TECHNOLOGY - Is it progress?
How implementations are impacting the Lehigh Valley
While self-driving vehicles, cashier-less grocery stores and unmanned delivery systems were once a concept deeply rooted in the future, today these technologies along with many others are not far off. The question now becomes not whether or not they are possible, but what impact they will have on society once broadly accepted and widely instituted.
According to Lehigh Valley economist Kamran Afshar, Ph.D., the only remaining holdups to much of the newly-developed technology’s implementation are permits, with the actual technology already having been invented. Once accepted into the Lehigh Valley, he predicts the transportation and warehousing industries will be most heavily impacted.
“One of the areas of fastest growing sub-sectors in the Lehigh Valley is transportation and warehousing,” Afshar said. “That’s the area which I believe will be hit hardest simply because the technology in terms of automated cars and self-driving trucks and fully-automated warehousing, the technology is already here.”
Although the implementation of these technologies arguably create more efficient processes for companies and their warehouses, the addition of technology often leads to employee layoffs. Afshar says system managers will likely remain the only personnel left, with forklift drivers, line men and floor men no longer necessary. According to Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), however, the mechanization of the workplace has already begun taking its toll.
“It’s already impacted us in the warehousing sector. We’re paving over the best farmland in America, putting up these massive warehousing distribution centers and they’re heavily automated with only a handful of workers,” said Jennings. “The fact that Amazon is even here is like the Darth Vader of the working class.”
To predict what the future might look like with the layoffs caused by the mechanization of workplaces, Afshar looks to the past, comparing this potentially-looming situation to that of the Bethlehem Steel’s first round of layoffs in the 1980s.
“It impacted the Lehigh Valley significantly, [but] it didn’t kill it, we survived and prospered afterwards, but it took us about 10 years,” he said. “The Lehigh Valley continued, but the prosperity that we see currently, if we are unprepared the way the Valley was when Bethlehem Steel had its problems, it has those types of devastating effects and my intention is to bring this to the forefront so people can see this, these potentials, and be prepared for it so we don’t go through that sort of a cycle again.”
With the possibility of an employment situation likened to what Afshar called the Bethlehem Steel’s “first heart attack” threatening warehouse and transportation jobs, many have to ask if big companies are considering what these decisions will do to their current employees. While Afshar argues that they must have considered the toll it will take on the lives of many, Jennings is not convinced.
“As the mechanization of the workforce continues, that will push down a number of people employed, it will reduce pressure on wages because it will cause a surplus of workers, and it’ll make it harder for people to get there,” Jennings said. “A lot of companies claim to be oriented not just to the bottom line but to the communities, what’s best for the community, but I think when the dollar gets counted, they’d rather count more dollars than fewer dollars, and I don’t think that they think about it enough to offset the damage that’s being done so often, and that’s in many forms. Polluting the environment, treating their workers right, taking care of the healthcare needs of their employees, all the different things that are part of the equation.”
Jennings additionally cited other current social issues that are interrelated with this technology, including the placement of the warehouses in relation to where the majority of the population lives, causing a strain on workers who might rely on public transportation, and wages in relation to the prevalent affordable housing issue leading to an increase in homelessness.
So, is this progress?
“It is progress, it’s not subject to my personal assessment. It is progress that it’s happening in technology. In terms of impact on society, that’s a totally different thing,” Afshar said.
“No, I think the unwillingness of people to understand the implications of their constant search for profit is necessarily going to come at the expense of regular people, and regular people are the key to our economy. If people can’t afford to buy toasters or iPhones, then people who make toasters and iPhones aren’t going to have anybody to sell them to,” Jennings said. “If this is indeed going to be a consumer economy, which has really driven the American economy, and people can’t afford to buy stuff, then the economy isn’t going to survive. If we don’t have a democratized workforce, one that recognizes that we’re all in this together, we’ll fall together, we won’t necessarily rise together.”
Exactly when and how these technological implementations will impact the Lehigh Valley are still uncertain, but as Afshar previously said, the technology is already here and now it is just a matter of time before its use becomes widespread.