Friday, March 28, 2014

John Henry's Days Are Numbered

by Jean Roberta

Summer 1980:

It’s hot. The sun pours in through the office windows, and there is no air conditioning in this building. I’m sitting at my typewriter, a big black Olivetti that sometimes refuses to hum into life when I turn it on. Today I’m alone in the typing pool because so many women have taken time off while they can.

Too soon, we can all take as much time as we want. The government plans to replace most of us with the machine sitting in the corner, a thing called a Word Processor.

How can a machine “process” words? Does it chop them up into little pieces or puree them like a food processor? The supervisor is pretending that the advance of modern technology (in the form of this machine that no one here seems to know how to use) will somehow make government activities more streamlined and make life better for all of us.

Well, call me a luddite. I’m not convinced.

I’ve been spending every summer in government offices since I started university, and I do so much more than type words on a page from audiotapes. I design charts, handouts, letters, and reports. I proofread, photocopy and collate. Here at federal Health & Welfare, they need copies of health information that looks attractive and readable. Someone will bring me a rough sketch with words on it, and ask, “Does this make sense? Can you put this on a sheet of paper?” I always say yes.

I’ve been told that my flow chart of the organizational structure of the whole department is widely admired. I count every line and space, then double-check my figures to make sure everything is perfectly centred. Can a machine do that? I’ll believe it when I see it.

I’m tempted to write a song to the tune of “John Henry.” Instead of a “steel-driving man,” the central character will be a key-pounding woman, with an optional chorus of “Lord, Lord.” She will challenge the damn word processor to a duel and she will win – at least in some way. And unlike John Henry, who won a race with a steam-powered drill, she won’t die of a heart attack.

They’re planning to train someone to use the word processor in the next few months. It obviously won’t be me because I’m just temporary. I usually replace someone who is away for three or four months, and those permanent members of the clerical staff will be first in line to replace everyone else.

I could be permanently locked out of the government jobs that have kept me going while I try to educate myself into a job that can’t easily be done by a machine.

Just seeing that object in the corner, looking as if it wants to push me out of my chair, is giving me shaky fingers. Damn it! A machine can’t really design anything. Can it?

Spring 2014:

By 1981, the clerk/typist jobs I relied on had dried up, leaving me to find more adventurous ways of earning a living to support myself and my child. But that is another story, or several.

For the story of John Henry, read the Wikipedia article:


  1. Ah, Jean - a worthy conclusion to two lively weeks. Will we all be replaced? Even as sexual companions? (see Garce's offering)

    I'm an optimist, so I think we humans will always have a niche. And if I'm wrong, I probably won't live to see it.

  2. Hi Jean!

    I've been thinking about John Henry these days. I was reading a short story by Richard Matheson called "Steel" which was also a Twilight Zone episode about a man who battles a boxing robot in the ring and is demolished in all but spirit.

    Our jobs, typist and so on are definitely being taken by machines even as our population increases. I think this could cause a real crisis in the future.


  3. From what I see with the young whippersnappers (hehehehe, in a walter Brennan affectation) and their machines these days make me wonder if even physical contact will get to be passé. Jeez- hope not!

  4. I'm sad about this class of jobs drying up partly because it was this pool of labor that became some of the first computer programmers. I've done some writing on the history of technology and it's strange to see how the meaning of computer programmer changes from women out of typing pools to a bunch of young men (and the pay and level of value afforded to the work also changes).

    As a kid, I worshiped women who worked as clerks and typists. It seemed like the most awesome job to me, and I still envy the way older women in my family could just go find that kind of work when they needed to.

    I suppose that makes me one of the whippersnappers Daddy referred to...

  5. Annabeth, that comment makes my day! When I was part of what I still think of as the Culture of the Typing Pool, the work wasn't usually exciting, but it was always available. It was a comfort to know that if/when I needed a job (esp. in the gov't town where I've spent most of my life), all I had to do was ask around, and I could be pounding a keyboard and/or sitting at the reception desk in a government office within days. At the time, I thought the general typing pool (or typing ocean) would never dry up. I assume the professional seamstresses of the 19th century (when sewing was a widespread skill among women, and in widespread demand) thought the same.

    1. I think what was so glamorous about it to me was the independence and empowerment of it. It seemed so self-sufficient. Also, I liked the machines (the sound of the typewriter, the punch of the postage meter going off and all that).

      I'm sure you're right about the seamstresses. I like to entertain myself by trying to figure out what things that we take for granted now are likely to change in just the same way.

  6. I welcomed word processors because they meant never having to use white-out (or retype entire pages), but I was never more than a mediocre typist and had no hope of making a living at it. Of course the ease of writing with word processors also made it easier for people to write work to submit for publication, and I've heard (or read) it said that we now seem to have more would-be writers than readers for that reason, and more badly-written work as well.


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