Sure, automation is good, but...

Sure, automation is good, but...

I'd like to get to the point where Medium Rare never has a week off. Even when I'm on a little writer's vacation, be able to share the work of guest authors. This week I'm excited to pass the keyboard over to my older brother, Tom, for his thoughts on automation, pet peeves, and what we really think about during those ice breakers at work.

By: Tom O'Brien

The other day at work, we had a meet and greet for the new hires. It was all the typical introduction stuff. We went around the virtual room and told a little bit about ourselves; where we went to school, where we live, hobbies, etc. We each had a list of about 10 topics to hit, but the most interesting one, to me, was “pet peeves."

Fundamentally these ice breakers never work because I spend the whole time thinking about how I’ll answer my questions and ignore everyone else. So, I was thinking about all the things that bother me and my mind went to my car. I’m basically a 4-year-old boy at heart so my mind goes to cars for any question. Example: “What’s your favorite color?” I like red and blue, but we should also factor in type of car. For example, I don’t like the colors yellow or orange, but should I ever own a Lamborghini, I'm picking yellow all day long. So, naturally, a question about pet-peeves went to the features in my new car that I’m still adjusting to.

Top of the list are selectable driving modes. When you hear "driving modes", you might be thinking of when Dom Toretto presses the NAS button, and the car blasts off. Tesla's Ludicrous mode is like that (or supposed to be, I wouldn’t know) but that’s not the case for most cars. Most cars will have a few modes with names like “Sport”, “Comfort”, and “Eco” where “Sport” is the car you bought and every other mode is something less. The modes adjust the shifting dynamics, the throttle response, and softens or tightens the suspension. But it’s not the “feature” itself that irritates me; it’s that every time the car turns on it defaults to “comfort” and I have to change it back to “sport." Why can’t it just stay where I left it? There’s also the engine stop/start feature, the way the mirrors automatically point down when in reverse, and the way the car beeps when I’m backing up also turns down the radio to hear the beeping…

The more I thought about it the more I realized it wasn’t just car features that bothered me; it was having to use three remotes to watch cable, it was automated calls and voice recognition services, it was self-checkout, the list goes on and on. So, I settled on my pet-peeve being automation. This is when I tuned back in to hear what others were saying and realized it was my turn to talk. I said “automation” and we had some discussion about “but what if it’s really good and done right?” Turns out “anti-automation” is not a popular opinion amongst engineers.

Well, I dwell on things, so I’ve been thinking about automation and what “good automation” would be for a few days and decided automation is good when it reduces the time I spend on something I don’t like. So what are some things I don't like doing that I inevitably have to do? I don’t like shopping for groceries, so maybe automate that. Well, on second thought; I’m a picky eater so let me pick everything out, but you can automate the delivery. Well, on third thought; I enjoy the driving part to the grocery store, so just leave grocery shopping alone. How about laundry? I hate doing that. I’m so glad to have a washer and dryer. Imagine if the dryer could fold your closes too, that would be even better!

So maybe not all automation is bad. I started pulling the thread on laundry a little more. On very rare occasions I’ve washed something by hand, it must have been so terrible for my great grandparents to have to wash everything that way. Imagine how great they must have thought it was when they got their first washing machine. But pulling the thread a bit more, back then the average person only had about 5-10 articles of clothing. A person then would probably spend an hour a week washing their clothes. Now I must have 100 articles of clothing, it takes two weeks to fill up my laundry basket. I do a load of wash and a load of dry and it takes 2 hours. Then I have a mountain of clothes to put away. So, after 80 years of laundry automation, I spend the same 4 hours a month doing laundry that my great grandparents did, and I have many times more clothes to fold and put away. But my automated laundry is labor-free, so that is definitely worth it... right?

Well, is it? What do I pay to have labor-free laundry? Well, the cost of convenience is space. My washer and dryer take up about 24 square ft of my kitchen. Because everyone has so many clothes every room has a closet, we have three closets at about 25 ft2 each, so 100 ft2 of my 1000 ft2 condo is devoted to clothes and laundry which is quite a bit more than the trunk or dresser my great grandparents would have had. Where I live the housing cost is about $500/ft2, so that means $50k to support automated laundry.

But it doesn’t stop there, we financed the house so $50k is really $100k over 30 years. The washing machine and dryer weren’t free either, if you figure $5k for the set every 10 years for 60 years there’s another $30k. The clothes weren’t free either; another $30k for 60 years of clothing seems conservative. So now we’re up to $160k. If you make $160k in a year, congratulations, you’re a top 5-percenter. Put another way, $160k could be that yellow Lamborghini, or put more practically it could be 8+ years of maximum pretax 401k retirement savings. All of that money to not do laundry by hand. I don’t think my great grandparents would be as impressed by their washing machine if they knew that.

So maybe there is no good automation. Or maybe the problem is how we fill the time saved by automation. Laundry doesn’t cost a fortune if we all kept to 5-10 articles of clothing. Our washing machines could be the size of microwaves. The laundry room could just be another room.

Which leads me to the two key questions with any new piece of tech:

  1. Do I really need this?
  2. What is this freeing me up to do?

And with that, the ice breaker round was over.

Next week's Medium Rare will return to the local restaurant and local business profiles. I'll be writing about All Grass Farms in Dundee Township, the awesome milk they make there, and a pretty significant detour

I'll be back next week with a new post on Monday morning. Also have a new newsletter going up tomorrow on Long OverdueIf you'd like to subscribe to the blog, just enter your email in the box below. Thanks for stopping by and see you next week!

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