The college-educated, and the not-college-educated: Two life tracks on a collision course?
When I was an editor at the Akron Beacon Journal not long ago, the sports editor dropped by with something new every few weeks. It could be a watch, a podcast, a phone, an electronic notebook, electronic pen, something that made cool beeps, or perhaps Angry Birds.
We’d joke, marvel and either dump the gizmos after a few months or make them part of our daily lives. As for Angry Birds, I erased them from every device in the house and curse the day I played the first game.
For people with jobs, with spending money and often a college education, innovations are fun and stimulate creative thinking.
For others, though, the anxiety might be like an unmarked railroad crossing I encountered in remote Holmes County. From the driver’s seat, you couldn’t see around the thick bushes and 30 feet down the track. Marked as dangerous, I stopped, rolled windows down, listened then made a mad dash.
In Ohio, there are people who feel that way all the time, wondering whether the next railroad crossing, or the next gizmo, will take them out.
I learned that a few days ago.
The Your Voice Ohio project – a collaborative of about 50 news organizations in Ohio and West Virginia – held a three-day citizen jury in Columbus this month. The people represented the demographics of Ohio as best we could – 23 people from rural areas and cities from corner to corner.
They were asked to tell the news media what comes to mind when they envision a vibrant community. Journalists want to know so that we can begin anew our coverage of issues that are critical to people and, more importantly, examine the solutions they place on the table.
At this three-day session, the citizens heard from a variety of speakers, and the one who generated some of the most edgy conversation was David Staley, an Ohio State University history associate professor who predicts the future. Yes. History – future. He is Interim Director of the Humanities Institute and Director of the Center for the Humanities in Practice.
They zeroed on his thoughts about AI, or artificial intelligence. That’s another term for gizmos, except that these gizmos may have the shape of a tractor-trailer rig that zooms down I-71 from Cleveland to Cincinnati, making lane changes and navigating traffic jams. Staley offered up a picture of a sleek vehicle that filled the room with unease.
“I’m concerned artificial intelligence is happening so fast, and without any regulation,” one participant said, adding, “like, should we have giant driverless trucks before we’ve perfected driverless cars?”
Another asked if there was any documented violence against robots. Staley said nothing came to mind, but he wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 years there is.
Gizmos take people’s jobs, and the jobs they take first will be the ones involving repetition and the least human interaction. For example, if you need money, an automated teller is able to verify your personal identification number, take your picture, check your account then count out the money. Old example: Human tellers are out of work.
Now comes a company in Akron that plans to manufacture apartments in a factory and ship them to the construction site for assembly. What’s to say the manufacturer won’t create a computer program capable of analyzing the desired number of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, spit out a design plan, calculate the plumbing and wiring, and manufacture parts that are glued together by a few people earning $10 an hour?
The jobs that are lost are skilled plumbers, electricians, drywallers, painters, carpenters, all earning about twice that.
The citizen jury showed that the anxiety is real. Ohio has lost 367,000 goods-producing jobs since 2000. Those were the high-school-education jobs that put food on the table, a car in a garage and maybe a boat in the driveway.
Gizmos may be fun for the people who aren’t currently concerned that their job may disappear, but for 80 percent of the Ohio population without a college degree, gizmos are a threat to their human dignity.
There’s much more to share from the citizen jury as Your Voice Ohio embarks on community meetings across the state next week to probe similar questions about vibrancy, but the word “dignity” hung thick through the weekend. On the first morning of citizen jury conversation, the predictable word “jobs” came up, but over the next few hours, that was changed to “jobs with dignity.”
As participants prioritized the ingredients of a vibrant community, in order, their top three were:
• Citizens take pride in themselves, their homes, and their communities.
• Towns able to afford to repair things that need to be fixed (roads, buildings, water sewer, gas, etc.).
• Invest in people
In other words: A vibrant community doesn’t talk about jobs first, but instead thrives on caring relationships that assure everyone is served and treated fairly.
Artificial intelligence can’t do that. For those intrigued by innovation, the message is that someone else’s life may have been affected profoundly for the worse. The citizen jury and public opinion polls show there already is fear and resentment toward those who show no respect.
So, for those who don’t heed this warning, and worse, disrespect those dealing with anxiety: A gizmo in the hand may land you in the bushes – or worse.
Doug Oplinger is retired managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal and now leads the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.