The goal was to save money,” Ken Dean said. A senior IT manager near Sacramento, California, Dean oversaw Sprint’s mailroom operations in the early 2000s. Inside the data center, one of three in the United States, hundreds of employees folded bills and stuffed envelopes.
“Our two largest costs were postage and people,” Dean said. Over time, he discovered what many large companies were realizing—that electronic bills could cut postage costs and machines could replace people. “Eighty percent to 90 percent of what was done in the data center could be done by a robot,” he said. It was his job, identifying technology to make the data center more efficient, and he was good at it. Naturally, expenses shrank. So did the staff.
The technology progressed dutifully to its inevitable destination: In 2008, Dean shut down the company’s last data center. Another 70 employees lost their jobs. A Christian, Dean took some solace in recognizing their God-given value beyond their roles in the labor market. His employees did not. “They were devastated,” he said. “For many of them, their confidence and worth was based upon their paycheck. They did not think they were valuable outside of their work context. There was a lot of fear.”
That was when mailrooms were still a thing. Today, workplace automation—and the fear it evokes—has expanded to horizons previously unimaginable, vanishing drivers from taxis, writers from journalism, and clerks from grocery stores.
Economists describe our current moment by distinguishing between economic growth and an economic pivot. Growth increases goods and services. A pivot, however, is a fundamental shift in how those goods and services ...1