Man vs machine gut check - the night I got replaced by a robot

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 13, 2016
Everything was swell in my video volunteer work - until I got replaced by a robot.

Here at diginomica, we've had a lively debate on enterprise skills in the face of automation (see Den's latest, The importance of mastery in a post robotic era). I've tried to take my skills cautions to others in stride, but in December, the machines came for me.

No, not at diginomica - the robots haven't quite mastered the art of snarky enterprise prose. As a board member and volunteer with Northampton Community Television, I grab gear and film local events when I can. One fun spot is filming our local Northampton City Council meetings.

One fateful night in December, I dropped in to help out with one of the in-room cameras, and found out my services were no longer needed: I had been replaced by an automated camera. It was more funny that traumatic, but the experience lingered.

Filming (and live broadcasting) local governance meetings is a key part of NCTV's mission. For my town of Northampton, MA, it's about transparency in governance. Broadcasting also reaches community members who are not physically able to attend the events.

For years, the standard setup for filming City Council meetings has been: a director in the control room (often sitting with an intern in training). Then: one remote camera and, ideally, two (human) camera operators, one on each side of the room. Being able to switch quickly from several camera angles and zoom in for close-ups makes for a better viewing experience.

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I don't have a picture of how the human-operated cameras were situated, but they were set up on the left and right side of the room (on the right, you can see an angle taken from a human-operated camera in 2012).

The job of filming wasn't difficult, but I loved it anyhow. Each human operator wore a headset, where verbal commands were issued from the control room:

"Camera 2, zoom in on Councilor X"
"Camera 1, zoom out for a wide shot."

Or, one I get a lot:

"Camera 2, please refocus on Councilor Y..." (Which meant I needed to zoom in heavy, tweak the focus, and zoom back out for a better profile shot).

The biggest trick was paying attention to the director audio and not moving your camera view around when your rig was live ("live on 2!"). Or, the dreaded, "2, we're live, don't move your camera!"

As a video content dude, I liked practicing my zooming, focusing and shot framing skills. A bonus:  learning the minutia of how local governance works (or, in some cases, doesn't).

One fateful night in December, I popped my head in the control room and an NCTV staff member broke the news: now all cameras in the City Council chambers are remote - no human camera operators needed.

With no human cam operators, the control room operator was now a tougher job. All the cameras now had to be moved and managed from inside the control room. On this particular night, two NCTV staff members, Dave and Jen, were there to oversee the new setup.

NCTV City Hall control room

A high school intern was training on the control deck. On the left, you can see what the control room setup looks like. The new tech is nifty; you can queue up different angles and quickly rotate to the best live shot.

One cool new addition: captions (called "lower thirds") with the name of who is speaking are now added to the broadcast in real time. More bells and whistles are coming.

Update: NCTV staffmember Dave Newland sent details on the upgrade benefits:

  • We now have four cameras instead of three, so we are able to get better coverage.
  • We didn't always have volunteers to run cameras, so we would just lock one or two down in a wide shot. The new setup allows us to get a variety of shots no matter how many people show up.
  • The new cameras are HD, so they will result in higher quality video for broadcast and the web.
  • The Firestore recorder that we had been using was failing, and the new system includes a solid state hard drive record deck.
  • We plan on building a multi-cam setup that we can bring into the field for large events. Once that is put together it will be a good place to get the director/camera person experience.

Even that night, I could have stayed and got experience working the control deck. I'll do that in the future. But as I walked into the winter night, bemused by my temporary irrelevance, I was a bit more shaken than I let on. Look - I've been disrupted out of my career path many times before, and in much more serious ways, such as when the Internet unceremoniously disintermediated the recruiting profession, sending the enterprise recruiting firm I managed into an unrecoverable tailspin.

One day we show up for work, and the skills we have in our toolbelt are a mismatch. Forget redundancy - we're not redundant, we're outdated. For all my well-meaning advice about making pro-active skills changes, I got knocked on my fanny.

If I work at the video craft, I can spend more time in the control room, or editing film in post-production. And there's no shortage of events that need a human-toted filming rig.

The human labor wasn't really eliminated, it was re-allocated into higher-skilled roles and/or chances to add new services to the community. But in our enterprise careers, will that always be the case? I'll keep pushing and learning regardless. But I'm not gonna lie: it stung.

Image credit: NCTV screen shots and photos by Jon Reed. Vector Recruitment concept, human resources concept - Recruitment claw conveyor personal © johndory -

Disclosure: I serve on the board of NCTV and also film local shoots from time to time. These are volunteer duties.

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