Hurricane Harvey Rocks the “End of Work” Concept
In recent months, futurists have predicted a brave new world of automation and the end of work as we know it. As automation and artificial intelligence advances, human workers are being replaced with robots and algorithms. Earlier this month, Singularity Hub published an essay predicting that leadership is gearing up “to manage an incremental, predictable, status quo, linear world”. Something catastrophic happened on the way to our manageable, linear world.
This week, the fourth largest city in the country (my hometown of Houston) was pounded by a year’s worth of rain. Just a week ago, forecasters were talking about Tropical Storm Harvey. The storm upgraded to a Category Four Hurricane. Far worse, the storm system stalled over the Greater Houston area for days, causing epic flooding.
Managing Disaster. Most of the city’s population stayed in Houston. Local government officials didn’t urge evacuations last week in advance of the storm. I am not here to blame any government official for this catastrophe. They have imperfect knowledge about the future. As we are seeing now, the city and state have limited resources for managing natural disasters and mass populations in distress.
Improvisation. In the face of a historic storm when all public resources had been deployed, Texans improvised and saved themselves. When state and local rescue boats were not enough, outdoorsmen brought their fishing boats. These were not only local fishermen. The Cajun Navy came to town just after Harvey’s landfall. I spoke with boat owners from central Texas and as far away as Kansas who wanted to know where to go and how to coordinate rescue efforts. When private rescue crews overwhelmed central command phone lines, local officials told boat owners to coordinate the rescues for themselves.
As neighborhoods became islands, impromptu community shelters were created and neighborhoods formed spontaneous “governments”. Residents created human chains in chest deep waters to rescue drivers trapped in rising floods and to deliver a pregnant woman to a rescue boat.
Houston saved lives with muscle, heart and human intelligence. Heroes disregarded their personal safety to save strangers, pets, horses and other animals. There was no time to code a (buoyant, water proof) robot to rescue loved ones. (Delivery drones bringing prescriptions and provisions would been sweet, but drones with significant pay loads are not common yet).
Society cannot survive disasters and other hardships if we solely rely on government for instructions and robots to save us. The rescue efforts exemplify the best of the human spirit, heroism, compassion, human intelligence, adaptability and Texas grit. But, the rescue efforts also draw upon the experiences and skills of work and the know-how that only comes from experiencing the outdoors and physical labor.
If we raise a generation that spends all its time indoors, at leisure consuming virtual reality, social media and other idle entertainment, that generation will not have the skills to save themselves or us in our old age when we are old, infirm and in need of aid.
The Future City. Houston is about to go through a multi-year rebuilding process. It is likely to come out as a more modern, smart city. But as we take advantage of technological advances, we should be careful to keep our cities human. We should not strive for a city of leisure free of manual labor. It is the toughness, adaptability and resilience gained from work that saved Houston.
Photo Credit: LeszeGlasner – 123rf.com
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