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Man Versus Machine

John Henry is an American folk hero and a “steel-driving man”.

Back in the good old days, constructing a railroad tunnel is extremely laborious. To blast the rocks, men are required to first manually hammer a steel drill into the rock to make holes for the explosives.

According to urban legend, John Henry competed and won against a steam-powered rock drilling machine in a race for the ages. Besides being a model of physical strength and endurance, John Henry also came to symbolize the backlash against the mechanization of (erstwhile) human work.

Alas, it was but a pyrrhic victory. For John Henry was said to have succumbed to exhaustion of work shortly after.


Fast forward to today.

According to one survey, the average office worker spent more than 3 hours a day on manual, repetitive computer tasks that aren't even part of their primary job. And 67% of employees struggle to leave office on time due to time spent on manual, repetitive digital administration tasks.

Case in point: the infamous “996” work culture in China’s tech industry where employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week.

The world needs less John Henrys, not more.

And if automation can help, why not?


One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man. — Elbert Hubbard

The operative word here is “work”, or more precisely, the nature of work.

Work that is mundane and menial can and should be outsourced to machines and robots.

Not doing so will be nothing but a fool’s errand.


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