Jobs Inside the API

I promised that my last post will go up as I am flying over the Pacific Ocean. Then I tweeted that I was looking forward to experiencing a 90-minute Sunday while flying overnight across the International Date Line. The gods did not approve of my hubris, and as the post went up on Sunday morning I woke up at a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Denver, sans my luggage

I have since made it to Singapore and Thailand, but that travel journal will have to wait. This post is about Saturday night at the Denver airport, and about the future of humanity.

Seriousness meter: three beers.


I booked a flight to Singapore through Denver and LA because I like breaking up extra-long flights into two overnight legs. I can save on hotels by sleeping on the plane, and I get to spend a day in a city I’ve never been in.

Denver welcomed me with perfect weather, transit that runs on time, and wild jackrabbits. My flight to LA was leaving at 7 pm, so after spending the day walking around I sat down at a tap house to try a Colorado craft beer before I left.

As soon as my brew arrived, so did a text from United Airlines: the flight is delayed by an hour, leaving me with an hour and a half to make the connection at LAX. No problem, I thought, and ordered another pint. With the beer came a second text: another delay of an hour.

I finished the beer. I looked at the menu – there was still a stout I wanted to try. I looked at the updated flight arrival time in LAX – 35 minutes to make the connection. Quite out of character, I decided not to tempt fate again and ordered the bill instead of the stout. As soon as I left the bar came a text with the final delay: my flight from Denver will now be arriving at LAX after the connection to Singapore is departing.

I shrugged, went back inside, drank the stout, and headed to the airport.


Everyone has read the article about bullshit jobs, especially those of us with bullshit jobs, which according to the article is everyone.

While the article makes a strong case, I think that it is somewhat overstated. The modern economy has too many moving pieces for anyone to track, including the pieces themselves. It takes thousands and thousands of people to make a pencil, and many of them are intermediaries, service providers, etc. The lady doing corporate finance for the insurance shop that allows the transportation company to buy a fleet of trucks to haul graphite from the mine may think that she has a bullshit job. But without her, there’s no pencil.

At least, that’s what I believe while I’m in the office. I work for a technology service provider to the financial industry. My job is as removed from actual pencils as any, but I’d like to believe I’m paid an honest wage for an honest contribution.

But whenever I visit an American airport, my faith in the efficiency of labor market allocations wavers.

I remember going through JFK where a single line for security was splitting into two lines. This is something that isn’t hard for most humans to figure out. There was a lady standing at that intersection, holding an iPad that was visible to the people in line. The iPad would alternate flashing a left arrow with a right arrow, and the lady holding the iPad would look at it, then point the next person to the left of the right queue. If you moved towards the appropriate queue after seeing the iPad but before the lady told you to do so, she reprimanded you.

There’s a model of the modern economy that separates jobs into two kinds: those above and below the API. Algorithms are replacing middle management, and if you don’t have a job telling computers what to do, sooner or later your job will consist of doing what computers tell you.

When I came to the front of the line at JFK, I waited for the lady to tell me where to go, smiled, and thanked her. I felt some pity for her, whether it was deserved or not. I didn’t want to make her literally below-the-API job any more thankless than it was.


I arrived at Denver Airport and asked the first gentleman in a United Airlines uniform where I could rebook my flight. He sent me to the economy check-in lady, who sent me to the premier access guy, who sent me to the additional services lady, who informed me that her shift has just ended and she is going home. So she called the shift manager, and in he walked, wearing the different-color uniform and big smile of a man who can handle any problem.

The conversation below is very lightly edited from memory.

Dramatis Personae

Boss Agent Manager Fellow, henceforth BAMF, a veteran of the aviation industry who has seen it all. Has access to the super special information systems that seamlessly coordinate global travel.

Me, a little sleep deprived and three delicious beers in. Has access to Google.

Scene

BAMF: How can I help you, sir?

Me: I was supposed to fly to Singapore through LA tonight, but the flight to LA is now landing an hour after the connection, so I need to rebook to a different flight.

BAMF: *type* *click* That’s not a problem, we have you on a flight leaving LA at 1 pm tomorrow, going to Singapore through Tokyo.

Me: Ah, but I don’t need to go to LA, that was just a connection. Can I just get on the flight from Denver to Singapore?

BAMF: *type* *type* *click* *type* I’m sorry, I don’t think we have a flight leaving Denver for Singapore tomorrow.

Me: *Checks Google* How about flight 143 at 11:35 am?

BAMF: I’m sorry but… *pause* *type* *click* Oh.

Sir, we can book you on flight 143 tomorrow from Denver to Singapore through Tokyo!

Me: Great!

BAMF: But you may not want to do that. We found a hotel for you in LA, but we don’t have one in Denver.

Me: Oh, you have to book me a hotel directly? You can’t reimburse me?

BAMF: No, no, you will book it and we will reimburse you either way. Our system just doesn’t see any open hotel rooms in Denver, only in LA.

Me: *Checks Google, sees a thousand hotel rooms in Denver* I’ll take my chances, I think.

BAMF: Are you sure? If you can’t find anything and will stay in the terminal overnight, we have a special reimbursement form for that as well.

Alright, you’re all set now, you’ve been removed from the flight to LA and are booked on UA 143 tomorrow.

Me: Thank you very much! Now would you happen to know where I could get my bag? I assume they haven’t loaded it on the delayed flight to LA yet, because that doesn’t leave for a few hours.

BAMF: Ah, your bag is in LA, sir. We sent it ahead on an earlier flight. We always send the bag on the first available flight, whether you’re on it or not.

Me: Very well then, I’ll make do without it for a day. I assume that my bag will continue to Singapore tonight?

BAMF: Oh no, sir. We can’t send a bag on a flight if you’re not on it.

Me: ??!?! $#%&$?!

BAMF: *Looks at me like I’m an imbecile* It’s because that’s an international flight, you see. When you get to Singapore, you will need to file a baggage claim.

Me: With the United Airlines desk in Singapore?

BAMF: Of course not! You will have to file it with Nippon Airlines, since they’re operating the flight from Tokyo. Only the airline that brings you to the final destination can bring the luggage there.

Me: So you’re saying that the only way I can be reunited with the bag containing my utmost necessities for a month of travel is to ask a foreign airline who has never seen or handled this bag, and doesn’t fly to Singapore from LAX, to somehow transport it to me from LAX to Singapore?

BAMF: It shouldn’t take more than two or three days.

Me: Ok, I need to think for a minute. I see there’s a person waiting to speak to you, I’ll just stand over here for a bit.

BAMF: *utterly confused* Um, sir, there’s no other way to get the bag to Singapore. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for twenty years.

Me: OK. *thinks*

A couple of minutes pass, BAMF is helping a lady with something (or at least pretending to) while I’m standing off to the side, thinking and occasionally tapping Google on my phone. Every few seconds he shoots me an incredulous glance.

Me: So, I see there’s a flight from LA to Denver early tomorrow morning.

BAMF: Yes, so?

Me: So it lands in Denver a few hours before my flight to Tokyo.

BAMF: Huh?

Me: So since United Airlines brought me to Denver, I would like to file a baggage claim with United to get my bag from LA to Denver on the flight tomorrow morning, I will pick it up at the airport.

BAMF: *picks jaw off the floor* I… I guess we can do that.

Epilogue

When I arrived at the airport the following morning, I insisted on checking my bag onto the new flight myself instead of trusting United to reroute it. In doing so, I discovered that BAMF booked me on the wrong flight out of Tokyo. I was rebooked by the bag check lady. When I reached the gate to get my boarding pass, it turned out that I was now booked on a different wrong flight, and they had to change it again.

This all happened despite the fact that I told everyone involved the exact number and time of the flight out of Tokyo I needed to be on.


I hope you were as entertained reading this exchange as I was being part of it. Is there also a takeaway here?

That “United Airlines customer service” is an oxymoron we knew already. That it’s fun to tell professionals how to do their job after 5 minutes of googling you also knew; it’s basically a rationalist rite of passage. You also should know already to pack a change of clothes in your carry-on item when flying anywhere with a connection.

Here’s what I wondered as the scene at the airport unfolded: why do the United Airlines agents still have their jobs?

Everyone is constantly worrying about the future when more and more jobs are automated, and with good reason. But as far as I was concerned, the jobs of airline agents have already been automated, and yet they still have their jobs.

These agents are nothing but a stupid interface layer between me and the flight management system. Whatever else they do, like checking that the face on my head matches the face in the passport, can already be done better by machines. They are invariably slower than automated systems, more error-prone, and vastly more annoying.

The immediate cause of these agents’ employment is the fact that many travelers wouldn’t know how to use Google Flights or a similar system for booking flights and tracking their luggage. But it’s more than that.

Air travel is frustrating. Flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, passengers get dragged off planes. I suspect that many people not only want a human to interface with the flight booking systems for them, they also want a human to yell at when things go wrong. If you fly a lot you know that a big part of airline agents’ job is to smile while being berated by angry passengers. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s the main part.

It seems that customers are splitting into two kinds: those who prefer their commercial transactions automated, and those who prefer them humanized. I buy shoes from Zappos and soap from Amazon, but some people want a person to tell them that a shoe or soap matches their hair or whatever. I do my taxes online and never set foot in the bank or the post office, and yet there are always long lines at both. The market keeps providing ever more algorithmic services for me, and ever more human touches for those who want them.

But as the algorithmic services are becoming better and better, it doesn’t make sense to have humans doing the same thing but worse. Instead, there’s an opportunity for future jobs to pop up in the interface between the robots and the people who don’t want to deal with the robots directly.

That’s what tax preparers are – they use the exact same software that anyone can use at home, but they allow you to talk to a human (and blame a human) instead of learning the software. That’s what the United agents do.

When everyone realizes that Zappos has more shoes, and at a lower price, than any shoe store, I can imagine shoe stores being replaced by people sitting at screens. You would talk to these people, they would ask about your day and measure your feet, and then they would order you the shoes you want from Zappos. And if the shoes pinch, you would have someone to yell at while they smile.

You can already hire a personal assistant to interface between you and many algorithms, but each algorithm could have assistants interfacing between it and many customers. These jobs aren’t quite above or below the API, they’re part of the API.

I don’t just think that many future jobs might be of this kind, I think that a lot of present jobs are becoming inside-the-API as algorithms do more and more of the actual work. Those of us who prefer to deal directly with the algorithms will find this human API in equal parts frustrating and amusing.

16 thoughts on “Jobs Inside the API

  1. Another case in point: Mcdonalds around the world with those touchscreen ordering kiosks as well as live staff – the live staff are just essentially operating the touchscreen for you behind the counter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Related to your point, minimum wage in my area was recently raised. As what I assume is a direct result, my local movie theater has recently replaced about 5 human ticket sellers with 1 human ticket seller and 4 machines. The machines are very easy to use, I was using them even before the human option was reduced. The only downside is that you can’t pay with cash at them, but I don’t think many people use cash anyway.

      But every time I go to the theater, there’s a large line of probably about thirty people for the 1 human while there are multiple machines left unused.

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    2. For some reason I can’t order lettuce and tomato on a Quarter Pounder on the kiosk at McDonalds, but I can use it to put lettuce and tomato on a regular cheeseburger. So the clerk at the register has to take that particular order.

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  2. I appreciate this model of being “above/below the API.”

    In case it’s of use to any fellow readers, I utilize a similar, complimentary model, in that I have extended the financial services industry “front/back office” concept to all industries. I find that it’s really useful.

    I will also incorporate “above/below the API.” Thanks!

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  3. I like the story as someone between its two protagonists wrt computers. Cheers from airport Zhukovsky (named after someone who proved wing theorem making flying possible)

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  4. Jacob, I am very, very surprised that you lived so long in Israel, and you are still holding your aformentioned views on the effficiancy of the labor allocation, even without going to an airport…

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  5. I like your point and I think that today and going forward it’s very valid especially in regards to the product industry.

    The only gripe I have with handing over the rains of a complex multi vendor industry to a machine interface is the fact that most interfaces suck when needing to deal with human error.

    Imagine trying to solve your bag issue through some kind of dedicated flight ordering system without having someone human to reason with?
    Granted if initially a coordinated system would have been in charge of you and your bag you might have not even had any problems in the first place.
    But, since we are talking about a system that also has the human factor you have to have someone help you out at the edge cases.

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  6. “The market keeps providing ever more algorithmic services for me, and ever more human touches for those who want them.”

    No.

    I wonder why you say this. I want a real human interaction, but for more and more services, that isn’t provided. Even the humans don’t act human, they merely attempt to follow an algorithm, as you put it “doing the same thing (as an algorithm) but worse.”

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  7. The dynamic you’re describing is due to it being a transition period, until 1. people learn to use machines more, and 2. the quality of the machines deteriorate as they no longer need to compete with humans and convince us of tech adoption.

    In my grocery store, they introduced self-checkout 6 or 7 yrs ago. In the beginning, the machines were programmed great, very convenient, because they were put at a “loose” setting. The machine checks that you’re scanning all your items by weighing what your bags against the projected weight of the items you scan. What I call a “loose” setting is one that doesn’t trigger a lot of false positives, due to small discrepancies in weight.

    Over time, I noticed they adjusted the programming to make them tighter and tighter, so now every checkout process has a high likelihood triggering a weight mismatch. Which requires you to call over a person to reset the system.

    The net result is that the amount of human labor hasn’t decreased, but they’ve shifting from actually providing a service to just resetting to machine when it predictably fails because of optimization by management on an short-sighted axis. The workers themselves have lower morale because they feel their positions are insecure, and because it’s highly boring. Most of them are now just standing around and chatting or using their phones during the “downtime” between requests to reset the machine.

    I suppose those can be considered part of the API, but I think those will be the most common human jobs at the bottom of the robot economy.

    Getting yelled at is pretty close to this work, but I think this is even more menial. The ultimate, hire someone to do something simple that the customer can do himself — press a button to reboot the machine. It’s the only task that can’t be outsourced to the customer or the machine.

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