Dumbing Down or Double-Standard?

Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

It is the same every single time I report on a new technological development on an item of construction equipment. The merest mention of any kind of operator aid instantly divides the readership into those that welcome such beneficial developments; and those that see them as a physical manifestation of man’s gradual replacement by machine.

The palpable fear among equipment operators that believe their role is under threat –whether from cheap labour, remote controls or full automation — is, of course, entirely understandable.

Yet history suggests that these fears are unfounded or at least over-stated. And since many of those that operate machines are weekend petrol-heads, let’s look at the Formula 1 industry for a direct comparison.

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Regardless of what you think of his dress sense and his political posturing and pontificating, there is no denying that F1 driver Lewis Hamilton has written himself into the sport’s history books as one of the all-time greats. But he has done so with the aid of literally millions of pounds’ worth of technological assistance.

His car is finely tuned to each race circuit. Power steering makes the car easier to control and reduces driver fatigue while “flappy paddles” afford seamless, instant gear changes. Engine modes can be selected to conserve fuel or provide more power; brake bias can be adjusted to suit specific corners mid-race; a Drag Reduction System (DRS) helps boost the car’s top speed and helps the driver overtake. Every process and function of the car’s engine, gearbox and tyres is relayed via telematics to an assembled team of highly-trained engineers in the pit lane who can analyse that transmitted data and inform Hamilton of any on-the-go adjustments that might be required. The driver is in two-way conversation with his pit crew throughout the race.

Compare that to the F1 legend Juan Manuel Fangio who won his first grand prix back in 1950. The in-car technology available to Fangio at the time consisted of a couple of pedals and a steering wheel. The pit crew knew something had gone awry with Fangio’s car when pieces of it fell off. And communication between team and driver took place once per lap via the less-than-advanced medium of a chalk-board held aloft by a crew member.

While Fangio holds a special place in the hearts of F1 traditionalists, few would argue that Lewis Hamilton is somehow a lesser driver. He is already believed to be one of the greats of the sport. Chances are, he will go on to eclipse the records of all those that have gone before him. But nobody ever suggests that his accomplishments are somehow tainted or cheapened by the presence of technology in his car.

So why are driver aids seen as entirely acceptable in Forumla 1 but perceived as some kind of threat in the construction and demolition equipment field?

There is the simple answer — That F1 is “just” a sport but driving a digger 10 hours per day is someone’s livelihood. But the answer runs deeper than that, I believe.

Like it or not, we are each defined by our jobs. I am a father of four, a grandfather of two. I am a husband and a son. I am, I believe, the world’s biggest Ultravox fan and I am a boxer dog owner and enthusiast. I am a West Ham supporter and possibly the last person to kick a ball at the Boleyn Ground before it was demolished. But none of this really matters, apparently. On my passport, it states what and who I am in one word: Journalist.

Put simply, threats to our jobs are a threat to our very being; our reason for getting out of bed each morning; the way in which we each provide for our families and fund our respective lifestyles.

Photo by Jasper Graetsch on Unsplash

In the mostly-male, testosterone-fuelled world of construction equipment operators, this belief is magnified and multiplied. Plant operators are endlessly competitive. Tell them it will take eight bucket loads of material to fill a wagon and they will try to do it in seven. Inform them that the previous operator dug 100 metres of trench in an hour and they will dig 110 metres in 50 minutes.

It is not just their operating skill and prowess that is perceived to be under threat from the imposition of technology. It is their masculinity; their very manhood. To these technologically-wary operators, the offer of a tilt rotator or excavator grade control is akin to offering inflatable arm bands to Michael Phelps.

Aside from an extensive and extensive marketing campaign to reassure these operators that tilt rotators are super-butch or that grade control makes them more attractive to the opposite sex, I have no idea quite what the industry does to address this perception. Maybe there is a band — an increasingly small band — of operators that will always consider driver aids to be beneath them. But I do have just a couple of caveats to add.

No amount of driver aids and technological support and intrusion will ever make a bad operator good. But at a time when we are losing experienced operators faster than we can replace them, such systems do have the ability to make an average or less experienced operator better and — quite conceivably — safer.

My final point is this. Offer those elite operators a works van without power steering, ABS braking, airbags, centralised locking, air conditioning, satellite navigation and Bluetooth connectivity and — in all likelihood — they would complain loudly.

All of which begs one final question: How is it that the male ego is both willing and able to accept the assistance of technology on the way too and from work but has such an issue with it when they get there?

It’s a funny ol’ business, isn’t it?

Mark Anthony is the editor of DemolitionNews.com.

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Mark Anthony

Mark Anthony

Mark is a journalist, author, podcaster and daily live-streamer specialising in the field of demolition and construction.