It’s Here-After Fifty Years of Warnings

… about the New Industrial Revolution

It’s here. Ignore the naysaysers

Fabius Maximus (February 04 2016)

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. (First of two posts today.)

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 four 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.

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956~1958) by Winston Churchill.

The development of semi-intelligent machines, with simple sensory systems and IQ equivalents of above sixty (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 (especially 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 book, But the need to adapt is not obvious to everybody. In her deep book, In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power (1989), 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” {1}.

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

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 manoeuvred 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 IQ 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

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 Labour 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 labour and promise an economy of near automated production by the mid-decades 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 labourers. 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 labourers has begun to take a tragic toll on the lives of millions of workers.

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 biography {2}. 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? {3}

5. 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” {4}

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.

5. For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts describing how the Third Industrial Revolution has begun {5}. Also see the posts about the evidence that we’ve entered a period of secular stagnation {6}. And especially see these:

The promise and peril of automation

How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over

At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.

Looking at America’s future: economic stagnation, or will computers take our jobs?

Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek

For deeper analysis see these books:

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015) by Martin Ford.

Links:

{1} http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/01/the_world_economic_forum_is_wrong_this_isn_t_the_fourth_industrial_revolution.html

{2} http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_F._Noble

{3} http://faculty.unlv.edu/wjsmith/smithtest/NOBLE.pdf

{4} http://www.chakoteya.net/Startrek/53.htm

{5} http://fabiusmaximus.com/future/next-industrial-revolution-68679-2/

{6} http://fabiusmaximus.com/tag/secular-stagnation/

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

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