On Business: 20 Minutes into the Future

By | Monday, January 22, 2018 Leave a Comment
When I was first out of college, I worked primarily as a graphic designer. However good or talented I may have been at the time, I recognized early on that one of the dangers of the field was that, as I got older, it would be increasingly difficult to keep abreast of current design trends and remain professionally relevant. My original intent was move into more of an art director position where I could let the younger designers inform the individual pieces.

A few years later, though, and I wound up sliding more into a technical role. I knew enough about programming and server setups that I could have conversations with developers, but I also had enough business training that I could also talk cogently with business leaders. I was able to get into more middle management roles by acting as something of a translator. I felt (and still feel) it was a smart professional move on my part since I knew enough about design and coding to continue working in the field, but without needing to be 100% up to speed on the latest trends and technologies. As long as I kept nominally up to date, I wouldn't have to worry (much) about young kids coming in and dancing circles around me with whatever the new whiz bang features are.

The past year or two, though, I've started becoming concerned again. I've known many low-skill jobs were becoming increasingly in danger because of automation; from self-serve check-outs to customer support chat bots to driverless cars, there's a lot of disruption happening. But there's another trend of outsourcing. Not necessarily to other countries, as is frequently claimed, but just moving work from internal, full-time employees to contract workers and agencies. The more I look at the future of the American workplace, the more I see larger companies heading towards a model where anyone below a VP level will be either discarded or outsourced. And while the outsourcing can mean continued employment for individuals, it's less advantageous for them since (among other things) they'll be without employer-provided insurance and can have their contract ended pretty much at any time for any reason.

Last week, my boss announced she'll be leaving the company. It's a voluntary move so she can change industries and, superficially, doesn't have any direct relation to the concerns I mentioned above. But when she informed me of her decision, she also confided that our internal graphic design position was being eliminated in about a month. (The designer himself has been told, but they're generally keeping this news under wraps for another couple weeks.) Outsourced to agencies. What's particularly poignant here is that the guy in that position was hired pretty much at the same time I was, and my original job description was the same as his. Meaning that if I hadn't worked my way up into more of a middle management role, my job would be eliminated as well. I'll be honest -- it's a little unnerving.

My wife was... we'll say concerned when I told her what I'd heard that day. There was a fast scramble to make sure my resume was up to date, and longer term discussion about getting some side jobs set up. Plus a large sigh of relief that we put a fair amount of effort last year into establishing a fairly strict budget in order to build up more cash reserves. Let me be clear that I don't think my job is in immediate danger, but it certainly does make one sit up and take notice.

But then I also caught an article this week in which the author talks about how their Agile team's scrum master (basically a project manager, if you're not familiar with the Agile development methodology) is a bot. Their development team is literally being directed by artificial intelligence, using Slack as an interface. I have less concern now about the next generation of kids coming up to take my job, and more about it being taken over by SkyNet! Again, probably not this year or next. But it's certainly something I'll need to concern myself with before I retire.

The day after I heard about our designer, I got a text from my wife around mid-day. She had just found out that two of her peers were getting laid off. The company had moved enough of their work to a self-service model that those positions were no longer necessary. Many of the tasks they performed used to be more laborious and time-consuming thanks to manual paperwork and red tape; now many of those tasks are automated and/or at least streamlined enough that someone doesn't need to specialize in them. My wife has additional duties that have not been automated to that level, so her job is safe. But you have to wonder, for how long?

And you might be thinking by this point, "Sean, what the hell does this have to do with comics?"

Have you heard about that Marvel Create Your Own thing? Where fans can make comics using Marvel characters? It's not the first time something like this has been done, but by utilizing 3D iterations of the characters, fans are no longer limited to a handful of stock images and can change poses, angles, expressions, etc. They basically have full control over how the characters look and, theoretically, can tell stories more effectively than using what basically amounted to a handful of clip art.

My question is: why does that need to be limited to fans? Who's to say Marvel can't turn that product (or an advanced version of it) internally and start pumping out Spider-Man comics... without the aid of an art team? Instead of a penciller, inker, colorist, and letterer, all of that could be handled by a single individual. Yeah, you'd obviously lose out on each independent artists' style but... couldn't that be addressed with some Instagram-style image filters? Make the entire story look like it was done in watercolors or apply some old school Ben-Day dot patterns to it? The likelihood of innovative comic storytelling would certainly drop, but Marvel (and DC) aren't really interested in that. They're interested in churning out stories about Spider-Man.

And that bit I mentioned earlier about the automated project manager? Couldn't they replace a lot of assistant editors and traffic managers? The editor's function would no longer require repeated phone calls about making sure scripts were turned in on time or anything like that -- the types of duties often taken up by assistant editors -- and an editor could work at a more strategic level, ensuring the overall story direction aligns with where the company wants to take the characters more broadly.

If Marvel tried this now, in 2018, it would almost certainly fail. The technology isn't sophisticated enough to make something like this commercially viable. Yet. Will that change in 2019? 2020? I don't know. But I can easily see that happening in my lifetime.

And when that does happen, it doesn't mean comic artists will go away entirely. But it does mean they won't get a job at Marvel, and will only be able to work on their own, independent projects. Artistically fulfilling, perhaps, but sales and distribution will be substantially smaller and it'll be harder to make a living.

In 2015, Wired asked futurist Stowe Boyd: what will corporations look like in 2050? He presented three scenarios; essentially a best case, a worst case, and something in between (which largely amounts to his worst case scenario but with climate change under control). In the couple years since then, his best case looks increasingly less likely, especially in lieu of the current White House administration. Towards the end of his worst case scenario, he writes...
It’s no different from the company you work for today, except longer hours, fewer co-workers, less pay, and much more dust. To increase profits, corporations have cut staff and forced existing workers to work harder.

2050 Is Closer Than You Think.
A lot of people look at the future in terms of the technology. Flying cars, robots, and Jestons-style foodarackacycles. If they think about the implications at all, it's still frequently thought of in terms of the present. Flying cars just mean highways in the sky, robots that sweep and vacuum and take out the trash, meals that look and taste and smell like a homemade meal but just prepared automatically. But technology has social implications as well. It's more than just being able to make a phone call from wherever you are; it's that your boss can now call you on a Sunday afternoon when you're on vacation in Mexico. We can't predict all of the ways that a technology can impact society, but just based on a handful of technologies I've seen lately, I think there's room for everyone to consider how and whether they might be able to keep doing whatever job they have now. It might not be completely replaced by a computer, but it will be almost certainly radically upended thanks to one.
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