losing jobs

During the big Recession in 2008 I saw a lot of young patients who had lost jobs or were ‘on the bench’. They had families to support and EMIs to pay on their homes and cars. They would come in to talk, share and perhaps find a little clarity. There wasn’t much I could actually do to reduce their distress apart from listen and try to help them find some hope, or prescribe medicines if anxiety/depression were unbearable, and sleep elusive. I was glad when the stream of pink-slipped people finally dried up over the next couple of years.

A few years later there was a surge in patients who had been told to ‘re-skill’ if they didn’t want to be laid off. Most of them were in the forties. Specialists, including me, are in a sort of a competency trap because we have lost all our other skills, save the ones we use every day. For instance, I’m not sure how well I could suture up a laceration or do a lumbar puncture, both of which I did very well earlier. If I were given this ultimatum to re-skill I would be totally lost.

I hear there are bootcamps to ‘upskill’ engineers, i.e. transform them from mechanical engineers to coders, so I suppose it works for some. Maybe it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks sometimes, especially if there’s a looming risk of job loss or being passed over for promotion.

I was shocked that people could be thrown out of jobs the way old animals are put out to pasture! Until I met these patients, I took it for granted that people learnt on the job all the time, gaining experience and new skills, keeping abreast of new developments through discussions with colleagues, reading journals and attending conferences, and occasionally attending a workshop on a specific topic. That’s mainly how we still brush up our skills. Of course, we now learn of new developments in our field as soon as they are published online, unlike in years past when we had to wait to read journals in a library, or subscribe.

Disruption, which used to mean an annoying interruption until recently, is now something wonderful to be applauded. On the positive side, disruption creates new markets and brings in more revenue. Does it mean that if you aren’t disruptive, you are stagnant and not very useful to your company, so you get laid off?

As AI replaces people at jobs, developers tell us it will create more jobs. But they will be different jobs, and they won’t be for the people who lost their jobs, isn’t it? The new jobs will go to people who can program and operate robots, right? Jobs gained > jobs lost is true only if it doesn’t matter that the people who lost their jobs either slid below the poverty line or committed suicide after poisoning their little kids when life became impossible. You can’t substitute one set of people for another claiming that the net number of jobs has increased, can you?

I do understand that AI has its uses. For example, ophthalmologists can diagnose diabetic retinopathy earlier than they have been doing until now, thanks to AI. If it is detected at an earlier stage, there’s a better chance of preventing visual impairment in people with longstanding diabetes. Here the AI is assisting the doctor, not replacing him. I’m not against AI. It is good tech, I agree.


But young people without the educational qualifications for sophisticated jobs like these also need to work and earn a living. The picture above is of an itinerant scissors-grinder. He visits my street once every two-three months. I’m surprised this occupation still exists! And below is a picture of a man selling cotton candy in traffic jams. Every time there is a recession in the world the lives of these people – informal sector – are affected but they don’t get stimulus packages from the government. How do they manage?


I watched the South Korean movie ‘Parasite’ recently. The dynamics between the Park family and the Kim family can happen on a much larger scale if joblessness – and the widening income inequality between the rich and poor – continues to worsen. It’s not that these feelings don’t exist in people now, perhaps they haven’t reached the surface and erupted yet. At the end of the movie one does wonder who are the parasites, the Parks or the Kims, or is it a bizarre symbiosis.

Jeff Bezos was in India a few days ago. Hundreds of traders and owners of small businesses gathered to confront him and protest Amazon’s pricing and selling practices. They shouted slogans and held placards saying ‘Bezos go back’. Will Bezos ever understand how precarious the lives of thousands of small traders and retailers are, struggling as they are to support their families and, in many cases, old parents and others as well? I guess not. Nor is it his problem to solve.

Last week I bought a paper cutter. I had a choice: order on Amazon and have it delivered at my doorstep for Rs.670, or walk to the store ten minutes away and buy it for Rs.750. I walked to the store. There were two young men running the business together. When I casually mentioned that it was available on Amazon for Rs.670 their faces fell and one of them said, “We can’t afford to do that. Amazon is undercutting us”. I felt sorry for them. I wish they could run their business the old-fashioned way. But things change. Like the classic case of the Kodak film company going bankrupt once digital photography came into existence, I suppose the old has to give way to the new.

So, now, what happens to all these unfortunate people deprived of a source of income? I don’t suppose there is a generic answer to this question. Maybe each individual has to use his ingenuity and talent to create an agreeable world for himself. He has to pick himself up by the bootstraps and start afresh after each blow dealt by new developments. That’s what actually happens as far as I can see. People are unbelievably resilient and hopeful, especially when they have children, a careworn wife and old parents to care for. Unfortunately, there is no economist, government or godfather, only planning and hard work – and luck – that take people where they want to be.




Somehow I’ve always imagined google as a supercilious, snickering Peter Pan-like young person sitting cross-legged in there, in the box-shaped computer I had twenty years back, rolling his eyes at my ignorance. From the beginning, this unconscious conceptualization of google automatically restricted what I typed in the search bar. Asking the internet to connect me to a site felt a lot like asking the operator of a landline phone to connect me to another landline number in the old days; the operator could listen in if she wanted to.

There is one more thing: I have had young  patients proudly tell me that they are hackers, and good at it too! And I have no reason to doubt them as they are smart graduates from the IITs. The first time someone told me this was some fifteen years ago. It destroyed my faith in passwords and encryption for good. Decoding these security measures is obviously child’s play to some.

If I need to look up a word I use a dictionary out of sheer habit, though I’ve started using google more without realizing it. I think that’s how google creeps into people’s lives and makes itself indispensable. Speaking of words, I’m fascinated by cognates, and finding them is a zigzagging path. Does chasing after me through this help google? I still rely entirely on google for things like how to pronounce  Czicksentmihalee, though, and I’m willing to do that. But if google wants to know why I need this, well, it’s just curiosity, nothing more.

I often use google to look up random factoids that have puzzled me through the day, things I’ve come across in conversations or on TV. So the things I investigate using google are completely irrelevant to my life, and can’t be the basis for ads. And most of the things I look up are from a check-list of unrelated topics. I am just browsing, not doing serious research. Like browsing in a mall. Incidentally, why do mall-owners count footfalls to gauge how the businesses that operate from them are doing? What exactly does it tell them? That people browsed, or people shopped? Or do they subtract browsers from the total and decide that these are prospective buyers that they can lie in wait for and eventually entrap into buying? In how many ways are we being watched?!

Back to google. I often look up the same article many times on different days because I might need to confirm only one particular bit of information from it. When I’ve gone into ‘show full history’ to trace some lost thread of thought I’ve seen how ridiculous it looks that I’ve opened the same page a million times. What does google make of it? And if I’ve been using google on my touchscreen cellphone, don’t even ask! Every clumsy finger movement opens a site that means nothing to me, but might mean something to google if it is snooping. I also wonder, does the time lapse mean anything to google if I leave a page open for a long time while I go into the kitchen to make some coffee?

I read a lot about religion because I can’t get over how much violence it has unleashed over the millennia, when it is actually supposed to bring peace. So I’m not religious, but google might think I am.

I am a news junkie and follow politics, especially Indian politics, but I’m not interested in raising a ruckus about anything. I already know that I don’t count and what I think doesn’t make a whit of difference to the political scene. I don’t think much of politicians (except Shashi Tharoor’s speeches on Indian history), but I read about their antics anyway. So what does google think is my political affiliation? A friend of mine talks about politicians referencing the astrology site carta natal es, so I’ve been visiting that site, but that doesn’t mean an astro-reading ad will grab my eyeballs. I might search for information about weapons in relation to a novel I’m reading, and google might misunderstand my intentions. So too with suicide, a topic that I need to visit now and then for professional reasons.

So, I have no idea how the data generated by my haphazard browsing helps google.

Apparently google needs to know me well so that it can pitch appropriate ads to me. I live in Bangalore, a city whose skyline is made up entirely of ads, monstrously large billboards that I never look at, or even notice anymore. So advertisements are wasted on me. I just peep around them or scroll down reflexly and never really see them. If an ad stubbornly refuses to disappear I close the page and find the information elsewhere. I’ve also become adept at clicking on the X mark using peripheral vision to close any nonsense that pops up.

Billboards cluttering Bangalore’s skyline

I don’t use google to look for things to buy, places to eat at, places to visit, books to read, or movies to watch. I get these from newspapers and friends. I prefer to ask friends about these things over a cup of coffee at Hatti Kaapi or A2B in Bangalore, rather than turn to google for everything. It’s much nicer. Same way, I shop at small stores because they’re more interesting, plus the idea of these hardworking, cheerful people losing their livelihood to Amazon and BigBasket makes me feel bad. Variety, rather than the sameness of chain stores, is what I’d like to preserve. A little searching and serendipitous discovery is more fun, like finding a wonderful book while browsing in a bookshop. Google and the rest are taking this away.

On top of all this, I now have the troubling knowledge that my browsing patterns are being parsed by google to understand my thought processes and influence me through its advertisements to generate revenue for itself.

Google assures us of security:

‘Encryption brings a higher level of security and privacy to our services. When you do things like send an email, share a video, visit a website, or store your photos, the data you create moves between your device, Google services, and our data centers. We protect this data with multiple layers of security, including leading encryption technology like HTTPS and Transport Layer Security.’

That’s why it feels like a case of the fence eating the crop, or my own security guard robbing my house. That’s why it feels like a betrayal, though google openly admits that it uses the advertising model for revenue. To me that translates into “Okay, so some ads will appear when I’m reading something? Cool.” It doesn’t convey that I’ll be watched so closely, like a hunter following his prey.