Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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The ticket puncher on the train

May 14, 2010General


Waiting for a train this morning, I read a story from yesterday's Times on my iPod. It was about a secretary in Jacksonville, Fl., who types at an impressive 120 words a minute--and cannot find work. Workers manage their own information now. They type emails. They book flights on Orbitz. She works parttime for a third of her former salary as a cashier at Wal-Mart.

I write this on a New Jersey Transit train to NY. I just paid $14.50 for my roundtrip. That's up from $11.50 since May 1. Reducing the deficits at NJ Transit is one response to the state's dire fiscal crisis.

So I pay this money to a conductor who pulls a sheath of tickets out of his pocket and proceeds to craft my return trip ticket with his puncher. This is an information tool that predates the secretary's typewriter, and even the telegraph. As you can see in the picture, to enter $14.50, he needed to punch three times: once on $10, once on $4, and once on 50 cents. This recalls the sophistication of the abacus. I count 10 holes on my ticket alone.

The question, of course, is how a society can keep employing people like this. Or, if we don't, what happens to those of us with these archaic skills? I recently returned from Germany, where I bought tickets in machines and rode conductor-less trains. It makes sense. They save money, and every once in a while send through inspectors to bust freeloaders. At some point, they fired their ticket punchers. I wonder where those people went next, and what they're up to now... (At the very least, they have health care.)

Now I'm writing a book about a machine that not only could write tickets, but also answer all kinds of questions about travel, and just about everything else. It's a knowledge machine that understands language. It and its kin will be replacing humans at a breathtaking rate over the next decade. In this environment, many of us with skills that seem a whole lot more competitive than punching tickets will be scrounging for work in niches safe from machines.

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