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If it weren’t for the people…

A humanist approach to automation.

load_of_bricksEditor’s note: At some point, we’ve all read the accounts in newspapers or on blogs that “human error” was responsible for a Twitter outage, or worse, a horrible accident. Automation is often hailed as the heroic answer, poised to eliminate the specter of human error. This guest post from Steven Shorrock, who will be delivering a keynote speech at Velocity in Barcelona, exposes human error as dangerous shorthand. The more nuanced way through involves systems thinking, marrying the complex fabric of humans and the machines we work with every day.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel ‘Player Piano’, automation has replaced most human labour. Anything that can be automated, is automated. Ordinary people have been robbed of their work, and with it purpose, meaning and satisfaction, leaving the managers, scientists and engineers to run the show. Dr Paul Proteus is a top manager-engineer at the head of the Ilium Works. But Proteus, aware of the unfairness of the situation for the people on the other side of the river, becomes disillusioned with society and has a moral awakening. In the penultimate chapter, Paul and his best friend Finnerty, a brilliant young engineer turned rogue-rebel, reminisce sardonically: “If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.

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