The Battle Between Progress And Technology That Leaves Workers Without A Job
Like Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” So, I’m grateful to nice folks who are still around to check me in the old way.
“Thank you so very much,” I gushed with profound appreciation to the woman who sped my wife and me to our homeward flight from London’s Heathrow airport last summer. (I’m pretty sure she belonged to the UNITE union.)
“You’re welcome,” she smiled and replied. “One day I won’t be here. They want to get rid of us.”
She meant those kiosks would eliminate her job. Millions of people worldwide have already lost jobs to the kind of “progress” the kiosks represent.
As we headed for the gate, I thought of the Luddites, 19th-century English textile mill workers who wrecked machines that were taking their jobs. Factory owners equated mechanization with “progress” — meaning more profit for them. The workers’ supposed leader was Ned Ludd, hence the movement’s name.
Today, “Luddite” is a slam for somebody like me who dares suggest that “technology” is not necessarily synonymous with “progress.”
Don’t get me wrong. I like my PC a lot better than my ancient Royal manual typewriter I used in college going on 50 years ago. Nor am I proposing a Luddite solution to stanch the bleeding of jobs to technology.
I’m with my union brother, David Nickell. He says society needs to redefine its notion of “progress” to ensure that technology serves all of us, rather than enriching just the few.
“We’ve got to start asking ourselves, ‘How can we use technology to bring us the kind of world in which everybody has a job and a place?”” argued David, who teaches sociology and philosophy at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah.
David is the campus representative for AFT Local 1360, this old history teacher’s union office before he retired.
David, like me, is a lifelong resident of rural western Kentucky. We’re fans of Wendell Berry, the famous Bluegrass State writer, environmental activist and social critic.
“Wendell Berry wrote that we are creating a surplus population, with no role for them in society,” David said.
Berry meant farmers and farm workers. The same applies to blue- and white-collar workers who’ve lost–and are still losing–livelihoods to “progress.”
Added David: “I ask my students, ‘How many of you believe in progress? Every one of them holds up a hand. Then I ask, ‘What are we progressing toward?’”
Silence follows, he said.
David said the self-service check-in gizmos–common at U.S. airports, too–symbolize our seemingly insatiable demand for convenience at almost any cost.
“Somebody said the new American credo is ‘Give me convenience or give me death,’” he said.
Anyway, 19th-factory owners and managers on both sides of the Atlantic welcomed machines as profit enhancers.
Absent unions, factory and mill hands toiled long hours at low pay in jobs that threatened, and often claimed, lives and limbs. Most employers saw their employees as mere means to economic ends. They commonly fired workers as soon as they found machines to replace them.
Stateside and in Europe, self-check-out kiosks are also supplanting staffers at supermarkets and other big stores. Automatic answering devices have mostly replaced human telephone operators, too.
After I’m able to run the press-here-for-this-or-that gauntlet and finally reach a real person, I say, “Thank you for being there. Your company needs to hire more people to answer the phones. They need jobs; machines don’t.”
David also noted that many people are uncritically hailing computerized, self-driving cars and trucks as more examples of “progress.”
“With centralized computers with artificial intelligence, the computer can learn from what one truck encounters and instantly reroute all other trucks,” he said.
“The gains in efficiency will be tremendous, but how many truck and delivery drivers will be replaced? This is one of the last good paying jobs that does not require a college degree, or any specialized training beyond a commercial driver’s license.”
Self-driving taxi cabs are also on the way.
In any event, David said there’s a big difference between finding meaningful work and merely “having a job.”
He explained, “The alienation of the worker has now become so expected that it seems extremist even to point it out. If the technologies were used properly, they would replace the alienating, tedious, and back breaking jobs, and not the people.”
David recalled his dismay at hearing a Kentucky governor say “’the purpose of higher education is to meet the needs of business and industry.’
“I thought to myself, ‘Business and industry are supposed to succeed, or fail, based on whether they can meet the needs of the people.’”
To feed the greed of wealthy wool and cotton mill owners in the early 1800s, the British parliament, whose members were all rich and powerful men, passed laws to crush the Luddite movement. They also sent redcoat soldiers to shoot or arrest them; several Luddite leaders were hanged, imprisoned or transported to penal colonies in Australia.
In his maiden speech in the House of Lords, George Gordon, Lord Byron, the famous poet, defended the Luddites. While he “condemned” and “deplored” Luddite violence, he warned, “It cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.”
So, more than a century later, is it “Time to reconsider the Luddites?” asked the headline on a 2014 story in the online U.S. edition of The Guardian, a British newspaper. The author, Robert Skidelsky, based his story on MIT research which showed that over the last 30 years, the share of wages in our national income has been shrinking.
Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee said that during this “second machine age,” computer technology has pushed deeper “into the service sector, taking over jobs for which the human factor and ‘cognitive functions’ were hitherto deemed indispensable.”
At the airport, most of the old-fashioned check-in desks were unstaffed. So we had to stand in line–“queue” in the local lingo. But there were queues for the kiosks, too.
Not counting queuing time, the friendly staffer at the still open desk had us on our way about as quickly as the kiosk users were checking themselves in and heading for their flights.
Skidelsky, a professor of political economy at Warwick (England) University, pointed to Wal Mart and Amazon as “prime examples of new technology driving down workers’ wages. Because computer programs and humans are close substitutes for such jobs, and given the predictable improvement in computing power, there seems to be no technical obstacle to the redundancy of workers across much of the service economy.”
He acknowledged that “there will still be activities that require human skills, and these skills can be improved. But it is broadly true that the more computers can do, the less humans need to do. The prospect of the ‘abridgment of labour’ should fill us with hope rather than foreboding. But, in our kind of society, there are no mechanisms for converting redundancy into leisure.”
Skidelsky recalled the Luddites. “They claimed that because machines were cheaper than labour, their introduction would depress wages. They argued the case for skill against cheapness. The most thoughtful of them understood that consumption depends on real income, and that depressing real income destroys businesses. Above all, they understood that the solution to the problems created by machines would not be found in laissez-faire nostrums.”
In their headlong embrace of technology as a boon to their bottom lines, business and industry owners would do well to remember that jobless workers can’t afford to buy the products made by the computers, robots and machines that replaced them.
For sure, unemployed airport ground staff won’t have the wherewithal to fly the friendly skies.