Those of you who have been reading DevOps.com for a few years are familiar with the RoelBob cartoons, which have a prominent spot on the home page. RoelBob’s creator, Bob Reselman, is also a technologist and creator of other forms of media. Lately, he’s been writing a series of articles about the impact of automation on society as a whole—not just DevOps.
Bob is a really smart guy and a great interview, as well. Even if you don’t agree with this thoughts on automation, it’s worth giving what he says a listen.
As usual, the streaming audio is immediately below, followed by the transcript of our conversation.
Alan Shimel: Hey, everyone, it’s Alan Shimel, and you’re listening to another DevOps Chat. Got a really great DevOps Chat for y’all today. I’m joined by a good friend of mine, a frequent contributor, one of the team at DevOps.com—none other than Bob Reselman, creator of the RoelBob cartoons, Bright Ideas TV, the creative force and brains behind Shimmy Tunes, as well as a writer in his own right, not only at DevOps.com, but at a lot of the leading tech companies out there today.
Bob Reselman: Oh, thanks for having me, Alan.
Shimel: You know, I hope I didn’t embarrass you at the log-on, but you know, you’re something of a Renaissance man, right?
Reselman: [Laughter] Right.
Shimel: I was reading a little bit of your life history, your life story, Bob.
Reselman: Oh, yeah. Well, I came to tech late. I came to tech in my early 30s, and the reason I got into it is because somebody told me that I could actually compose music on a computer.
Reselman: No, it sounds funny, but if you’re a composer—and I don’t mean—
Shimel: Like in the MIDI days. I hear you, dude. I know people like that.
Reselman: Yeah, back in the MIDI days, and you know, if you had a string quartet or even something larger, like an octet, to actually hear that going on, to hear it was very hard. You had to go out and either hire a quartet to play or just be really good at imagining, or be able to sit at a piano and be able to pay some stuff. And I’m not the world’s best pianist, so this medium, this technology really opened up a world to me.
And then one day I’m sitting around and I’m starting to play with this, and I’m writing it, you know, my string quartet and stuff. I said, “You know, I think I could probably do something with programming.” And so, I did. I actually, I learned to program, and I’m one of those people that came in through the back door. Eventually, I ended up at Gateway, at that time, Gateway 2000, and I—
Shimel: [Cross talk] cows, we remember it.
Reselman: Yeah, the cows, yeah. I moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Sioux City, Iowa, which was a complete cultural transformation for me. But every day, I went into the future, this big, big building where we were making computers. I learned a lot, and we can talk about that, too.
And at Gateway, I was really doing a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have been doing, but I did ‘em, anyway. And I mean that, I just, I sort of had to battle my way into technology. And they were very supportive, and I just learned a lot about some real, hardcore tech, working for that company, and for that, I’m ever grateful.
And so, that was around ’98. Around 2000, I decided to move on, and I had started doing Big 6 consulting, went into Big 6 consulting. I went into New York and I worked in the financial industry for a while, and then I got good at it. Along the way, back around 1995, I published my first book about DB programming, and Wygant has been very good to me. I still get those royalty checks every month. I can’t complain. That’s how I got here—that’s how I got here, you know? And here I am today.
Shimel: So, Bob, over the last couple years—I mean, look, we’ve been doing, so, DevOps.com has been around four years. You’ve probably been doing writing and RoelBob stuff for, what, three years, two and a half years—something like that?
Reselman: I think three. We’ve been together for a while, Alan. It’s been, you know, the “Casablanca” of technology, what can I say? We’re on the runway, walking into the fog, right? [Laughter]
Shimel: [Laughter] Round up the usual suspects.
Reselman: There are no usual suspects. [Laughter]
Shimel: But Bob, you know, certainly with the advent of DevOps and a heavy emphasis on automation, but also, it’s not all DevOps, it’s the world we live in, as you’re fond of saying.
Reselman: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Shimel: You know, automation and the specter of increased automation over the—you know, not only near term, but long term—is really, it’s a scary thing. It’s scary for me as a parent with teenaged boys in terms of what are they gonna do, but it’s scary for a lot of people, people in the workforce today. And it’s something that you have really given a lot of thought to, you’ve written extensively about it, and that’s what I wanna talk to you about today.
Reselman: Mm-hmm. Well, I’m happy you do, because I do think it’s important, and I think it’s going to have a growing impact. A lot of people—within technology, we can sort of ________. We’re in the middle of it, and we’re pretty adept at adapting—I don’t know if that’s a real term, but we pick up stuff pretty quickly, and we’re good at getting new stuff onto our fingers very quickly.
But there’s a whole segment of the culture that has problems with it, to be honest. And, you know, let me be direct. Let me be direct, here. My father, he was a cab driver. He was a cab driver, and when I look at what Uber and Lyft are doing to the cab industry in New York City, it’s pretty amazing. I mean, his first medallion, I think, cost him—I’m making these up, I don’t have the actual data, but I think he paid $250,000.00 for his first medallion. And back then, that was a lot of money. But there were only a set amount of taxicabs on the street, and so, there was a high volume, it was a good investment. Today, because of the ride sharing, share services the value of medallions is dropping dramatically. And that’s just one impact of automation.
Uber and Lyft could not exist without, I wanna say, two fundamental technologies coming on. First of all, credit cards. The other one is GPS, and the third is cell phones. And you mix all three of those together, and anybody can really be a driver. Why? Because you can pick up qualified customers and bill them without having to worry about being paid. GPS will pretty much tell you where to go, and cell phones provide the mapping technology to get there—all of it highly automated.
Now, what’s interesting to me is that I wonder about the actual Uber and Lyft drivers now as that automation extends. For example, I take Lyft. I take Lyft all the time, and I’m more of a ride sharer than I am a car owner. And I’m sitting in the back of a car, and I had to go to an appointment, and I started reading a book. And I noticed that we were going in the wrong direction. We were going in the wrong direction. I said to the driver, I said, “You know, we really are going in the wrong direction,” and her response was, “Well, this is where the map is telling me to go.”
Now, what is relevant here is, how far are we really—what is the purpose of that driver, other than to be an interpreter of map data and to manipulate the technology accordingly? And that’s not that far from robotics, and people—
Shimel: No, it’s not. And actually, I mean, Bob, Uber and Lyft’s end game is to go autonomous, obviously, right?
Shimel: And take the driver out of it altogether. But the interesting thing, I’ve had, specifically around Uber and Lyft, but they’re really poster childs for this, right?
Shimel: When we start thinking about the future of autonomous vehicles, we start thinking about, what really is—what is the disruption in Uber? You mentioned three key technologies, but is Uber really a technology disruption company, or is Uber a company that, what it disrupted was, by taking advantage of all of the excess vehicles and time that drivers have and putting that to good use? And so, was that the true disruption there, or was it the technology that was the disruption, and part and parcel with that technology is the automation?
Reselman: Right. I think the disruption—it’s the aggregation of the technology which is the disruptor. Now, what is being disrupted? I think there’s a fundamental social disruption going on. The rules of existing as an employee or a wage earner or a value creator in society is changing. And Uber’s talent in terms of transportation—because it’s everywhere, you see everybody getting into those Uber cars. But that’s really inconsequential compared to the larger impacts of transportation.
So, for example, container shipping is, Swedes Burkett just released a thorough—and again, people can write me and I’ll give them the exact data, because I don’t have it in front of me—but I believe it’s called the Burkett, and that’s a large container ship that’s completely robotic. So, imagine how much containers get shipped on the open seas that have crews. Now, those crews will go away.
The same as with trucking. Trucking is really low hanging fruit. There are 3,000,000 truck drivers, and Uber is active in the trucking—automated trucking industry. So, they’re looking to automate that, and that’s gonna have a disruption.
I wrote—the last article I wrote for you all was called “Coming Apart in the Age of Automation,” and the unintended impact here is that we really are creating a bifurcated society in which one class has, can master the technology or becomes the merit class, and the other class is just sort of hanging on. And it’s a sad thing to say, but it is true. And, as we look around current events, we can see that more and more.
Now, the good news here is that we’re in a—we are in a good position. And what I mean by that is that, if we go back and we look at the history of technology, particularly around the advent of mass production in consumer technology, which is really the automobile. The automobile really was a game changer, because it was intended to be a consumer product once Henry Ford figured out how to do the assembly part. And because it became a consumer product, it really lifted the whole middle class. It became—if you were coming off a farm in Georgia, you could go to Detroit, and without having to learn a whole lot of new skills, become a wage earner in a factory.
That’s good. Nobody really understood the impact of the internal combustion engine back in 1900 or 1910, that in 100 years, this would have a significant impact. And what I hope we’ve learned along the way is that technology does have an impact, along with sociological and economic. And we can start planning for that accordingly. Sadly, what I’m not hearing is that planning. People hear—the argument is, technology, yes, will always displace people. There are no more people picking up the horse dung on the streets of New York. Those people went to work in factories, et cetera, et cetera. In other words, technology destroys jobs, but it creates more jobs.
But we’re not hearing any sort of ancillary planning of what the downside might look like, and if there is a downside—which there might very well be—how we’re going to address that.
Shimel: Yep. I—you know, Bob, maybe I’m cynical in my old age. [Laughter] I—unfortunately, planning is not our long suit, right? We live in a financial world where we live quarter to quarter, week by week, you know? A bad quarter can cost a CEO their job and lose trillions or billions—not trillions, but billions of dollars of market capitalization.
Shimel: The fact of the matter is, if you believe the media, most people in our age group, Bob, have not put away enough money for retirement.
Reselman: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Shimel: We don’t believe in science or truth, [Laughter] and so we can’t even plan around what to do about climate change. Why should this be any different?
Reselman: Well, I don’t know if I agree with your assessment completely.
Reselman: Because I just got through reading a book by Harari about, it’s an assessment of current conditions and future. And people forget that famine and people dying of starvation even 50 to 60 years ago was a common day event. A lot of people in China starved to death. That really did happen. People in Ireland, in 1840 when the potato famine came along, they starved to death. You didn’t have enough food, and you died. Death due to starvation is still around, but it’s not commonplace—nowhere near the condition that it used to be.
The other thing is, when we look at warfare—yes, there are wars going on and there are mutual wars, but there hasn’t been a war on the scale of World War II since World War II. So, there’s stuff going on that sorta gets hidden behind all the—what would we say—the fascination with the bad stuff.
The other thing to think about in terms of us as technologists is that planning is still part of the industrial fabric. What do I mean by that? It takes five years to design and manufacture a car. I learned this when I worked at Edmonds. Pretty much, if you start looking at model years, the big model changes are in the fifth year. Pretty much, if you came out with a Car A—in year one, you’ll have A, then year two, what used to be options become standard and then more options become standard. And then, by year five, you have enough research in place and enough retooling of factories in place to create a new vehicle and put it on the market itself.
So, industry does have the ability to plan. I mean, just look—I mean, if we look at SpaceX, bringing that rocket back and just being able to send a rocket up, you know, one of those cylinder rockets, right, that you used to imagine from the ‘50s goes up? And we used to just blow ‘em up and leave them in space. Now, we can actually bring them down and allow that piece of pipe with rocket fuel in it to land safely on land. That’s pretty amazing. You can’t plan that in three months. That takes years and years and years of planning.
So, we have the ability to plan. The question is, in terms of our social imperatives, and that becomes a real question. So, why—what’s stopping people from saving? Why are people afraid? Why is fear so high now? And then also, going back to jobs as, we’ll call them no-skill jobs, start being eliminated from the landscape because grunt work is always the easiest to replace; thinking work is harder. Then, what do we do about that?
And there are people out there offering solutions, but they are pretty dramatic, and there’s two, and they’re dramatic, and to even start contemplating that really requires a lot of courage.
The first one is, is that there’s a good case to be made that we are at the end of the consumer based economy. Again, let’s go back to Ford. You know, an automobile for everybody changed everything. And when you look at it, you know, how many cars can Bill Gates drive? Well, if indeed, he had 365 cars in his garage, he could drive a different one every day. The fact is, he probably doesn’t, and he probably takes an Uber. So, really, in the future, you know, we’re all gonna be sharing cars.
So, this notion of ________, and I didn’t do a good job explaining it. In other words, what I’m saying is that, for a lot of people, having devices and technology is what makes the economy run. Everybody needs a cell phone. Having mass distribution of cell phones makes the economy run. Having mass distribution of food makes the economy run. Mass distribution, mass distribution, mass distribution.
Well, at some point now, what’s happening is, we can produce as much as we like. Production is no longer a problem. Two hundred years ago, production was a problem. The factories couldn’t make the stuff fast enough. Now, the factories can. So, now we have infinite production, which means we have infinite consumption, which means we have a problem with too much plastic in the water, and too much carbon monoxide in the air.
Shimel: Bob, I’m gonna butt in here, if you don’t mind.
Shimel: So, I just got back from China last month.
Shimel: There’s a real problem there, right? Because this is—they’re living it, right? And, you know, we look at the world’s steel market and tariffs and all that stuff, a lot of it is being driven by—China has built over capacity in terms of what they can actually use and even sell at a decent margin in terms of steel.
Shimel: But not just steel, they are producing solar panels, cellular phones. They just—in other words, they are the kings of this, “Hey, we’ll produce as much as we possibly can produce because we’re gonna, if we’re not gonna consume it, we’re gonna sell it in the world market, and if we can’t make a profit on it, well, we’re not capitalists, anyway, right?”
But an interesting dichotomy that I saw there was that they still are manually labor intensive in certain things. So, their streets are pretty clean in the cities, and the streets are clean because, on every street, there’s a cadre of people walking around with bamboo poles and palm fronds, kinda thing—literally sweeping the streets. And they sweep it into a pile and then some other person comes by and they have all these uniforms. And it comes by on a machine, like a Zamboni machine excepts it a vacuum, and sucks up what that people sweep.
Shimel: It’s almost like busy work to me, but what was fascinating to me is that, on one end, I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, right, and 300 and something kilometers an hour. And all I could see out the window, Bob, were endless cranes and towers going up, right? Not just a building, but cities and towns being built one after the next, and all built around factories. They’re like old factory towns, they kinda looked like, right?
Reselman: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Shimel: So, they got the infinite capacity to build things, but I really question the infinite capacity to pay for things, to consume these things.
Reselman: Right. Well, you hit it on the head. It’s the notion of payment. That’s sort of like, it’s like an assumption that we might have to start questioning, which leads into the second point that I was gonna bring up. You read my mind, Alan—and do my a favor, when you’re reading my mind, please clean up after yourself.
Shimel: [Laughter] Okay.
Reselman: Right, so the first point is, we have to start examining the role of consumption as a driver of an economy. We just gotta start looking at that. That’s a big question with incredible ramifications.
The second one becomes this notion of paying for stuff in order to get what you want. And to—let me share a real life funny. My wife has decided that she needs—she wants to get rid of a chair we never use. It’s a nice leather chair that we never, ever use, and we paid, I think, $600—whatever it was, it was too much. I’m not a decorator, but she paid it, and now she’s saying, “I wanna sell it for $200.”
And so, she puts the ad out on Craigslist and nobody’s biting, nobody’s biting. Why isn’t anybody biting? Because my suspicion is, it’s a good price for a $600 chair, but they can get ‘em for free. They can get probably an equal chair for free. And, if you look at the cell phone, I mean, we’re giving away cell phones. We’re giving it all away, we really are.
And so, this notion of, what you’re saying is, how are people gonna pay for it? Probably they’re not. Either one of two things are gonna happen. Either the buildings are gonna be left unoccupied and it’s gonna be, there’s a downward recession—or the alternative is to blast credit into the economy to create money and to have that money become a purchasing agent. Is there wealth created? Is there value created? I don’t know about that. I don’t know about that. But are there transactions created? Yes.
So, I’m being long-winded by saying that it might be coming time to start looking at a serious examination of universal basic income. And let’s just sprinkle the fairy dust for a moment, and let’s sprinkle the fairy dust and say that we’ve just—everything is great, everybody’s just calmed down. They understand that automation is great and if we let machines have their way, the machines can do just about everything now. And every week, you know, you get a check in the mail that allows you to go down to the grocery store or, better yet, interact with Amazon Prime, and the drone shows up with your food. And you go to your TV set and there’s your streaming TV. And some people decide they wanna be philosophers ________, so there are brain surgeons, and other people just decide they wanna sit around and play video games all day.
There’s our future, right? Is that so bad? Is that so bad? And people say, “Well, how will we innovate? How will we go forward?” And my question—and I don’t have an answer for this—is, I wonder if somebody who gets into something like brain surgery for the money or curing disease for the money? Maybe the recognition, we don’t know. But the notion of universal basic income, if you take away the moral reservations about—what would they call it? The moral risk, right, becomes buyable.
The sad thing is, is that any—the experiments that are being ________ aren’t real world. And what do I mean by that? They tried in Canada to ________. And I forget the details; I’ll mail it to your listeners if they want it. They’re running UBI on $1,000 a month. The test group got $1,000 a month. Well, gee, I mean, can you really live on $1,000 a month? That’s one thing. Whereas, if you go to another country that has universal basic income, and the poster child is Cyprus. Cyprus gives every citizen 500 Euros a month. The reason it’s relevant here is that a rent of an apartment in Cyprus is only 520 Euros a month. So, 500 Euros a month becomes, between—with two people, 1,000 Euros a month becomes a viable amount and a reasonable standard of living.
That’s where UBI needs to be. We need to be starting to talk about UBI numbers in the area of $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a year per family, and then we have to deal with the ramifications. And the ramifications really aren’t so much economic as they are social. What happens when you move the social structures that work bonds? In other words, what happens when a whole society no longer has to get up in the morning and go to work? What happens then?
And that becomes the danger point, because most people have no idea.
Shimel: Huh. Excellent. I think—yeah. I don’t disagree with you, there.
Reselman: Well, again, I’m not looking for conflict or disagreement. This is a great discussion, but for our listeners out there, the point is—we are in technology. We are the people that write the scripts. There are other people that do the automation. We are the people that are making the robots. We’re doing all this. And we’re in a good position now, because unlike Henry Ford, who really didn’t think it through with regard to what an automobile would do over a period of 100 years, whereas one of the engineers at Sony did in terms of television. A friend of mine’s wife’s father worked at Sony, and he raised a question to one of his engineers back in—I think it was in the ‘80s. And he said, “You know, we’re selling a lot of Trinitrons. What are we gonna do when these all come back?” At least he posed the question.
So, if anything, for the listeners out there that I hope they consider is, what do we do when we’ve become very good at all this? What do we do when we’ve created a framework and a fabric of automation where—and labor almost becomes unnecessary? What do we do, then? And what are the ideas behind that? And that’s where I wish there was more conversation, at the least. And not be on, “There will always be more jobs” or the fantastic stuff, but real, concrete, well researched conversation.
Shimel: Excellent. Bob, I’d love to continue this conversation, but we are so way over our time. [Laughter]
Reselman: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Shimel: That’s okay! We’re gonna need to pick it up on another DevOps Chat.
Shimel: Which is great. I bet next month, we’ll do it again.
Reselman: Sure, sure. Yeah. I’ll do that. I’ll make the coffee. The dog’s been very good here, he’s been very quiet. He understands that he’s being recorded, so.
Shimel: Otherwise we’ll automate him out of a job. [Laughter]
Reselman: Yeah. [Laughter]
Shimel: Anyway, Bob Reselman—RoelBob, author, futurist, commenting on the state of the world today—thanks for being our guest on this DevOps Chat. We’ll continue this conversation on another DevOps Chat soon, but for now, this is Alan Shimel, and you’ve just listened to a DevOps Chat. Have a great day, everyone.