There’s No Reason to Worry, Dave

Winter                                                                     Cold Moon

Here’s an analysis in the January issue of Wired that caught my attention.  I don’t doubt that the numbers they use are right, though I haven’t confirmed them.

“It’s hard to believe you’d have an economy at all if you gave pink slips to more than half the labor force. But that—in slow motion—is what the industrial revolution did to the workforce of the early 19th century. Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields… Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.”  Wired January 2013

The argument here defines technological triumphalism, not only does technology solve all our ills, it always will.  And so it was good.

However.  Let’s go backwards to the time period before the industrial revolution when most folks still lived on farms.  I’m no romantic about subsistence agriculture having owned a farm, The (not so) Peaceable Kingdom, and engaged in intensive permaculture horticulture here at home.  It’s hard work and a bad year can literally kill you.

(Davos, World Economic Forum, A_Lunch_at_the_Belvedere)

Even so.  There’s a price to pay for salvation by the machine.  Think of it, machines take humans off the land and put them in service of making more and smarter machines.  That’s the essential argument this whole article makes.  Yes, it relieved the awful strains of serfdom, tenant farming, subsistence on increasingly smaller plots as inheritance ate up legacy lands.  But.  It created the hells of the looms, the coal age, the coal mine.  Child labor.  A cash economy where no cash spells doom faster even than failed crops.

Then there’s that relationship to the land.  We’ve removed so many people from the land, distanced them further and further to the sources of their own foods and we’ve done it via industrial processes now ruining those sources, those faraway yesterday sources.  That we cannot live without.

Technology has triumphed.  Along with its handmaiden, capitalism.  Neither of them care that they eat not their young, but yours.  Each of them assume an instrumentalist view of natural resources and human labor, seeing them both as infinite and replaceable when in fact they are neither.

I’m no luddite.  I love my computer and I look forward to a robot that can take over weeding our garden.  It’s that price.  Who tallies up the human and ecological cost of this capitalist, techno future?  Who thinks about how to reduce and when possible eliminate it?

Not the authors of articles for technology’s cheer leaders.