Ever since the industrial revolution, futurists have been forecasting the end of work. Recently, journalist Derek Thompson wrote in Atlantic Monthly about the immanence of widespread joblessness from the perspective of Youngstown, Ohio. For most of the last century, Youngstown boasted one of the more prosperous economies in the country, mostly due to the flourishing steel industry. But that all changed radically when much of steel production was transferred overseas during the late seventies. Five years after Youngstown Steel shut its doors, the city of Youngstown lost 50,000 jobs and over a million in wages. Predictably, drug and alcohol addiction and suicide rates quadrupled, over four prisons were built in the city and the term ‘regional depression’ was coined to describe areas like Youngstown. Thousands of men at the peak of their working life had no viable prospect for a job.
To counter those who deny that technology replaces people with robots and software or who claim that only marginal jobs are displaced, Thompson cites some sobering facts. In 1964, AT&T was the major industry in America with a financial war chest of 267 billion in today’s dollars and 758,611 people. Google, arguably the top company of the 21st century, is worth 370 billion but with a mere 55,000 employees. Less than ten percent of AT&T’s work force at its highpoint.
To illustrate the speed with which everything can change,Thompson uses the horse to explain what could be happening in the American economy. For millennia, man relied on the horse for everything from transportation, farm work to war. But then shortly after the turn of the last century, the automobile, tractor and tank were invented. Initially there was widespread resistance to the new inventions. Most of us dislike change, especially change of this magnitude. Despite the opposition to the new inventions, within three decades the horse became obsolete. No longer were horses central in man’s favorite activities of fighting and farming. In the United States alone, the horse population dropped by 50 percent by the 1930’s and 90 percent by the 1950’s.
Economists agree that massive changes in technology have not led to extensive unemployment. Yet.
Karel Capek introduced the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots.) The playwright, a Czech, writes of an American businessman who discovers the secret to work-the robot. The play was classified as science fiction but with obvious allusions to the conflict between workers and bosses, efficiency and humanity.
While an undergraduate English major years ago, we were assigned the play and all these years later, I recall the impact it made on me. Close to a hundred years ago, Capek explains the benefits of robots over people in eerie prose.
Excerpted from his short play is this conversation between the American business man Domin baldly stating the facts of his business to a visitor to the R.U. R., young Miss Glory:
Ah now, young Rossum; that was the start of a new age. After the age of research came the age of production. He took a good look at the human body and he saw straight away that it was much too complicated, any good engineer would design it much more simply. So he began to re-design the whole anatomy, seeing what he could leave out or simplify. In short, Miss Glory… I’m not boring you, am I?
Helena:No, quite the opposite, this is fascinating.
Domin: So young Rossum said to himself: Man is a being that does things such as feeling happiness, plays the violin, likes to go for a walk, and all sorts of other things which are simply not needed.
Helena: Oh, I see!
Domin: No, wait. Which are simply not needed for activities such as weaving or calculating. A petrol engine doesn’t have any ornaments or tassels on it, and making an artificial worker is just like making a petrol engine. The simpler you make production the better you make the product. What sort of worker do you think is the best?
Helena:The best sort of worker? I suppose one who is honest and dedicated.
Domin: No. The best sort of worker is the cheapest worker. The one that has the least needs. What young Rossum invented was a worker with the least needs possible. He had to make him simpler. He threw out everything that wasn’t of direct use in his work, that’s to say, he threw out the man and put in the robot. Miss Glory, robots are not people. They are mechanically much better than we are, they have an amazing ability to understand things, but they don’t have a soul. Young Rossum created something much more sophisticated than Nature ever did – technically at least!
But could there be a different ending to what reads like an imminent disaster for humanity?
We’re reminded that research has revealed repeatedly that many people hate their jobs. Perhaps solutions lie in a redefinition of work, a redefinition of why we work.
Could the predicted loss of half to two-thirds of current jobs end up being a positive outcome, even a solution to a problem that does not exist?
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that unemployment is an invented problem. Invented by politicians seeking our votes. In an article called, Are Jobs Obsolete? Rushkoff asks this.
The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with “career” be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?
Now three years into my third career as a novelist, I see clearly his point.