Is it OK to Joke About Automation and Job Loss?

The human relations software company Gusto's first ad company is spot on and also in very poor taste.


Gusto, formerly ZenPayroll, is a human relations software company that manages payroll and benefits for a significant and growing number of smaller tech-forward companies. The growing company just released the first commercial for its product, which stars Kristen Schaal as an ever increasing number of “Zoes”: payroll Zoe, benefits Zoe, even horticulture Zoe. The core idea seems to be that, using Gusto, one office assistant can do a number of different jobs. That might be true and is certainly appealing to employers, but the joke illustrating the claim strikes an odd chord. Job loss from automation is a real issue likely to affect more than half of the workforce in the coming decades.

Zoe is a human stand-in for the corporate downfall of, well, humans.

Usually, we think of job loss to automation taking place in blue-collar or low-skilled jobs like manufacturing. But as Artificial Intelligence progresses, algorithms will start to take the place of white-collar workers as well. For example, Facebook fired its team of trending news editors and replaced them with an algorithm (no, it’s not named Zoe) earlier this year. There’s less need for secretaries with coming to market and Mark Zuckerberg building a personal assistant (or software like Gusto) à la Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S.

Though the commercial surely doesn’t represent an intentional effort to rub salt in socioeconomic wounds, it is emblematic of this peculiar moment in our economic history. Gusto emerged from the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator, which is currently doing basic income experiments in Oakland in an apparent acknowledgement of what has been wrought. Workers and companies feel like they can still laugh about an issue that will put them at odds. There are so many Zoes in the room, but people aren’t ready to talk about what they’ve come to do just yet.

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