18 June 2013

Spock vs. John Muir: The Technology Debate

I’m not a Luddite completely I believe in refrigerators to cool my martinis, and washing machines because I hate to see women smacking their laundry against a rock. When I hear about hardware, I think of pots and pans, and when I hear about software, I think of sheets and towels.
~ Louis “Studs” Terkel

The following is the first in a series of posts exploring the current debate over technology and its effects, if any, on social behavior. ~ MD

echnology (and its effects) is hot.

Last week alone, I read three articles touching on what you could call the Spock vs. John Muir debate: those who think technology will save the world versus those who think that technology is harmful to nature (both human and the outside world).

It’s an interesting debate and one that warrants serious thought and research ~ even, as we shall see in future posts, for the artist and the gardener.  As such, one article isn’t enough to fully explore the implications of both the question itself and the answers and solutions proposed by all sides.  So this post will be one of a series of posts on the subject.

In the Friday June 14 edition of the NY Times, columnist Paul Krugman poses an important problem: “workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills” are in danger of those skills being devalued in a world of advanced technology and automation.

Krugman cites a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that suggests  
that we’re going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software doing things that used to require college graduates. Advanced robotics could further diminish employment in manufacturing, but it could also replace some medical professionals.
This is far from being a “The end is near!” narrative: it’s just a fact.

One only has to look at how something as simple as washing clothes was done before technology: either a maid or the woman of the house beating clothes against a rock in a nearby stream; and how it is done after technology: putting the clothes in a machine, pushing a button and 15 minutes later, clean clothes.  Even the old wringer washers were an advancement over beating the dirt out on a rock!
You will be assimilated!
© Kuhan, 123rf.com

But there are two ways to look at this progression.  On the negative side, the maid loses her job ~ and yes, we may think it was a poor job to have, but nevertheless at the end of the day, she had a task for which she was given room and board.  On the positive side, for those of us who wouldn’t be able to afford a maid, this is a vast improvement over hauling all those clothes to the river!  (The sustainable-green side of me would love to try out an old wringer washer, but knowing me, that fascination wouldn’t last very long!)

So what is a Luddite?
The Etymology Dictionary defines “luddite” as  
a name taken by an organized band of weavers who destroyed machinery in Midlands and northern England 1811-16 for fear it would deprive them of work.  Supposedly from Ned Ludd, a Leicestershire worker who in 1779 had done the same before through insanity (but that story first was told in 1847).  Applied to modern rejecters of automation and technology from at least 1961.   Used as an adjective from 1812.
So the debate has been going on for a long time ~ longer than one might think!
Krugman mentions those displaced workers from Leeds: 
“Who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake the arduous task” of learning a new trade? Also, they asked, what will happen if the new trade, in turn, gets devalued by further technological advance?
So the issue seems to be one of person vs. convenience (again, the washing machine example). 

But is that truly the case?

We’ve all felt this way…
© Ron Sumners, 123rf.com

False Premise
While a washer is a great invention, someone had to invent it.  Someone else had to build it.  Another person had to sell it.  And then someone has to be there to push the button.  So a lot of “someones” are still needed to complete the act of washing clothes.  In fact, more someones are needed then in the past.

So one could say that technology has not only improved the life of the washerwoman, but also that of the inventor, factory worker, store owner, and sales staff.
On the other, greener concerned hand, it uses electricity, which is in turn fueled by natural  and often non-renewable, resources, which is gathered in ways that are not always healthy or environmentally safe and sustainable.

And that is a whole other can of worms.

For now, it seems true to say that one can still have convenience without neglecting the human aspect.

And the answer is. . .
Krugman’s article, while doing a great job bringing up the issue, falls short by proposing a solution that is flawed and incomplete:  
...the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
It sounds great, but it’s too easy.    

Especially considering that the whole point of the article is that technology is replacing both white collar and blue collar workers.  If that is the case, then who is going to pay for this social safety net?  He mentions taxes, but how are workers who are already suffering going to be able to afford these taxes?  This "solution" only creates more disparity and hardship for those it supposedly helps.  Krugman doesn’t explore the consequences of a tax-based solution, which is essentially just throwing money at a problem.  Unfortunately, this seems to be a fairly typical Western/American reaction: forget about finding the root cause, just take care of the symptom.

So the question still remains: what does the future hold for highly skilled workers whose skills may be taken over by technology?   

I’m glad that Krugman is raising the issue and I hope to see a series of articles ~ either by Krugman or others ~ addressing and truly debating different answers.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela
Let's start the conversation!  What do you think?

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