Wednesday, August 14, 2013

When Machines Displace Humans In Factories and Offices

            I have begun to reevaluate my concept of human organic imprints.  Initially I was focusing too much on pure organic imprints, on those life situations where a person created something or did something unique.  But particularly when one thinks in terms of value added to any work task, the unique style that a person adds to even routine basic tasks should be focused on as an organic imprint component.  This style is intrinsically tied up with a particular work task that the person completes in order to give him work value for his effort.  The basic work task that a person completes leads to the completion of an organic imprint.  The work task of the person is not the same as the total work process which also includes the contribution of tools and machines. 

            To the extent that a human being contributes individual value to a work process, it can be attributed to the amount of the work process that is his unique organic imprint component.  This is in addition to the general human effort the person puts in so he can complete a task according to certain prescribed rules.  Both of these together make up the organic imprint.  Part of what determines the specific parameters of a task has to do with the nature of the tools and machines that help a person to complete a task.  In preliterate and other traditional societies, when people would use basic tools to complete tasks, the amount of value in a given task that could be attributed to human style and effort was considerable.  If a person made his own tools, then his organic imprints accounted for his whole work process.  If, as in many advanced traditional societies, tools were purchased, the amount of a human task that could be attributed to a worker’s organic imprints was still considerable.  A knife, a hoe, a rake, a hammer, an anvil, a saw, and a needle all require the strategy and skill of a human to be effective in the tasks for which they were created.  The tool’s markings are in the service of the human’s organic imprints.

            With the dawn of the industrial revolution, machines were created that increased the quantity and sometimes the quality in the production of a product, that performed tasks that required a strength and endurance that humans were incapable of, and that performed tasks that increased human mobility over longer and longer distances and over shorter and shorter periods of time.  Although the contribution of these machines, that ran more on fossil fuels rather than direct human force, was a lot greater within the total work process than more basic tools that were like appendages to humans, humans were still required to fill in steps that the machines couldn’t do as well as guide the machines in their work operation.  Guiding the machines could take a lot of skill, and man and advanced machine could produce a larger and more complex work output than man and more basic tools.  So factory workers, once unions were created to protect worker value in capitalist societies, could earn good wages that would give them and their families a good life.  The workers were still indispensable, even if the percentage of the work process that was their organic imprint was smaller.

            And then along came more advance machines, computers, robots, and automation.  Work processes required fewer and fewer people to perform smaller and smaller tasks.  Machines started pretty much to work by themselves.  Yes, there was still a need for people to make the machines and to program the machines, although far fewer of the former than in traditional factories where the human component was still so important.  Granted there are still a lot of traditional factories, but automation is the direction of the future.  Automation saves stock holders and management in terms of wages, pension plans and health insurance.  The fact that many workers lose their jobs is irrelevant to the owners and the people in charge.  For the time being, there are still jobs in the service sector like flipping hamburgers at MacDonald’s.  But because such jobs require no special expertise – no strategizing, no craft skills, no risk-taking – that would allow a person to leave some kind of meaningful organic imprint, the salaries are low.

            For many business owners, eliminating jobs to save money is a number one priority.  But apart from eliminating the sources of income for millions of workers, there is also the elimination of an organic grounded community of workers to which a worker can go and find support.  Many workers can’t even find low-paying jobs and end up a part of the permanently unemployed.  So there develops a vacuum of income and a vacuum of communal life experience.

            And then there are robots, some of which have already been created to replicate themselves.  As these robots become more and more sophisticated, not only factory jobs, but many office jobs, could be eliminated.  Humans will appear to management as less efficient and as an obstacle to profits.  And this is true, even though I believe that robots, being non-organic, will never have a fully coherent, grounded sense of self capable of making complex contextual grounded decisions.  Robots, running on discrete stimuli and oriented toward linear figure goals, will never be able to replace humans, although they will be able to displace humans.  This is true of androids, which give the appearance of displaying and dealing with feelings and emotions.  And cyborgs will never have the fully coherent, grounded sense of self of beings that are fully human. 

            Nevertheless, as computers and robots get more and more complex and more capable of doing more and more complex tasks, owners of companies will be able to attempt to replace people higher and higher up the ladder of employment in the company.  Conceivably, we could have a society where the vast majority of people live outside of the main flow of economic activity within their communities.  Where the vast majority of people lack the opportunity to leave their organic imprints directly for economic purposes and where they lack the opportunity to even leave imprints guiding the usage of machines that make the mechanical markings to create products and services for a society.  In a situation like this, an important question arises.  How will the economic benefits created by these advanced computers and robots be distributed to the people who have been left outside the main flow of economic activity?  The fact is that if much of the economic activity in most modern technological societies continues to be in private hands, will these owners of private companies be at all motivated to distribute some of their wealth to people who are structurally prevented from making a living?

            And the fundamental concern is that when people are unable to find outlets for leaving organic imprints in some form through their work, how is a value base to be created for determining what a person is worth and therefore to what kind of economic remuneration the person is to be entitled?  Granted taxes could be raised significantly on big corporations and wealthy individuals, and the government could take over the redistribution of wealth.  But this is socialism, and corporations and wealthy individuals would fight this in every way they could.  And anyway, this still leaves open the question of how to determine the economic worth of an unemployable person.  It is possible that without a framework for work for a large proportion of people, it could simply throw a society into chaos.  Without a structure for remuneration, people will be floating in an economic vacuum where there will be no method to ascribe economic worth to them.  The unemployment of an economic vacuum combined with the sensory distortion of an experiential vacuum would be a dangerous mix.  As people start to grow more and more numb from their multiple disconnections, the situation could lead to a growth in what I have called in the past process-oriented violence.  This is the use of violence as a form of overstimulation to jolt the perpetrator out of a deep sense of numbness.  As can be found in the growing number of mass murderers in the United States.

            Throughout the history of modern humans, there has been a great deal of positive value placed on technological innovation to increase economic prosperity as well as existential protection from organic perishability.  But now technological development has reached a point where it threatens to create economic impoverishment as well as a new kind of existential insecurity created by sensory distortion. 

            If this is where modern technological societies are headed, then we have to start reconsidering fast the fundamental relationship between humans and machines.  People who are creating this displacement technology or buying up this displacement technology are thinking ultimately only of the bottom line – the economic health of a business as an abstract entity – an economic process floating in a vacuum and pretty much divorced from the grounding of human purpose and need.  Machines ideally are created to promote economic prosperity for communities of people and not just small select groups of owners and managers.  When computers, robots and machines begin to displace almost everybody, how will human society configure itself?  This is a nightmare we have to start thinking about now, before it is too late.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

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