Attempting to get ourselves some culture, my girlfriend and I watched the 1944 film noir classic Double Indemnity last night. It’s a great film and very much worth your time, but cinematic qualities aside watching an old movie like that is a fascinating window into daily life at a time of much lower labor productivity than you have today.
The protagonist of the film is an insurance salesman, and it’s striking to think about a time when it made sense to do that job by actually traveling door-to-door to have in-person conversations with people about how they should buy insurance. Similarly it’s taken for granted that you might make a separate trip to pick up an insurance check in person. And that’s to say nothing of the basic office functions of an insurance agency. In a couple of shots you get a glimpse at the vast quantity of dudes at desks who’d need to sit around with papers and pens shuffling documents around in a world without computer filing systems. Then you can think about needing to consult actuarial tables rather than being able to plug numbers into a computer. The flipside of all that manpower being necessary to perform that kind of work is that the apartment building where the salesman lives manages to employ a full-time garage attendant who’ll hand wash your car for you.
It’s interesting, in part, because when we talk about technology displacing workers from jobs we normally do that with a manufacturing frame in mind. Fewer workers, more robots. But the displacement of office workers from routine tasks must be an equally big story. And in some ways it seems like the reverse of the usual “skill-biased technological change” story. Computers are quite good at replicated large segments of office work (basic record keeping, arithmetic, data retrieval, message taking, etc.) that require a modicum of math and literacy skills but thus far haven’t made much progress at refolding sweaters or pouring cups of coffee.