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Was the Elimination of the Switchboard Operator in 1974 the Beginning of the End?

September 7, 2016

I just read a Counterpunch article by Robert Gould titled “Luddites vs. Self-Driving Cars and Homelessness” and had a flashback to a budget debate in 1974. The article describes the link between driverless vehicles and the resulting unemployment of thousands of drivers and concludes with this paragraph:

I love to see a human driver at the wheel of a truck or car, busy providing a useful service—it means that there is a person present that I can reason with, if needed. And I love to hear an articulate human being answer my phone call, so I can easily communicate my business needs. I want my world to retain the feel of a human world, not an impersonal machine world. I prefer the experience of human intelligence; artificial intelligence, as useful as it can be, has the taste of saccharine.

The budget debate in Springfield Township (PA) schools 1974 was whether to replace the district wide operator who worked in the central office with a newfangled voice-automated answering system that would offer callers with a menu that would direct their calls to schools or to the offices of various administrators. It would replace the pleasant voice of the receptionist with a vanilla voice of a machine, a machine that would not require coverage when she was on sick leave or vacation, would not require a contribution to social security or the pension system or for health care, and would not waste time gossiping with other administrative assistants or vendors who came to call. The beauty of this savings was that no one would lose a job since the district-wide operator was planning to retire. This scenario was played out in public schools all across the country in the next decade and invariably the newfangled technology won out. And it led to more efficiency and millions of dollars in savings in personnel costs— and not just for schools! Medical offices, stores, businesses of all sorts, even churches went to automated voice mail services. And the phone company was able to eliminate all the technical support jobs the were associated with PBX systems, including the job my father-in-law held. We’ve saved millions if not billions of dollars… but we’ve paid a price: we’ve “lost the feel of a human world”, the sweetness that only a human voice can bring, and replaced it with the “taste of saccharine”.

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