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Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers.  The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets.  The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative:  farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories.  Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees.  The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).

Industrial Robots installed at Kia Motors' Slovakian plant by Hyundai Heavy Industries

Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress.  And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving.  Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers.  The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs.  Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector.  Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors.  Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.

A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class.  The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories.  Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.

"But the Roomba is my friend."

So are the Luddites finally correct?  Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing.  To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines.  At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines.  That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back.  Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!).  Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs.  Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at.  I don’t know.  Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?

Welcome to Utopia--Beep!

In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there.  The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting.  It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations.  We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!

Journey of the Magi (Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461, fresco)

One of the metaphors commonly used to describe the entirety of humankind is the image of a parade. We hear it all the time and hardly think about it: the parade of nations, the march of progress, the triumph of man….I think it is a good image to hold in one’s head when thinking about people taken as a collective entity (and despite our pretensions of self-sufficiency, these days we are very much a super organism like a clonal colony or a hive of army ants).

Here’s how I picture it.

Imagine a new frontier (be it a virgin land, outer space, a scientific breakthrough, a manufacturing notion…anything).  Out there today are theoreticians and dreamers who are trying to envision a way to use new resources and new ideas.  Then suddenly someone has an epiphany based on a half-heard sentence, or a daydream, or a happy column of numbers and the true parade commences.  First come the explorers—robotic probes, Ponce de Leon, bathyspheres, runners-of-the-woods, and lonely obsessive men in labcoats.  Next are the early adapters: hipsters, the curious, the desperate, and the visionaries.  The progress begins to swell as politicians, business leaders, and media stars proceed past. Upon the backs and shoulders of the multitude, the great and the mighty are carried like juggernauts as ticker tape falls down around them and they preen on top of gilded palanquins.  Soldiers and legionnaires ride by frowning in their glittering armor.  The middle class pass by in sensible cars and comfortable shoes holding the hands of children with happy smiling faces.

Next come rank upon rank of the underemployed and the working poor. They are struggling to get along beneath the yellow checks cashed signs and the shadow of the workhouse. Finally at the back of the parade are the old and the sick.  The diseased and the lost are laboring to keep up.  The wounded conscript is lying in the muck barely crawling forward as the parade leaves him further and further behind.  A senile nonagenarian sits down in a rocking chair and never gets up.

And behind us all there is the detritus of our once great endeavors.  The landscape is strewn with rubbish and cast-offs.  A great winding pathway is built of garbage from gum wrappers to whale bone corsets to smashed bronze cannons to gnawed mammoth bones.  Along the empty road there are old cities waning away to irrelevance and there are cities entirely lost—burned, abandoned, or buried in the sand–going back to ancient Eridu itself.  And there is an endless trail of corpses slowly returning to the mud.

Ultimately the trail leads back to the dry highlands of eastern Africa, but where the parade is going is anyone’s guess.  Picture it in your head dear reader.  Smile and wave while the golden light shines on you and the horns play impossibly beautiful music tinged with sadness…

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2020