Critical thinking for automated times

A typical 1950s typing pool.
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I like to watch old black-and-white movies. In these films you see several scenes involving jobs that no longer exist. People appear very skilled at these jobs. We are led to believe they made a decent living off them. But practically no one makes the same living in the same jobs today. In most cases these positions have been replaced by machines or computer software.

One job I saw recently was that of stenographer. Stenographers transcribe speech into writing in real time. You will still find stenographers in the workplace — in courtrooms for instance — but in the business world they’ve largely been replaced by personal computers on everyone’s desk. Speech-to-text software is now commonplace.

A large office might have employed dozens of people as secretaries, stenographers or typists. Now the same office employs one or maybe two administrative assistants — people who use technology and a lot of fast thinking to replicate the work once done by dozens.

I bring up the stenographers because I remember something one of my journalism professors told me back in college. He said never forget that you’re a journalist, not a stenographer.

In other words it was the job of the journalist to learn and explain the meaning of what was happening in a story, not just to write down the information that sources gave us. If a source says something, quote it accurately, but confirm it and compare it to what others say. This is how readers could actually understand what was happening in their nation, state or town. And how they could make informed decisions not just on election day, but in their day-to-day lives. It’s also the only way — the only way — to properly expose lies or corruption at any level.

But in the years since I left my college cut its journalism program. No more journalism professors to say important things like that. And, increasingly, far fewer journalists work in local news at all. The numbers bear striking similarity to industrial automation.

For instance, Iron Range mines employ a fourth of the people they did in the 1970s, and a tenth of the people they did during WWII — all while producing the same amount of iron ore. We see a similar result for clerks, factory workers, and retail salespeople.

The same proportions could be read for the news staff at the Hibbing Daily Tribune or any small daily newspaper. But that’s where this gets more disturbing.

We see how and why technology replaced stenographers. And while that’s bad for stenographers, it’s not a particular hardship for businesses. We also see how new technology has weakened and sometimes even replaced newspapers. But we don’t have technology to replicate what reporters and editors are really supposed to do: make sense of a complicated world.

It’s one thing to be handed a coconut. It’s another to know how to eat one.

In the early 2000s, I was the editor of a daily newspaper. I arrived at work by 5 a.m. and immediately make several important, sometimes stressful decisions about which local, state and national stories would be most important for thousands of readers. Thousands of other people had worked hard the night before gathering, confirming, and clarifying this information.

Honestly, in 2019 I’m more stressed out opening my social media after eating my Lucky Charms. So much information, emotion and contradictory claims. No sense of what the truth actually is. Widespread misinformation and reactionary rage. I bet this same experience stresses out most of you as well.

Automation of thinking creates monsters among us.

After all, thinkers make decisions. Thinkers create words, code, prototypes and artwork. Thinkers assess problems and troubleshoot. We need thinkers in every vocation. Thinkers now drive our economy. But how well are we really preparing our children to be thinkers?

One of my sons loves to code. He signed up for a coding class. The class was cancelled for lack of enrollment. Just an anecdote, but one that comports with the frustrations I have with local economic development efforts.

The human mind reacts strongly to change, usually with fear. But our brains also effectively adapt to change, especially if we use them. It gets harder as we get older, but that’s why economic and cultural transitions like these must call on more than just the older generations of leadership.

In our rush to create jobs, retain jobs, and do our jobs, we must also focus on creating and maintaining aspects of work that cannot be replaced by machines. Thinking, analyzing and decision-making.

Trucking, mining, transportation, retail service — these jobs are automating at exponential rates around the world. Right now there are reasons why that’s not happening here: among them labor contracts, climate and cost. But I’m not confident this will remain true forever or even for very long. We will need to consider how to responsibly use automation, develop technology and adapt to future change we don’t even see yet.

That’s why I take a dim view of any claim that uniting behind one industry or one way of thinking is our only way through these challenging times.

We don’t need one idea, we need many. That means we need to teach children, and ourselves, about thinking with even more veracity that we do other skills.

The one thing I do know is that, in the future, if we aren’t thinking we’re sinking. The evidence keeps piling up.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 24, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Bonnie Lokenvitz says

    Thank you. And we need to think beyond our little region of the world. What we do impacts the plant.

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