I’m smitten with imagery lately. Perhaps it’s our work on Adobe Photoshop’s 20th anniversary, but these days I’m hitting the Google image search like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and find myself clicking on those image-centric links I might ordinarily ignore. If it’s true a picture says a thousand words, and our ADD culture is increasingly moving away from the sanctity of the written word, imagery may soon be (if it’s not already) our primary means of communication.
As a business historian, I couldn’t help but dig NPR’s recent photo essay, “The Jobs of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations.” Complete with gorgeous black and white photos as well as audio narrations from a generation that remembers when these professions were as commonplace as today’s software engineer, the gallery takes us through antiquated roles of yore.
Many of the jobs, of course, were a product of pre-automated and pre-technological industries. In the absence of radios and iPods, “lectors” might be hired to read newspapers to workers in a cigar factory. Before machinery, “pinsetters” manually reset the pyramids at the ends of bowling lanes. “Icemen” and “Milkmen” delivered by refrigerated car what we now find on demand in our freezers and corner stores.
Most interesting to our work with Photoshop is the now endangered role of “Typesetter” featured in the NPR gallery. Both founders of Adobe Systems—John Warnock and Chuck Geschke—came from a lineage of typesetters and color engravers, which may in part explain Adobe’s visionary role in catalyzing the desktop publishing revolution.
But what stirs us about the gallery is not what’s depicted, but what’s not depicted. Because just as many of these professions and industries could not survive the advent of industrialization and computer automation, I can’t help but wonder: Which of today’s jobs and industries will one day succumb to change?
The study of history, in business or otherwise, is the story of change. Twenty years ago, Adobe’s founders saw the writing on the wall and placed themselves at the epicenter of the digital renaissance. Like Adobe, other industries, companies, and individual workers who can foresee change and either prepare for it or co-create the evolution themselves will always have a leg up on those who never see it coming.