Better, From Several Perspectives
When a business owner replaces employees with automation — machines, robots, computers — the effects radiate in two opposite directions. On one hand, the employees (and their families), have less, since they no longer draw a paycheck. On the other, the owners (and their shareholders) have more, because lower payroll means higher profits.
A dear friend, someone I’ve known his whole life, is a business owner, a wildly successful one. Recently this friend told me that he and his partner were in the process of replacing human workers at one of their plants with machines. “We don’t like people,” my friend explained. “They show up late, they get sick, they make mistakes.” But he didn’t want me to misunderstand. He wasn’t oblivious to the impact of firing dozens of working people. “It’s unfortunate,” he told me, “but we’re always trying to get better. Even when we’re making money we’re trying to do better.”
He wasn’t attempting irony. He was serious.
When I heard the word used in this context, my heart broke. My dear friend, brainwashed and bamboozled by late-stage capitalism, genuinely believed that so long as profits increase everything really is better, not somehow demonstrably worse. Viewed through the standard lens, the me-first one we’re all trained to accept, the ramifications of profitable decisions aren’t very important. Sure, so long as you win, someone’s got to lose. But the better part is that you won.
I told this story to another friend of mine, call him D. He wondered out loud if my friend the business owner was helping manifest the future in the present. “Many business will be switching to automation in the next decade,” D remarked. “When that happens, people won’t have their jobs. They’ll have all sorts of time to dedicate to something other than survival. They’ll have an opportunity to fulfill their unlimited human potential. So maybe your friend the business owner is, in fact, making things ‘better’ for his employees by confronting them with this awesome opportunity.”
Maybe. But it would be a hard sell to the employees who no longer had the means to buy groceries, let alone attend meditation seminars and self-improvement retreats. It sounded to me like a hifalutin way of saying, “The suffering and misery getting fired causes will actually be good for you in the long run.”
D proposed a short thought experiment. “I’m going to ask you a question. You tell me your answer.”
The question: “Is ‘the five Esses’ an acronym?”
My answer: “It depends. If the five Esses each correspond to a shortened word, it’s an acronym. If it’s the sound a snake makes, it’s not.”
“What if I told you each Ess stood for a particular word?”
“Then I would say, yes, ‘the five Esses” would be an acronym. So would TFE — the five Esses.”
D nodded. “Is that your final answer?”
D nodded again. “So ‘the five Esses’ is an acronym.”
“Given the way you described it, yes,” I said firmly and with great certainty.
He smiled. “I asked the question, because there’s really no single correct answer. It’s more about how you handle the question, how you look at it.”
“There’s no correct answer?”
D said, “Something like ‘the five Esses,’ which actually applies to taking care of a baby, is just like NRA or FBI. They’re examples of initialism, shortening the word to it’s first initial. An acronym, by definition, is initialism that ends up forming a new word, like RADAR or LASER. But since we have so much initialism in our lives, the meaning of the word acronym is slowly changing, so much that even a man of letters such as you thinks it means one thing when, originally, it meant something else.”
I laughed. “I ate at an Ayurvedic cafe once, and at the end of the meal each diner could reach into a magic bowl and take home a little piece of ‘wisdom paper,’ like a fortune cookie. Let me show you what I got.”
I took D inside my office and handed him the paper:
Each of us has the most amazing, magical facility to change our experience, instantly, simply by altering our perspective.
D nodded. “Right.”
And for a moment I felt a little bit better about all those people losing their jobs so my friend could be even richer.