SC210--Week 7--Lecture notes
I. Volti, Ch. 9, Work in Nonindustrial Societies
It is a bit obvious to say that changes in technology change the way people make their livings. But judging from the way people object to those changes--even when the technologies are welcomed--it is worth saying. At the same time, we must point out that technology changes more than jobs. It replaces jobs, of course, but it also replaces industries, moves people from the country to the city and back to the suburbs, alters the balance between work and leisure, and more.
In Ch. 9, Volti notes that primitive (hunter-gatherer) peoples manage to meet their needs with relatively few (12-19) hours of labor per week, spending the rest of the time socializing. We think of technology as saving labor, but in our modern, technological society, we spend a much greater proportion of our time laboring to meet our basic needs.
Have we been had? Well, primitive people have very limited "needs." Food, shelter, clothing, a few tools... If you're a hunter-gatherer, you want no more than you can pick up and carry. We need food and shelter too, but our clothing fills closets, and then there are the garden tools, the books, the computers, the furniture... To carry it all, we need a truck. Maybe even two trucks!
As technology advances, more goods become available, people want more, and people put in more time to get them. In addition, the shift to agriculture made it possible for fewer workers to feed more people more reliably, freeing erstwhile farmers to become everything from accountants to priests, but at a cost in time. Further advance worked similarly. We wound up on something of a treadmill--we are so dependent on technology that we cannot stop using it, or people will die (it's not just a psychological dependence--without modern technological agriculture, we could not come close to feeding the world's billions).
What else did agriculture do to us? It gave us cities. Workers freed from the farm could specialize, and we got accountants, engineers, priests, and a thousand other specialties. Specialties meant that individuals developed intensely focused skills (hunter-gatherers are generalists, though they may be better at and may spend more of their time at some things than others). Exchange systems grew more elaborate. People came to be dominated more by self-interest than group-interest, though groups persisted as hereditary castes and craft-guilds that excluded outsiders and new ideas. Technological advance was fastest in places like England, where the guilds were weak and there were fewer barriers to innovation.
Technology also changed attitudes toward time. Once, workers were fairly laid-back about their days. They socialized freely, left the workshop and returned, and everyone was happy as long as the work got done. Early time-keeping devices such as hourglasses were not accurate enough to synchronize people whowere out of sight of each other, but when in the 13th century more or less accurate clocks (they would get more accurate later) were invented, medieval monasteries adopted the devices to mark the times for prayer. Very soon the clocks were being used to regulate the pace of civil life and work. By the time of John Calvin, it was not at all hard to claim that work or industriousness was a cardinal virtue, and from that came the "work ethic" that still keeps people hustling.
II. Volti, Ch. 10, Technology & Jobs
In Chapter 10, Technology and Jobs, Volti speaks of technological obsolescence,
noting that in developed nations there has been a huge loss of farm workers, but
not a huge concomitant unemployment problem because of new technologies and new
industries, so far serving very well to compensate. Technological unemployment
is local and temporary (as well as inevitable). Indeed, in the long term,
technology tends to increase employment because of the increased supply and
diversity of goods (including services) technology makes available.
this go on forever? Our economy is based on continued growth, but as population
stabilizes or declines (and current demographic projections see global
population as beginning to decline by the end of this century), a lot of that
growth has to stop--unless rising expectations increase demand, as Volti notes
has been happening with the demand for health care. If people's appetites for
more goods and services saturate, more growth stops. And a hallmark of
technological advance is that efficiency improves--i.e., fewer workers are
needed to produce the same level of output.
How bad can it get? One of
the "disruptive technologies" that may be about to hit us, our jobs, and the
economy is the 3D printer. One Cornell professor
potential revolution. Once they are affordable and widespread, it may become
possible for everyone to manufacture--at home!--almost anything they need. All
they will need is designs (CAD-CAM files)
and raw materials. What will this do to the manufacturing sector? Retailing? The
economy? The government (which runs on taxes upon economic activity)?
"Disruptive" is hardly the word for it! Consider that the world's current
economic crisis is having many of the same effects.
"Change" means that
any educational system that focuses on past ways of doing things, past
expectations of normality, will quickly prove inadequate. Today's young people
must be educated to be flexible, educable, and willing to change or adjust (with
computers, does the constant need for upgrades help to create this mental
flexibility?). We really can't expect the railroad featherbedding approach
(paying people who have no work) to be repeated. The world owes no one a living.
Or do technologies such as 3D printers and their more versatile and
powerful descendants get us off the treadmill at last? 3D printers promise
to meet all our needs (at the price of utter dependence on them), but history
shows that our list of needs tends to expand. What will people "need" in the
future that are perhaps only "wants" today? How much time will they put in to
satisfy those needs (remember that we have more needs than do hunter-gatherers,
and we work longer hours)? What will they spend that time doing?
raise very similar questions. The next edition of the Taking Sides book will
have an Issue on this point. I have posted an early draft of the Issue on
Moodle, where you will see that some people, such as Marshall Brain, expect that
by mid-century robots will be so capable that they will be able to do just about
anything people can do. The result will be vast unemployment. He
thinks we should already be rethinking our economy.
III. Volti, Ch. 11, Technological Change and Life on the Job
Chapter 11, Volti is concerned with the impact of the shift from working for
oneself to working for an employer. In Ye Olden Days, skilled workers had more
independence. If they worked for someone, they had some control over the
employee-employer relationship because they could threaten to walk and take
their skills with them. Today, a huge amount of the skill has been embodied in
machines and procedures, and the worker is replaceable, "de-skilled" and
regimented and controlled and largely powerless.
Today? Well, says
Volti, it isn't as bad as it was a few years ago. High technology resists the
process until it becomes routine. "Scientific Management" and its treatment of
workers as obedient little robots has long since bitten the dust. And modern
management styles do claim to give the worker more clout (TQM, quality circles,
etc.), although skeptics have displayed a tendency to think management
uses TQM etc. more as morale gimmicks, something to make workers think
they have some control.
And for the future? Does the manager's urge to
control the worker remain? How do managers deal with workers who want to work
from home (modern network technology makes this a real option)? Does the 3D
printer revolution that may be coming promise to return the workers'
independence? Does it threaten managerial jobs (if a manufacturing business
dies, managerial jobs die too)?
Questions for Discussion
1. Technology increases productivity and thereby reduces employment. At the same time, it increases employment.
How can those two statements both be true?
2. Marshall Brain suggests that because robots are
rapidly improving and will before long threaten many jobs, it is time to rethink
our economy. Where would you begin?
3. How does the "de-skilling" idea apply to robotics? To 3D
4. How did technology create the suburbs? What kind of technological change would it take to "uncreate" the suburbs?
5. What kind of technological change would it take to move the suburbs even further out into the countryside?