As a culture, we put too much blind trust in data and technology. * Math and logic are beautiful languages. But it is as pretentious to pretend that they have sufficient vocabulary to accurately describe a person, much less whether a person is happy or miserable. Our brains are the most complicated things in the known universe, with hundreds of billions of neurons making connections in an amazingly complex network that is constantly changing. Our technology levels are not remotely close to being able to accurately describe that mess, and they won't be for a very long time. † Figures and statistics are not up to communicating how something feels, although information is often extremely important.
That's why I decided to experience this brave new world myself ̵[ads1]1; so readers can get an idea of how the modern experience of low-wage work feels. I went to work at an Amazon store, a customer center, and a McDonald's – three places that are quite representative of the future of work in America. I spent between one and two months on each, and I worked them for real, with every ounce of my dad-infused work ethic. And with each and every correlated productivity-boosting technology, me and my colleagues constantly enter the weeds like a sheep farmer snapping at the heels of a flock.
When working at an Amazon warehouse outside Louisville, Kentucky, I walked up to 16 miles a day to keep track of the speed at which I was picking orders. A GPS enabled scanner tracks my movements and constantly informs me how many seconds I had left to complete my task.
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Working at a customer service center in the western North -Carolina, I got a lecture on how using the bathroom too often is the same as stealing from the company, and had the minutes I spent in the bathroom traced in a daily report sent to my supervisor.
When working at a McDonald's downtown San Francisco, we were signed to the point of a constant, endless number of customers – all working at the hectic speed of the in-the-luke waitresses in my youth all shift , almost every shift.
I did a lot of research beforehand, and I had heard crazy things about how stressful each job would be – each in its own special way, like Tolstoy's unhappy families. But on each of them, technology made it impossible to escape the weeds. And each time, my thorough research failed to prepare me for how dehumanizing the job felt.
We are at a strange point in the history of the work. Automation of most jobs is only a decade or two away, and human workers increasingly have to compete with computers, algorithms and robots that never get bored, sick or depressed or need a day off.
Still in industries that rely on skills that robots are still not good at – fine motor control, speech and pattern recognition, empathy – the The cheapest option is still low-paid human workers. And so many employers require a workforce that can think, talk, feel and retrieve things as humans – but with just as few needs outside the job as robots. They insist that their workers amputate the messy human bits of themselves – family, hunger, thirst, emotions, the need to rent, illness, fatigue, boredom, depression, traffic – or at least keep them at bay.
I call these cyborg jobs – I need something to use as a brief – and they make up a growing part of the US job market, including most of the subsequent job growth. With the workforce crippled by the last decades of US politics, low-wage workers today have a strong, border-to-compulsory incentive to crush the useless human parts of themselves down to atomic size. And the pressure is starting to reach unmanageable levels.
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How many cyborg jobs are that? It's hard to get good numbers on anything that is vague, but the statistics I find most compelling come from a 2013 article from Oxford University. The authors tried to calculate how many and what kinds of jobs were so highly routinized that it would be very easy to replace their human workers with computers or robots – that is, "professions that mainly consist of tasks that follow well-defined procedures that can easily be accomplished by sophisticated algorithms. "
They concluded that these employed about 47% of the US workforce. So what does "in the weeds" mean to you?
For people with education and influence, "in the weeds" is something academic, about small, unimportant details. There are footnotes. It's something you observe from the outside.
For everyone else, "in the weeds" is something you experience. It's something you feel. It's your life.
It is easy to make fun of the just-minded teenager at his first job. Readers for whom all of this seems obvious to me may seem to me as naive. I was shocked by the machines for painkillers on Amazon, while people who are familiar with inventory work might roll their eyes. It is okay. For you, my book can be useful as a study of how much better people have it on the other side. Because every white collar person I've mentioned the vending machines was equally horrified – and they wouldn't deal with any of this in an instant.
* Nothing wrong with these things, of course! When I started to buy ice cream, I had maximized math teaching at my high school, and I've always found that the neatness of the issues is a bit of a relief compared to the chaos of things like writing and making makeouts and. . . you know, life.
† I'm married to a neuroscientist, and the number of things about the brain where the scientific consensus is still ¯ _ (ツ) _ / ¯ are astounding.  Excerpt from ON THE CLOCK. Copyright © 2019 by Emily Guendelsberger. Used with permission from Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.