Subscribe to the podcast on Substack!
"Welcome to the Tech Revolution Podcast, Episode One: I'm your host, Sarah Mancinho, and I discuss the ways in which technology is revolutionizing the way we live, work, and interact with each other.
In this episode, I’m discussing the ascent of Toxic Positivity in tech specifically around the Artificial Intelligence and Automation conversation, and what I view as more people being part of the problem, and not the solution.
So for those who don’t know, Toxic Positivity refers to the belief that one should maintain a positive mindset, no matter what, and avoid anything that may be perceived as negative or unpleasant. It is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset, always.
Now, while some positivity and optimism can be helpful in many situations, toxic positivity takes it to an extreme, leading the people who adopt this mindset to suppress negative emotions and avoid addressing real problems.
This can be harmful because not only does their toxicity invalidate the feelings and experiences of others…It can also make others feel guilty or ashamed for expressing their negative emotions. Also…when a person adopts the toxic positivity mindset it can keep them from seeking support or finding solutions to problems.
In short, toxic positivity is a belief that people should always be (or pretend to be) happy and/or positive always. And this is exactly what is happening in the conversation about AI and Automation.
I’m all for positive thinking. I’m all for optimism. I’m a happy person. My stress level is fairly low, and my mental health is good. I’m pretty laid back.
But I am also a realist.
I'm tired of people calling me a pessimist and/or fatalist when it comes to technology.
I am a realist and optimist; And I am more realist than optimist. I can identify the good and bad in things like artificial intelligence and automation. I acknowledge them and appreciate them from all angles.
Pessimist: is a person who tends to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen. I don’t believe the worst. The worst is where AI creates nuclear war and the end of the world. That’s not me.
Fatalist: is a person who believes that all events are inevitable, so one's choices and actions make no difference. Again, not me. I believe all our choices and actions make a difference.
Realist: is a person who accepts a situation as it is and is prepared to deal with it accordingly. This is me. I accept there will be millions displaced by AI and Automation, and believe there are ways to deal with it.
Optimist: is a person who tends to be hopeful and confident about the future or the success of something. Also me, but I am hopeful and confident that we will be able to address the issues around AI and Artificial Intelligence. Not that everything will just be okay if we do nothing and there will be no threat.
And then there is toxic positivity.
I don’t fear technology. I don’t fear AI. I use both everyday. I work in tech. I agree with all of the people who say it will enable productivity. I agree that it will probably one day help us solve some of the biggest problems in the world. I see its potential. I also see the downside.At this point, the cons outweigh the pros. It is what it is. So let’s stop dilly dallying and address it.
I love technology. I grew up during the 1980's and early 90’s. I’ve watched the internet blossom, and social media evolve from birth. I’ve been on the internet since Mosaic and Netscape Navigator. I was in BBS and IRC rooms. I was on AOL and chatting with people all over the world on AIM. I was an early adopter of Friendster, and Classmates, 4Chan. I was even on Facebook back in the day when it was a private network open to only college students. I used to do advertising on MySpace before social media advertising was even a thing. Napster and LimeWire. I was a part of all of it.
I’ve been an early adopter and user of almost all new technology and social media that has been invented.
I am very excited to see what else AI can do, especially in fields like healthcare. The fact that AI can detect diseases as accurately, and sometimes more accurately, than doctors can is exactly the tech we need. I support it 100%.
Despite that, I’ve had a number of people tell me my perspective on AI and Automation is negative. That I’m a debbie downer and a doomsayer.
Well, I’m not.
AI is unique. Ignoring the downside when it comes to AI and Automation is dangerous. And I don’t mean dangerous in a SkyNet end of the world nuclear type of dangerous. Those are the pessimists and fatalists. I mean dangerous in a different way.
So let’s get into this.
In recent months, thanks in part to ChatGPT, there has been an uptick in discussions about AI. Some might say we are currently witnessing an AI hype cycle. But AI is not new, and neither is the conversation about it.
I’ve been talking about AI and Automation and publishing articles and voicing my perspective on the subject for a few years now.
I like AI and Automation. It helps me every day. I’m glad it exists. It is helping me right now with this podcast episode. However, as we’ve been seeing wider adoption of it across all industries, we have also been seeing the other side of it, and once again, when technology gets ahead of policy.
I want to talk about something that has been on my mind lately, which are three main talking points people love to bring up when talking about the role of AI/automations part in the displacement or replacement of workers.
The claims are:
There will be new jobs for people that are displaced.
People who are displaced will upskill and train for the new jobs “of the future”.
AI will help us be more productive and thereby increase well-being.
One of the most popular and well documented impacts that AI and Automation has already had on society is the displacement of workers.
A popular viewpoint when it comes to AI and Automation is that there’s no need to fear, because it’s just dumb chatbots at the moment that can’t do much of anything.
Well, that’s just factually incorrect and totally ignores the fact that dumb chatbots have in fact displaced the jobs of humans. For instance those who used to provide first-line customer service interaction.
Not to mention manufacturing and warehousing where AI, automation, and robots do most of the work.
I am not sure why people fail to acknowledge that fact.
Chatbots have replaced customer service rep jobs. On the phone and online, it’s damn near impossible to get a real live human on the line. It’s all recording, voice recognition, and automated replies. Real jobs were lost to those dumb chatbots.
The pandemic fueled the race for companies to figure out how to do business without humans doing the work. In the first week of the pandemic shut down, I published an article saying that covid would be a catalyst for wide-spread automation adoption in US companies. At the time, I didn’t know how right I was. Turns out, at the peak of the pandemic, nearly 40 million jobs were lost, and like I predicted, economists now estimate that roughly 40% of those jobs are gone forever.
Writers are being replaced by technology like ChatGPT as we most recently saw just a few months ago in January when Buzzfeed fired 180 staff journalists. They will keep just a few people on staff and have ChatGPT write everything else.
But It’s just a dumb algorithm with a limited dataset, right?
Been on a toll road lately? Gone are the rows of humans in booths taking your money, it’s now artificial intelligence, cameras, and computer systems scanning your license plate and sending you a bill in the mail afterwards. Sure some humans may still work as toll operators, but not as many as there used to be, eventually they will all be displaced. Why? Because it’s more profitable. The technology didn’t make those people more productive or take over the mundane tasks for them. It took their job over completely.
Those are just a few examples of thousands. Companies and government organizations have always tried to find ways to save money, and the first thing to go is usually the employees. We saw it in the industrial era with machines replacing human factory workers, and we are seeing it now at a more rapid pace in this digital era with AI and Automation.
One person can now perform the job of a handful of others due to automation. It’s a fact.
So, the first one I want to discuss, and the biggest argument I hear all the time whenever this subject comes up, is that “There will be new jobs”.
I can’t stand this argument. It’s naive and just out of touch with reality. There is no evidence to support this viewpoint. In fact all the evidence points to the opposite.
In general, yes, there will always be new jobs created over time. We no longer have telegraph operators, or lamp lighters, or a milkman delivering bottles of milk to our doorsteps like they did in the 1950’s. Sure, in general, there will be new jobs in the future. That’s obvious.
But, those 1950’s type jobs I just mentioned disappeared in phases and only affected single jobs or single industries at a time.
What we are talking about now with AI and automation, is wide-spread job loss across almost every single industry out there and almost simultaneously.
There’s a big difference between losing milkmen in the 1950s and 60s, and losing millions of workers across various industries at the same time over the next decade..
Let’s take the milkmen for instance. They were not displaced because of a single invention like AI. They disappeared slowly over time for various reasons. As people in the 1950s and 60s built houses further out into the suburbs, it required the milkmen to drive farther away to get to them which, because of fuel costs involved with driving, cut into their profits. Then the refrigerator was invented and so people could store milk for longer than a day, thus eliminating the need for daily deliveries of milk to their home. Then came the invention of the big grocery store as we know them today where people could just buy milk themselves whenever they wanted to. And in order to meet the demand, companies started using large tractor trailer type trucks to deliver the milk. One truckload could deliver more milk in one shipment than a local milkman could in a year. And then, finally, came safer packaging which people chose to bring into their homes instead of glass bottles that could easily break.
So over a span of many years, there were different factors that influenced the milkman's job and thus, it no longer became profitable nor feasible to make a living off of being one.
This argument that there will be new jobs for people to transition into is avoiding the real problem.
I just feel like some people don’t get it.
Those people at Buzzfeed who lost their jobs a few months ago. No new jobs were not created for them to transition to. They are competing for jobs that already exist. It didn’t make them more productive, it took their jobs completely.
After the stock market crash of 1920, estimates say around 15 million Americans were unemployed. This number continued to rise throughout the 1930s, and it wasn’t until the United States entered World War II that the country experienced a significant decrease in unemployment. There were no jobs created for all those people. They suffered for years. They competed for whatever jobs already existed.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, again, roughly 15 million people were out of a job, and the recovery was slow and uneven across industries and regions. There were no jobs created for them to transition to. They suffered. They competed for whatever jobs already existed and were available at the time.
Two more examples are:
In Detroit at one point there were half a million jobs in the area. That was whittled down to just over 100,000. There were no jobs created for those people. They suffered. They competed for whatever jobs were available at the time.
After Hurricane Katrina, where roughly 250,000 people were left unemployed. It took several years to recover. There were no jobs created for those people. They had to not only compete for the jobs that already existed, but many had to relocate altogether.
You see a trend here? After every significant period of major job loss, new jobs were not created for people. Aside from some government infrastructure jobs created to make the numbers appear better than they were, and to prevent upheaval, but they did not create enough that would make a real difference.
And in each of those instances, the government had to step in to provide social and economic assistance and infrastructure jobs to aid in the recovery.
The AI and Automation displacement currently underway is larger than any of those I just referenced. But it seems like no one wants to hear it. We have the data. We know what happens during mass displacement and periods of high unemployment. Instead of reacting and taking years to address it, we can look at history and be more proactive.
We cannot prevent what is going to happen, but we can prepare and get organized ahead of time to ease the pain a bit.
Those past events were sudden and mostly unexpected at the time. But with AI and Automation, we can see it happening in real-time. We know about it.
And what are we doing? Most people are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
We may come out better on the other side of all this, and I hope we do, but in the meantime, before that, it’s going to be a struggle.
People like me are saying, hey maybe let’s not keep repeating the past and being so slow to respond to rapid societal change. Let’s maybe instead get ahead of it for once.
For the sake of argument, let’s use the toxic positive mindset for a second, and say that plenty of new jobs of the future are created as all this unfolds in the coming decade.
The jobs of the future won’t be ones that the people being displaced will qualify for, or are equipped to do.
Which brings me to the next toxic viewpoint on all this which is, “they will just have to reskill and get with the times. Evolve or get left behind”.
Yes, more than one person I’ve interacted with on this subject has suggested leaving hundreds of thousands of people behind, without jobs and without the skills to succeed in getting new jobs.
These people believe it will become the survival of the fittest in the near future.
And this is coming from a lot of people in tech that say “Oh well, it won’t affect me. Evolve or die.”
I just don’t think that’s funny, or something to be dismissive about.
They don’t understand how privileged they are that they already work in tech and possess skills for the future. They don’t know how privileged they are to be able to have gone to college or to read above a 6th grade level.
This one really bothers me. As someone who has kids and has also taught college courses, this argument is kind of disturbing.
Right now, the U.S. population is roughly 330 million. Currently, only 7% of those 330 million work in the tech industry. There is a critical shortage in tech today. Not in the future. Today.
There has been a shortage for some time now. Coming into this new year, 2023, there were roughly 375,000 tech jobs unfilled. The competition for tech workers is tight. There are not enough people to do the technical jobs we have today.
What will the shortage look like in the near future when new jobs involving technology are created? According to these toxic positivity people, it’ll be fine because all the non-technical people who were displaced will upskill for all the roles. And again, the ones who don’t, oh well, that’s their choice.
But newsflash, most of them won’t upskill.
Roughly 90% of the population right now works in fields other than tech.
Also, in the U.S., roughly 22% of the population is illiterate, and of the total 330 million population, more than half of people in the US read at or below a sixth grade level.
Does that sound like a nation brimming with jobs of the future, and millions of people willing and able to upskill into tech roles in a short time frame?
It doesn’t to me. Let’s be real.
And these toxic positivity folks want me to believe people are just going to choose to reskill for the future?
They didn’t reskill for the tech jobs we have now (which at some point in the past were the jobs of the future). If we have not been able to fill the tech jobs of the future we have now, what makes anyone think adding more will make filling them easier?
And here’s the thing, while colleges push technical programs like candy on halloween, it still is not enough to meet the demand. Because, shocker, there aren’t enough people who want to work in tech.
There also are not enough people who can afford to go to college.
There are also not enough people who can afford to move and live where the tech jobs are.
There are also not enough people who can afford to take time to reskill themselves.
This idea that people are just going to elect to transition into a job in tech is ridiculous. With over 50% of the population reading at or below a 6th grade level, and 90% of the population currently electing to work in non-tech sectors, I fail to see how the reskilling argument can solve the problem of AI displacing workers.
The current education system is crap in the U.S. and we should not be so ignorant to the fact that a large portion of the population will not ever be equipped to do technical jobs of the future.
Ignoring the downside of wide-scale implementation of AI and Automation and only choosing to acknowledge the positive aspects for the sake of staying positive, leaves us all at a disadvantage.
There are currently around 40 million people in the US living in poverty. That’s roughly 12% of the population. More people live in poverty then work in tech. Nearly 64 million people live paycheck to paycheck right now. Being displaced would be a crisis event for them.
Do we really think it’s going to get better when AI and Automation displaces millions of people and in a short time frame?
Automation and AI doesn’t make us more productive if 40 million are living in poverty.
It doesn’t make us more productive if 64 million live paycheck to paycheck. And it doesn’t make us more productive if 50% of the population is reading at or below a 6th grade level.
All it does is make companies more profitable. Period.
So my final thought for this episode: is the productivity talking point.
A popular talking point is that AI will increase our well-being because it will free us from doing mundane tasks and help us be more productive.
There’s nothing wrong with running a productive and profitable business. There’s nothing wrong with using AI and Automaton to achieve those things. We already do. We have been doing this for a while now.
We are in the next phase of automation. We have moved beyond dumb chatbots and mundane tasks. Real people are losing their whole jobs now. And it’s a lot of them.
I love tech. I love working in tech. But I will not ignore the negative impact AI and Automation will have on people.
Yes, I want AI that can detect life-threatening diseases with accuracy and at earlier stages of the disease. Of course I do.
Yes, I want AI that can make my life and job easier.
But I also want to be sure we have a solid framework and best practices for AI and Automation too.
If an insurance company wants to fire a bunch of claims processors and have AI do the processing, then that’s their right to do so. But I don’t want my insurance application denied because some AI algorithm was designed to do so for the sake of saving money and profits like we recently saw with Medicare Advantage. That’s some straight up BS.
I’m glad they were caught. But how many companies haven’t been caught yet? Don’t think for a second they are the only ones doing this. Please do not be that naive.
AI and Automation is influencing us and affecting our lives in ways we aren’t even aware of. And it is not all positive. It’s not to make us productive and free us from mundane tasks. While it may do that on a small scale, what it also does is increase profits for companies and in doing so, exploiting us.
Medicare Advantage is not some one-off nefarious anomaly.
So what’s the protocol here? What’s the punishment for using algorithms like the Medicare Advantage scheme? Who is overseeing these programs? Where is the AI regulating authority?
I’ll tell you. They don’t exist. There is no comprehensive AI legislation in the US.
We cannot be positive all the time about this and pretend everyone has our best interest in mind. Very few companies have anyone’s interest in mind besides their own and their shareholders. We have to be real.
We cannot suppress negative emotions and avoid these very real issues. We need coordinated international problem-solving right now.
With robotic machinery, automation, facial recognition, deep fakes, social media, deceptive algorithms, and more, AI is all around us evolving faster than we can keep up.
This technology presents a number of positive opportunities in solving big problems, but we are seeing the indicators of a crisis. One that we are capable of preparing for but don’t seem to be.
When I said in March 2020 that Covid would propel companies to implement wide-spread adoption of automation and AI, because computers don’t get sick and call out of work and can keep the business running, there were not many others saying it. Anyone who has ever run a business should have seen it coming back then.
People wanted to stay positive. They didn’t want to hear that they had better prepare to start looking for a job in a new sector because theirs wasn’t going to be there. They didn’t want to hear their jobs weren’t ever coming back. They wanted to stay positive. They wanted to believe their employers would bring them back. They didn’t want to hear that companies were going to choose profit over people after the pandemic. I was accused of being a fatalist. Surely companies would just “do the right thing” many people thought. No. That’s fairy tale land. It’s not reality.
And I was being real. It made perfect sense from a business perspective. And I was right. It panned out exactly how I said it would. All indicators were there. All a person had to do was observe.
And I am right about us needing to accelerate our planning and policy making for AI and Automation.
Calling on people to “pump the brakes on AI and Automation” is not a feasible plan. Signing a letter telling developers of AI to slow down on innovation is dead on arrival. AI is not in a temporary hype cycle. Companies are implementing AI and Automation wherever they can, as much as they can. It is a proven way to maintain and increase profits, without the need for all the programs, office space, administrators, and expenses that come with having people do the work.
We need companies to build and implement responsible technology and algorithms.
We need companies to conduct internal oversight of their AI and Automation programs.
We need government legislation that is both fair and responsible for the people.
We need a contingency plan for mass displacement of the population. (some have suggested Universal Basic Income is the answer to this, and there are some pilot programs out there, but that is a discussion for another day.)
We need a nationwide plan for affordable and free re-skilling and education for those who want to train for new technical jobs.
We need a best practices framework for building, implementing, testing, and reporting for AI.
We need internationally recognized methodologies and standards.
Right now we lack all of that. That is the reality of it. It has already gotten ahead of us.
We used to think the internet of the 1990s was the wild west. But today, sheesh….
It’s hard to tell what’s real or fake anymore. It’s hard to know when you’ve been scammed. It’s hard to know if you are talking to a person or a computer. It’s hard to know if a person in a video is an actual human or CGI. It’s hard to know what’s accurate any more.
These toxic positivity people say they can’t be fooled. They are smarter than that. They know better. It’s not a problem because they don’t see it. That is quintessential toxicity. The viewpoint of, It doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?
Millions of unemployed and underemployed people are a problem for all of us. The latest jobs report showed there are currently about 22 million people (the ones we know about) who are underemployed right now. And there are another 6 million unemployed (again the ones we know about). That is going to increase over the next ten years exponentially as more companies implement and adopt AI and Automation.
That’s reality. That level of unemployment and underemployment will affect us all. We need to plan and prepare to lessen the blow.
Okay that’s it for this episode. There are so many more talking points in this conversation but not enough time to discuss it all. Thanks so much for listening. If you enjoyed this please click the subscribe button. I’ll post a thread for this episode in the chat so feel free to head over there and leave your thoughts.
I’m looking forward to the feedback. You can also find me on LinkedIn and of course on my website sarahmancinho dot com.
I don’t have any fancy music outro so I’ll end by signing off, over and out."