50 years of warnings about the new industrial revolution. It’s here. Ignore the naysayers.

Summary:  The new Industrial Revolution is now upon us. We have sufficient warning and, with the experience from the earlier ones, should be able to navigate through it to a prosperous future without massive suffering during the transition. This is the latest in a long series about what might be the major economic event of the 21st century. {1st of 2 posts today.}

Danger, Construction Ahead
There is a safe path to the future.
“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)

 

Contents

  1. Preparing by closing our eyes
  2. James Blish warned us
  3. Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast
  4. Politics of new industrial revolution
  5. Conclusions
  6. For More Information

 

(1) Prepare for the future: close our eyes

On September 23 {William the Conqueror’s} fleet hove in sight, and all came safely to anchor in Pevensey Bay. There was no opposition to the landing. The local fyrd had been called out this year 4 times already to watch the coast, and having, in true English style, come to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived had gone back to their homes.

— From A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill.

The development of semi-intelligent machines, with simple sensory systems and IQ equivalents of 60+ (in a small domain), will destroy a large fraction of today’s jobs.  Perhaps we’ll find new forms of employment.  Perhaps we will develop new economic systems which require fewer people to work.  If delayed into the second half of the 21st century, the almost inevitable population crash (esp. following the invention of a contraceptive pill for men) will make automation a cure — not a curse.  All of these solutions will require innovation, wisdom, luck — and time.

But the need to adapt is not obvious to everybody. In her deep 1989 book In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power Shoshana Zuboff does not even use the word “unemployment” — or mention the potential for massive job losses.

This “robot revolution” is long-predicted and now arriving, but some interpret that it took long to arrive as evidence that it will not come. For example, past week Elizabeth Garbee at Slate wrote “This Is Not the Fourth Industrial Revolution” — “The meaningless phrase got tossed around a lot at this year’s World Economic Forum.”

Here are three forecasts of the coming robot revolution. Let’s learn from their insights, and get ready.

Cities in Flight
Available at Amazon.

(2)  Science fiction then; now our future

The effects of automation were visible to some people long ago. One of the first was James Blish, as in this his A Life for the Stars (1962), the second of his Cities in Flight series. This passage describes what New York might look like in the late 21st century.

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.

The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression:  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.

(3) Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast warns us to prepare

The End of Work
Available at Amazon.

Jeremy Rifkin is a Jeremiah of our time. But as a stopped clock is right twice a day, he scores occasionally — as in The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (1995):

The Information Age has arrived. In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. In the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the middecades of the twenty-first century.

The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.

… We are entering a new phase in world history-one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population. The End of Work examines the technological innovations and market-directed forces that are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world. We will explore the promises and perils of the Third Industrial Revolution and begin to address the complex problems that will accompany the transition into a post-market era.

… In the past, when new technologies have replaced workers in a given sector, new sectors have always emerged to absorb the displaced laborers. Today, all three of the traditional sectors of the economy agriculture, manufacturing, and service — are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls.

The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, educators, and consultants. While this sector is growing, it is not expected to absorb more than a fraction of the hundreds of millions who will be eliminated in the next several decades in the wake of revolutionary advances in the information and communication sciences.

… The restructuring of production practices and the permanent replacement of machines for human laborers has begun to take a tragic toll on the lives of millions of workers.

Progress Without People
Available at Amazon.

(4) Politics of a new industrial revolution

For a grim look at our future see Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance by David F. Noble (1995). See his Wikipedia bio. The opening chapters are from his 1983 series of articles in Democracy about “Present Tense Technology”. The series opens with this stark warning from “Technology’s Politics“:

There is a war on, but only one side is armed: this is the essence of the technology question today. On the one side is private capital, scientized and subsidized, mobile and global, and now heavily armed with military spawned command, control, and communication technologies. Empowered by the second industrial revolution, capital is moving decisively now to enlarge and consolidate the social domination it secured in the first.

… Thus, with the new technology as a weapon, they steadily advance upon all remaining vestiges of worker autonomy, skill, organization, and power in the quest for more potent vehicles of investment and exploitation. And, with the new technology as their symbol, they launch a multi-media cultural offensive designed to rekindle confidence in “progress.”

On the other side, those under assault hastily abandon the field for lack of an agenda, an arsenal or an army. Their own comprehension and critical abilities confounded by the cultural barrage, they take refuge in alternating strategies of appeasement and accommodation, denial and delusion, and reel in desperate disarray before this seemingly inexorable onslaught —- which is known in polite circles as “technological change.

What is it that accounts for this apparent helplessness on the part of those whose very survival, it would seem, depends upon resisting this systematic degradation of humanity into mere disposable factors of production and accumulation?

Conclusions

“We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.”
— Dr. McCoy, star date 4729.4, in the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer.“

We have no excuse for being caught unaware and letting this new technology destabilize our society and cause widespread suffering. With modest planning we can enjoy its fantastic benefits without pain. Failure to plan for these obvious developments might mean some tough times ahead for America.

Our world in their hands.

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts describing how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun. Also see the posts about the evidence that we’ve entered a period of secular stagnation. And especially see these…

For deeper analysis see these books…

The Second Machine Age
Available at Amazon.
Rise of the Robots
Available at Amazon.

17 thoughts on “50 years of warnings about the new industrial revolution. It’s here. Ignore the naysayers.

  1. Once again, I am getting the purely anecdotal impression that you are re-cycling some of your articles from your 3rd Industrial Revolution collection. I have no objections to that, but I’m still more interested in your more detailed and novel thoughts — if you have developed your own ideas — about how you think that “with modest planning, we can enjoy its fantastic benefits without pain.”

    I previously posted a quite lengthy list of ideas I’ve personally compiled in response to one of your other most recent posts on this topic, and did so in the hope you might find them worthy of further consideration and discussion–especially if you were not previously aware of them. And if you feel you have already discussed such ideas in previous posts, please feel free to point out to me where I can find these posts in your 3rd Industrial Revolution collection. Thanks for your time and consideration:)

    1. Thomas,

      “about how you think that “with modest planning, we can enjoy its fantastic benefits without pain.”

      That’s an interesting question, and one I had not thought of. IMO a large and relatively rapid increase in productivity — and hence national income and wealth — are boons that require actual effort to screw-up. We have done so before, in the first two waves of industrialization (early 19thC and 1880-1930). But this time we have the lessons from then, including the experience of overcoming those screw-ups.

      In fact, our response to the 2nd IR was better than to the first — creating the first large prosperous middle classes. We have both the group memory and institutional structures from those wins.

      So I don’t see why it will be difficult to do well this time — if we try. Sloth and apathy are our chief foes.

    2. Hello, I posted some longer follow-up comments late last night/early this AM (Feb 4-5) in response to your feedback to my initial comment above. But I did not keep a copy of my follow-up comments. So if you choose not to post them (from which I could make my own copy), could you please send a copy of my comments to me at my email address, which I hope you can access from your database of regular recipients of FM posts. If not, please let me know by responding briefly to this comment, or by posting a copy of my comments on my FB page. Thank you!:)

    3. Tom,

      I found your comment in the spam filter — for number of links and length (1600 words!). The comment section is not for posting long essays — longer than my posts. Nobody is going to read them, and they kill any discussion.

      Also, your comment makes no coherent point. It lumps together essays about a dozen different points, with some material that’s just daft (“Former Reagan budget director David Stockman Says Unemployment Is Really 42.9%” — 2x that of the Great Depression).

      The ideal comment quotes a sentence or two from the post or another comment, gives at most a 200 or 300 word reply — perhaps with a supporting citation or two. Then people can respond to you.

    4. Thanks for locating my missing comments. I realize they are longer than you prefer, but–once again–I posted them primarily for your potential edification because I have yet to see any detailed discussion in your 3IR posts about possible ways to deal with the possible end of anything close to what has traditionally been regarded as “full” employment.

      I also disagree with your perception that my comments made no coherent point. I premised them with the assertion that I think more contingency planning is needed, by which I mean we could benefit from preparing for a wider range of plausible future scenarios, including not only jobless growth and mostly low-wage job growth, but also various types of stagnation, decline, and transformation and/or restructuring. So the links I strung together were intended to stimulate thought about possible responses to all of these scenarios.

      Re the Stockman assertion that the real unemployment rate is close to 43%, I agree it might seem daft if you do not understand the methodology he used. He is simply making the point that even though the “official” unemployment rate is currently around 5%, the number of hours actually worked by all American adults of “working” age–when compared to the potential total number of hours that would be worked if all working adults actually worked 40 hours per week–already amounts to only about 57% of the potential total hours that would be “worked” if all US adults had “full-time” 40 hour per week jobs. Hence, his provocative assertion that the “real” unemployment rate is almost 43%.

      So if you would be so kind as to send a copy of my longer comments from your spam filter to me by email or via my FB page, I would be willing to break them into more bite-sized chunks if you think your readers would be interested, starting with various ways to address jobless growth or mostly low-wage job growth. Thanks again:)

  2. Different population groups have different IQ distributions — and thus will be differentially affected by the new waves of automation. Government leaders and policymakers had best prepare for the fallout. Time cannot be reversed, and the facts of human genetics are the facts — even in a politically correct multicultural society.

    Government positions have been occupied by the frivolous and the corrupt for too long. Grownups with good judgment are needed, because the masses have been programmed to be perpetual adolescents, and cannot be counted on to respond to pressure in a mature fashion.

    1. afin,

      We can only guess about the effects of the new industrial revolution. My guess is that the small generic IQ differences between human groups will be irrelevant compared the difference in functionality between machines and humans. The degree of generic variation between different human groups is tiny compared to that of most mammals (disturbingly, the magnitude of the difference between us and our simian cousins is also small) — but the difference between us and machines will become vast.

      For example, when I was active (on the fringes) of AI in the late 1980s, most computering experts believed that a machine would world champion at Go only in the mid- or late-21stC. Google’s AlphaGo defeated the reigning 3-time European Go champion, Fan Hui. It will only be months, perhaps a few years, until it beats the best. See the Google Reseach Blog for details.

  3. Can there be such a thing as a professional adventurer or explorer job in this coming automated era?

    Aside from the vanity industry I can’t think of anything else aside from assigning people to become pioneers of some sort. Certainly Monks that are freed from the drudgery of the middle ages seem to be pretty creative in scientific discovery and invention.

    What do you think?

    1. INfowarrior,

      Much science fiction about the future describes sports and adventure as growth industries, esp since with sophisticated medical care people become willing to take greater risks. For example, see Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. At the extreme, space travel becomes the equivalent of 19th century gentlemen exploring.

      These things seem likely, imo. But will they be sports of the elite rich, while the rest of us work away in the future’s highly unequal society? That is, imo, the question.

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