History

Learning From The Past – Another Perspective

In the first “Learning from the past” blog post we examined the arguments of those opposed to automation and technology throughout human history, and explored the notion that what is perceived to be a step forward for technology may be in reality a step back for society. While it is important for us to remain vigilant, and to question the real value of a change in technology, it is equally important that we do not not understate the significance of those changes that have added unquestionable value. We must recognise when technological advancement should be welcomed with open arms, as oftentimes a step forward in technology is a leap forward for society. As such the second post in this history series takes on another perspective and examines the argument for automation and technological change.

     It is easy to identify the fundamental advantages of automation. Machines are consistently productive in manufacturing higher quality goods, and neither the productivity, quality or robustness afforded by these machines can be matched by their human counterparts. Moreover, the bottom line for businesses is that adopting automation reduces human labour costs and expenses – due to the benefits just mentioned machines effectively make processes and jobs redundant. In my last post this was at the heart of the argument against automation, but conversely I would also argue that this is at the heart of the argument for automation. Automation does invariably remove the need for various jobs to exist, devaluing skills and creating unemployment, but automation also creates the need for new skills, and for new jobs that did not exist prior to automation. While they do remove the need for labour intensive occupations they allow us as a society to advance and refocus our efforts in doing so.

     In development economics the Luddite belief that technology results only in workers jobs being lost is referred to as the “Luddite fallacy” – economists believe that technological advancement will always create more jobs than it destroys.

“There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed… The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand.” (Rasbotham, 1780)

     While it is undeniable that the increased adoption of automation has indeed led to jobs lost and devalued skillsets, as we have previously examined, it is important to note that employment is not the factor that changes in the long run, it is simply what we perceive as constituting work that changes. Technology causes jobs to become redundant but requires new jobs to take their place. In a sense it frees us as a society to chase other pursuits, explore different avenues and build society onward and upward safe in the knowledge that our needs are being dealt with for us, without the need for us.

     Take the case of the croppers of West Riding, mentioned in the previous blogpost. During the industrial revolution automation made the croppers work redundant, and these workers soon found themselves working in the new factory model these same technological changes gave life to. Today these factory workers are again falling prey to technological change. Like a cycle, advances in technology and knowledge demand the need for new jobs to arise, until eventually we reach a point that technology can perform these jobs for us. Our knowledge continues to grow and new jobs replace the old ones – at least until the next technological advancement makes them redundant. Farm machinery replaced the need for farmers. Factory machinery replaced the factory worker. Clerical machines replaced the need for clerks. But machines can never replace the human desire for more choices and better products. Sometimes these insatiable desires are seen as an affliction of the western world – that we are never satisfied with what we have, we always want more, but this is simply human nature and as long as there are people there will always be a need for other people to innovate.

    Bearing this in mind I ask you to once again examine the case of the smart home. The benefits to us are obvious – once time consuming tasks can be dealt with by our home itself, leaving us free to devote more time to our work and to ourselves. Does the adoption of automation then warrant contention and worry? Consider the information on smart homes provided in this blog, consider the advantages stated here, but consider also the disadvantages mentioned in “Learning from the past”, then come to your own conclusion. But do not blindly accept change without weighing up the pros and cons.

Dan Flynn

 

Bibliography:

 

N.V. , 2011, Difference Engine: Luddite legacy http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/11/artificial-intelligence

Rasbotham, Dorning, 1780, Thoughts on the use of machines, in the cotton manufacture: addressed to the working people in that manufacture, and to the poor in general. Manchester: J.Harrop

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/44912/automation/24865/Advantages-and-disadvantages-of-automation

http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com/luddite_fallacy_still_valid.htm

http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2009/11/rethinking_the_luddites

Learning From The Past

           Have we as a society reached a point where we are now too lazy to flip a light switch, adjust a thermostat, or lock a door? The recent welcoming of automation into our homes presents the question of whether or not these technological advancements are truly necessary, oreven valuable, for our society. Indeed the question of whether or not this new technology should be applauded is a question that has been asked of countless major technological advances throughout our history.

            As such the first two entries in the history section of this blog will focus not on the rather brief history of this fledgling industry, but on the history of those who argued both for and against technological change, and the rationale behind their respective arguments. In a bid to help us uncover whether or not smart homes offer us real value without hidden drawbacks, and in order to construct our own informed decisions on the matter,we must first consider the reasoning of those who both resisted technological change and those who ushered it in before us.

            While it may seem like a contradiction, it is never wise to blindly presume all advancements or changes truly take us forward, not backward. To explain the notion that technological advancements can take us backwards we must first look in that direction; backwards. To the contention of increased automation that has persisted throughout our history.

            The Luddite movement is one that is both well documented and closely tied to the topic of this blog piece. In fact, the movement is so linked to this topic that today the word Luddite has become a moniker for those who oppose technology. The movement was seen initially in 1811 in response to advancements (primarily machines) brought about by the industrial revolution as well as financial difficulties following the Napoleonic war. (Who were the Luddites and what did they want?, N.D)The Luddites are of particular relevance as they formed in response to two effects of technological advancement that remain two of the major driving forces of contention of change to this day; unemployment and wage reductions.The adoption of automation effectively eliminated the need for skilled workers in various trades, such as the croppers of West Riding, and as such these workers soon found their once highly touted skills devalued, and their wages drastically reduced. (The Drama and Tragedy of West Riding Luddism, N.D)

           These same workers previously held a great degree of authority over their working life, and “shaped their work around their lives, rather than their lives around their work.”(Sale, 1995) The advent of various technologies resulted in their skills becoming redundant while also allowing for the introduction of a new factory model, which we are told “meant regimented and unprecedented work hours, horrific pollution, dangerous working conditions, unsanitary living space with virulent diseases, early death, a starvation diet and a total lack of freedom.”(Sale, 1995) Not exactly the most pleasant effects of technological evolution for society as a whole. Today some of these conditions sound all too familiar, even in the western world. Is it bold then, for us to deduce that past technological changes can be directly linked to the increasingly long work weeks and the emphasis on labour so prevalent in the capitalist model today? Whether this is seen as progress or not is very different depending on whom you ask.

            Neo-Luddism is a more recent movement in the opposition of technological change. The manifesto of the second Luddite Congress branded Neo-Luddism as “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.” (Sale, 1997) Neo-Luddites are not entirely opposed to technology, but are apprehensive about the ability of any new technology to solve current problems without creating more, potentially hazardous problems. This is not confined to the major changes similar to those seen in the industrial revolution but changes in all areas of life. John Philip Sousa for example regarded the introduction of the phonograph with suspicion and predicted: “a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste”. (Graham, 1999) Anyone who has overheard a Nikki Minaj or Justin Bieber song can certainly attest to the validity of that predicition.

           In 1953, German philosopher, and Neo-Luddite,Martin Heidegger asserted that modern technology had already taken centre stage in society, and that we had now reached a point where all elements of the natural world; land, plants, animals, even people were viewed as mere resources, losing all value but that which can be exploited. Heidegger uses the Rhine river as an example of a previously unadulterated natural beauty that technology had reduced to nothing more than a power source, a resource. (Wheeler, 2013) As before, with the luddite movement, there is a relationship between technological change and capitalist society today, that advances in technology have altered our very perception of the world to fit this view of nature as a source of wealth. Nothing more than resources to be drained until the profits dries up, only to be mercilessly replaced by the next resource in the queue. A rather pessimistic outlook then is that technology may be the root cause of what may ultimately be a self-destructive society.

           That is not to say Smart Homes are guaranteed to turn our world into a scene out of the movie “2012” but should serve as a reminder to us to learn from our past. A brief look at the history of technology tells us no change should be adopted and welcomed so blindly.

 

Dan Flynn

 

Bibliography:

1) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/opinion/krugman-sympathy-for-the-luddites.html?_r=0

2) What is a Luddite? & The Drama and Tragedy of West Riding Luddism: http://www.ludditelink.org.uk/history.php

3) Who were the Luddites and what did they want? http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/politics/g3/

4) The Luddites war on Industry –http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no6/luddites.htm

5) Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, TheStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/heidegger/

 

 6) Kirkpatrick, Sale Americas New Luddites, 1997

http://mondediplo.com/1997/02/20luddites

 7)Kirkpatrick, Sale Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age, Addison Wesley, Boston, Mass, 1995.

8) Graham, Gordon The Internet: a philosophical inquiry. Routledge.p. 9. 1999

9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Luddism