1.1 What’s different this time?
Technological advancement, particularly rapid advancement, is by nature unsettling. We may hail technologies as revolutionary or evolutionary or even deterministically necessary, but no matter what we call them, there will always be an old way of doing things that must, often reluctantly or obstinately, make way for a new way of doing things, and there will be winners and losers in the scuffle. Of course the latter don’t write history.
In a startling display of enthusiasm for technological progress, the British Parliament, in 1812, passed an act stipulating the death sentence for those found guilty of damaging the new machines that were rationalizing the textile industry. The act was not an empty threat. In early 19th century England, thousands of workers, shut out literally overnight from their livelihood; desperate over their inability to feed their families and the discovery that their acumen and skills were redundant, violently revolted against the mechanical innovations taking place in their industry. Many were arrested, shot or hanged, including one Abraham Charleston, 12 years old, who is said to have cried out for his mother from the gallows. It is sadly ironic that this group of desperate workers, called Luddites, have given their name to those who are said to “irrationally” oppose technological progress.
In an economically networked free market society, long term resistance to rationalization in the interest of job retention can only be carried out by the state exercising its prerogative to redistribute wealth. Or through individuals practicing vocational voluntarism, – the willingness to work for less, for glory, or for nothing at all. Improvements in cost-benefit ratios for one sector of a networked economy will inevitably put pressure on all other sectors. As Vilfredo Pareto pointed out over a century ago1:
As the proportion between capital and labour changes, the former becomes less precious, while the latter grows in value. Wherever technically possible, the machine replaces man’s physical energy. This can be done economically, among civilized nations precisely because there in no shortage of capital; among the other nations the conversion, though technically possible, is not often economical, and therefore man has a greater share in the physical work2. Hence where there is a great abundance of capital, man turns necessarily to work in which the machine cannot compete with him.
Technology does cost people their jobs – and yes, it creates jobs as well, but that is scant solace for those who cannot migrate from the one to the other, scrambling to find work in which the machine cannot compete with him. The cost of labour in the developed world, affected by an abundance of capital has risen almost without a hitch since Pareto wrote those words. Labour costs more –- technology costs less – and the transfer of workloads from humans to machines will not decrease -– on the contrary.3 The effects of abundant capital and technology, not only promote rationalization, but also encourage the proliferation of services and goods that are immune to rationalization, as workers and entrepreneurs seek a safe haven from technological encroachment of their jobs.
Nevertheless, it is not just the inevitable loss of unprofitable jobs that causes us to resist technology, but also the perceived loss of control, or in the context of this essay: the undermining of trust. We mistrust those preaching disruptive change, we mistrust (selectively) technology: We fear loss of security and privacy, loss of psychological well being, loss of social capital, and loss of cultural identity.4 And yet we continue to innovate, to rationalize, and to disrupt, because we can so readily see how, with the help of machines, our needs can be served – faster, safer, more accurately, and more economically than without them.
Progress, in a nutshell, is the extension of range. How far we can reach – spiritually, materially, socially, and epistemologically. We, albeit disproportionately, extend our reach outwards, internalizing goods, services, pleasures and knowledge via a coalescence of innumerable communication systems, some of which are the traditional fabric of human societies, some institutional, some the product of technological achievement. It is the goal of this essay to touch upon the interactions of these systems.
1The Rise And Fall Of The Elites p:75 : (Palgrave Macmillan, 1993
2The well-to-do in the underdeveloped world thrive on cheap labour luxury. The well-to-do in the developed world thrive on cheap technology luxury materialized by cheap labour..
3This effect is of course mollified by free trade between nations with widely divergent labour costs. Free trade optimists believe that specialization will eventually replace labour cost inequality as the prime mover of trade. But, of course, today specialization is very much a product of labour cost disequilibrium.
4We also fear things that think and move faster than we do, at least initially until we can master them.
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