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Reflections on a Kill



We have watched business Darwinism in action, where the strongest have survived (the airlines and the corporate travel manager) and the weaker have gone to the wall (the corporate and airline booking agent). What surprised me in reading the pages of BTN was a lack of innocence. The picture one carries in one’s mind, which of course is naive, is that displacement is an unintended consequence of automation. But in the pages of BTN, we hear travel-industry insiders discuss displacement of the travel agent as very much an intended and foreseen consequence. We see BTN consciously promoting the trend, oblivious to the toll in human suffering. Automation was deployed as a calculated means of “distintermediating” the travel agent. People are here shown pushing a technology that drives a whole occupational group out of the market. This is not a factory closing or even a small town’s main industry moving to Mexico; it is nation-wide displacement. This practice cannot be moral or desirable.

There are no statistics yet that I am aware of that tell us how many travel agents and airline reservationists have lost or will lose their jobs as the result of automating booking, ticketing, and expense reporting. It might be in the interests of the travel agencies to furnish the public with a statistical portrait of who was displaced and what ultimately happened to them. This brief glimpse of the onstage conversation that led to undetermined offstage action leaves us with only the tenor of the talks, their thrust and direction. We will need to hear from corporate insiders as to what the actual policies of the airlines and the corporate travel scene were if we are to know what decisions were made behind closed doors and why.

Whether we are happy or sad about the events depicted here depends on where we sit. Dropping people from the work equation was good for some and bad for others. Ultimately it will prove bad for all. In the beginning of automation’s application to any industry, the only ones who seem to care are the displaced themselves. Even governments act like businesses, practicing automation and downsizing. In F.D.R.’s time, government was the employer of last resort, lifting its citizens out of depression. Now, government matches the callousness of business.

Some influential people who once favored predatory, Darwinist business practices can be seen abandoning their views and coming around to address the ruin they are causing. Here are two examples. Morgan Stanley chief economist Stephen S. Roach has recently changed his mind on the subject of downsizing. Where he once thought that it held promise, he now thinks it may have hurt companies and the economy. He speaks of downsizing as “hollowing out” the modern company. Says Roach:

Plant closings, layoffs and other forms of downsizing have certainly had the effect of providing short-term boost to earnings. However, wthere [they] will also drive lasting productivity enhancement is highly debatable. ... Labor can’t be squeezed forever, and Corporate American can’t rely on the ‘hollowing’ tactics of downsizing to maintain market share in an expanding global economy. ... I’m now having second thoughts as to whether we have reached the promised land. (1)

Indeed, downsizing is being increasingly criticized for stripping a company of marketable high-performers, who take a generous settlement and confidently move on. It also sheds the newest blood, depriving the company of their energy and enthusiasm. It has been known to remove a company’s corporate memory. In its wake it leaves shell-shock, angst, and bitterness. Since automation is one cause of downsizing, what Roach says about downsizing could equally be said about automation. If Roach’s expression of discontent causes others around him to question downsizing, then the democratic process of dissent and change will have been helped.

Another voice who questions downsizing is Alan Downs, a psychologist and former personnel director, who used to preside over “corporate executions.” “All told,” says Downs, “I personally fired hundreds of employees and planned for batch firings of thousands more.” He now says: “Management uses layoffs to lower wages and make a quick profit.” He reveals even shadier reasons for downsizing, giving us valuable insider information.

Downsizing is not just a matter of shortsightedness, but of self-interest. Wall Street believes downsizing equals lower wages and bigger profits, and rewards CEOs who announce big layoffs by driving up their company’s stock process. Since CEOs typically receive big chunks of stock, their net worth spirals up, just as their unlucky workers are wondering how they’re going to make the mortgage payment. (2)

He confesses to being filled with regret looking back on the downsizing movement he was involved in. This gradual movement away from social ills like inappropriate automation and downsizing reminds us how democracy works. If these two downsizing advocates could turn away from the practice and come to their senses, then so can people now engaged in harmful automation.

Automation will continue enriching some and impoverishing others until we as a public decide to stop it. How do we stop it? We have never been a fascist society whose opponents are taken out and shot. Our processes of disagreement have been, by global scales, domestically peaceful. Democratic dissent gradually escalates. It does not vilify its opponents, but warns them before acting and welcomes all from their ranks who have come to their senses. I invite us to begin a gradually-escalating campaign against business Darwinism (a specious, erroneous philosophy), and against inappropriate and harmful automation. I invite historians, economists, sociologists, and journalists to speak out. The other issues that confront us as an economy must be addressed as well and the list is long. But I invite us to begin the cooperative work that will set out these important issues and lead to their solution.

As a democratic society, we express our dissent through the ballot box, consumer/legal action, and public forums. As voters, I encourage us to bring the issue of automation to the attention of the parties we support and not to vote for candidates insensitive to it. As consumers, I encourage us to explore peaceful, legal ways of bringing home to leading companies our disapproval of their business practices. These could include boycotting the products or services of those who practice harmful automation -- in this case, the airlines, whose commission caps, online booking fees, and other practices are at heart predatory. Airlines have hidden behind deregulation as if it were a blanket that covers harmful practices. But the deregulated economy has led to a two-tiered society, to widespread and growing unemployment, and to callousness towards the technologically-displaced worker. It is time for the pendulum to swing back. As a public, I urge us to discuss these issues wherever there is a forum and create a consensus on them. I invite us to use polls creatively to see whether our efforts are successful and to apply pressure to politicians to act. Even opinion polls opposing inappropriate automation would be enough to turn our political leaders around. I urge us to ask our then-awakened legislators to pass measures that outlaw harmful automation, just as it passed laws that ended toxic polluting and insider trading.

The careless and inappropriate application of technology is a phase our society is living through. When the public are well-enough informed and roused by the harmful side effects of automation, they will demand that the situation be corrected. When that happens, the end of inappropriate and harmful automation will occur. I am certain of it.

People are awakening to the harmful side of the genie we have let out of the bottle. It is just a question of time before they join together to put a stop to it. It is my hope that, in looking in the mirror at ourselves as we did here, we will reflect on the course we as a society are taking, turn the wagons around and go another way.


(1) From Preamble Collaborative Website (
(2) Alan Downs, “The Wages of Downsizing,” Mother Jones Magazine Website ( Cf. Alan Downs, Corporate Executions. New York, etc.: AMACOM, 1995. For the best single treatment of the agenda of technological restructuring and the global automation of work, seen from a Canadian perspective but still the best treatment around, see Heather Menzies, Whose Brave New World? The Information Highway and the New Economy. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996.