Behind Trump supporters’ shouts to “build the wall,” “lock her up” and “drain the swamp” is something equally sinister — a deep fear of technological change.
Salena Zito, a doyen of the Trump crowd, wrote in the New York Post last week that supermarket cashiers are “another industry Amazon is killing off.” She quoted a woman who “loves her job as a cashier” at a supermarket outside Pittsburgh, and expressed fear for the future of America’s 3.5 million cashiers as automation advances.
Maybe it’s different in Pittsburgh, but most cashiers I’ve met despise the monotony and see the job as a stepping stone to something better. In John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning novel “The Winter of Our Discontent,” the despairing protagonist is a grocery clerk.
In any case, the same article could have been written hundreds of times since the industrial revolution began in England some 260 years ago.
In 1910, the article would have lamented how Detroit, the Silicon Valley of the day, was threatening the livelihood of millions of people who bred and cared for America’s 25 million horses. In 1930, the theme would be how tractors were threatening the family farm.
Two decades later, in 1950, the article would have lamented the passing of AT&T’s 350,000 switchboard operators, those pleasant women who connected your call (and sometimes listened in). In 1970, the article would have focused on General Motors’ first use of industrial robots at an assembly plant in Ohio. And in 1990, it was Silicon Valley taking away millions of secretarial jobs with the presumably insidious personal computer.
However nostalgically we view the past, most Americans would not willingly return to the manure-filled streets of 1910, the isolation of a family farm, the costly, nosy telephone service of 1950, the dangerous, repetitive assembly-line work of 1970, or the boredom and harassment of a secretarial job in 1990.
But technology — like immigrants — is an easy target for right-wing populists. It’s another way to blame others for one’s own failings. It’s easier to blame Amazon, Google or Facebook for a lost job and wallow in despair.
I know because a lot of people in the industry I originally chose — newspapers — feel this way. Just last week Robert Thompson, chief executive of News Corp., the owner of The Wall Street Journal, blamed a “dystopian” and “dysfunctional” online environment for a $66 million quarterly loss.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that News Corp.’s sister company, Fox News, and other conservative media are fanning the fear of technological change. Typical are these four consecutive headlines in the Drudge Report on Monday morning:
Technology has transformed America since the rebellious colonists began picking off British generals with the breakthrough Kentucky long rifle. Each new development, whether it was oil destroying the whaling industry, or jet planes replacing passenger trains, has caused pain and required adaptation. But as a society we’re far healthier and wealthier, and have more — and far more fulfilling — career choices.
And what’s the alternative? Hiring switchboard operators to connect our computers to websites?
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.