing humans in general is not. There’s a reason that it’s referred to as the fourth revolution: this has all happened before. Humanity survived the earlier march of mechanisation.

Still, while I try to retain some optimism for the future and remember that history does tend to repeat itself, it does feel strange and somewhat unsettling to see tangible examples of this societal shift in person. This isn’t just a future thing; it’s happening now.

One instance of such human replacement presented itself when my wife and I went to see a movie on the weekend. Upon entering the cinema with our tickets in Apple Wallet, already booked online, we expected to go to a counter to have a human scan our barcodes and let us through the foyer. This was not the case; we were confronted by a normal counter, which one would expect to see manned, but instead had automatic scanners and printers ready to receive us in front of where a person would normally be standing.

To be clear, we are accustomed to seeing automatic checkouts at supermarkets; the difference there is that it is a new kind of space in the supermarket, with a series of computers and scanners arranged appropriately with a human stationed nearby to provide assistance. In the case of the cinema ticket counter, machines had been installed into the very place where a human being would traditionally stand. This was not the creation of a new interface or service context; it was the presentation of pure human replacement, an awkward transition into what the company clearly envisages to be the future.

All in all, the movie was most enjoyable and we had a great evening. That being said, there was something strange and lacking about going into a cinema, which is fundamentally a public place, and not having to deal with a person in receiving a ticket. There was no one there to rip a ticket, scan a digital equivalent or simply say, ‘Enjoy the movie’.

Yes, this is one small example of automation out of many possible situations, however it is a noticeable change that can affect how you understand and move through such a space. It alters the experience. Cinemas should be competing with automated alternatives in the home like Netflix by providing a human-service experience, not falling into the trap of dehumanising their service offerings and ultimately losing their point of differentiation.

We should ask ourselves: in the quest for incredible efficiency over ‘slow’ human interaction, what are we losing in the long run?

5. Interference

These days, we’re all drowning in technological devices and social media… but does it have to be this way? In this episode, Martin reflects on his own use of online accounts, covering both the rubbish that he left behind and how he aims for more meaningful consumption and interaction today.


PhD Journal Entry 7: FaceTime Saves the Day

After work today, I had my final video call for the year with my primary supervisor, Kate. (Chris is on leave.) Naturally, we had great fun dealing with various technical difficulties before starting our discussion, as we fought Google Hangouts, Slack and Cisco WebEx, which all failed to create and maintain a proper connection. FaceTime thankfully saved the day.

In the lead-up to this chat, I had been trying to consider the real value of narrative to my project—investigating the media ecology of niche tech podcasting and the stories of fans—so that I can formulate more explicit thesis questions to frame my project. I intend to use narrative enquiry (a qualitative research method) in this project down the track, as I did for my Honours research.

Two passages in Lance Strate’s (2014) article ‘Notes on Narrative as Medium and a Media Ecology Approach to the Study of Storytelling’ were particularly helpful in framing this discussion with my supervisor. Even if you’re not super-plugged into the topics that interest me, what he has to say about storytelling is relevant to every human being on the planet:

‘Storytelling is produced by social interaction, a product of transactions, of relationships between human beings. Narrative represents a relationship between source and receiver… It becomes easy to lose sight of this fact because we tend to focus on texts rather than contexts, to pay attention to the content and ignore the medium, which brings us back to “the medium is the message” as a call to pay attention. For this reason, Postman described the media ecology approach as context analysis (2006)’ (p. 9); and

‘The future of storytelling lies in the continued shift away from narrative as text, and towards the fuller development of narrative as environment. In conjunction with the electronic media and especially the new media, narrative will increasingly involve interaction and collaboration in its creation, and its reception, social narrative as a form, and social storytelling as an activity… These and other mutations are aspects of the continuing evolution of narrative, as it interacts with other media, at each turn releasing bursts of creativity, what McLuhan referred to as hybrid energy (1964)’ (p. 23).

The idea of ‘context over text’ is very relevant to the idea of podcasting, as podcast networks and their shows, hyperlinked show notes and supplementary social channels all contribute to a greater environment and context than a single audio stream of storytelling. Furthermore, to my mind, interaction and collaboration between both producers and listeners are integral to creating the overall narrative. There is no show if either party is missing.

As usual, Kate was exceptionally helpful in her feedback about my reading so far, my understanding of narrative and my preliminary ideas for thesis questions.

Most profoundly, she reminded me to remain personal and reflective in my work, as I tend to get a bit carried away in my reading and research. It is still early days for me and she reminded me that in addition to establishing clear research questions and citing scholarly evidence, I need to remain grounded and aware of why I am doing this in the first place. Before embarking on any extended writing that is teeming with sources, I need to write for myself and elaborate on what I know and love about podcasting… before it’s too late. Too often, apparently, people delve into research, only to become inundated with texts and forget what they loved about the topic years down the track. Right now, I have the opportunity to discuss what interests me before I’m ‘tainted’.

I am grateful to have two great supervisors in Kate and Chris: both bring very different interests to the table, but they both encourage me to question my assumptions and expectations—both about the overall research process and my own capability.

As we approach the summer holidays, it’s reassuring to know that I’m on the right track. Kate has reminded me that I need to enjoy this process and reflect on why chose to undertake it. As long as the reasons are clear in my mind, the next few years should be much easier.