A very interesting model that has been created to describe the history of technological development is one that perceives this history as being punctuated by different technological revolutions. According to this model, up until now, there have been four of these revolutions. The first one was based on the development of steam power and mechanical production. The second was marked by the use of electricity and the development of assembly lines in factories. The third revolution was impelled forward by the creation of computers and digital technology. The fourth and most recent one is founded on the development of smart computer-based systems for both the factory and the home. In the factory, these systems automate many factory processes by having different machines work together in networks to produce products that can be both easily customized and also made with fewer defects. People will no longer be needed for the supposedly boring repetitive manufacturing tasks, and instead can focus on skilled management and even on creative input. In the home, the Internet of things connects different devices to supposedly make daily life for humans as comfortable and efficient as possible.
The major criticism that has been directed against the fourth revolution focuses on employment. There are those who feel that automation could conceivably lead to a loss of jobs for humans. That didn’t happen at a factory that creates controllers (the boxes that contain the machine brains for factories) in Amberg, Germany. However, according to an article in Newsweek by Rose Jacobs, “Rise of Robot Factories Leading ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ ” (3/5/15), the increase in efficiency probably prevented other factories from being built to make the same products.
I am definitely concerned about how automation can create a loss of employment opportunities. If machines displace people, then those people have no easy means for economic survival or for building a strong economic future. But the main focus of my column is on how people are affected experientially by technological change. Although technological change has done so much to secure the place of the human species in the world and has created impressive consumer products and services, by the same token, each new industrial revolution has created technology that has acted as a further wedge between humans and their natural environment, a field of experience where people can directly sensorily interact with their living environment, have rich vibrant life experiences, make, receive and preserve organic imprints, and prepare for death with a surrogate immortality of their preserved organic imprints.
The First Industrial Revolution created machines that changed the way that people worked. Machines operated on the basis of defined discrete angular rhythms, the rhythms of behavioral entities that were relatively free from the flowing blendable continual organic rhythms that humans and animals had operated on from within themselves. People working in factories had to adapt to the rhythms of these machines, and this proved very stressful. In addition, employers worked the workers hard like machines and kept them in miserable conditions. The workers and the machines of the First Industrial Revolution increased the output of goods, but more organic craft skills were diminished in importance as a result. These early machines were powered by steam, and by freeing human beings from direct interaction with primary materials, they were experienced by humans as free-floating figures operating in a vacuum and tension-pocket environment. Areas of understimulation from the monotonous repetition of the machine processes filled with pockets of overstimulation from the friction of the moving parts. Getting a lot of work done without constant physical participation by humans in all aspects of the work process. Because humans didn’t participate so directly in all aspects of the work process, they experienced themselves as having been put to a certain extent in an experiential vacuum. Which is what humans wanted, because it meant that they were separating themselves from the organic perishability of the natural living environment. They were no longer directly grappling so much with basic tools, other artifacts and products.
In the Second Industrial Revolution, electricity became the major source of energy and mass production techniques were developed. Whereas steam power had become a more focused defined discrete source of energy than the organic nutrients used to power humans and animals, electricity became an even more focused defined discrete source of energy than steam. Assembly line work became a more efficient form of human energy output. By reducing their work processes to a few relatively simple steps within a larger process, humans were able to increase the efficiency involved in their work involvement. But by focusing on just a few basic steps, there is a sense in which humans became machine-like themselves. In assembly line work, humans were no longer involved in leaving their own organic imprints.
In the Third Industrial Revolution, computers and digital technology were developed. More and more human work became involved with entering a total field of experience of free-floating data, defined discrete images and defined discrete audio and video experiences all within the experiential vacuum represented by a computer screen. It represented a further separation from the primary experience world of direct human interaction with other humans, with non-machine human artifacts and with more natural environments.
And now we have the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the Internet of Things allows machines to work with each other and form free-floating figures systems that exist in what is basically a frictionless experiential vacuum living environment for humans. There are so many layers of machine involvement, whether in the factory, the office, or the home, that the organic imprint of humans in the processes that surround them is very attenuated. There is less and less opportunity for humans to experience the organic friction needed to feely fully alive, and this is because there is less and less direct grappling with the living environment.
On the other hand, the Hopi Indians of Northeast Arizona in the U.S. have developed a culture that accentuates some kinds of organic friction, organic imprints and direct grappling with the living environment. In my last article, I discussed how the Kachinas, the spirit entities of the Hopis, interacted with humans through the Kachina actors that dressed up as Kachinas. The Kachinas, through the conduct of the Kachina actors, stimulated the flow of life over generations, not only of humans but of other animals and of plants as well. The Kachinas did this through the intense primary experience interactions they generated in their encounters with humans.
Other preliterate tribes have had other mechanisms by which they have stimulated the flow of life in humans. One noteworthy example is the kula trade of the people of eastern New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands. The kula trade is not trade in the ordinary sense. It is rather a system of ritualized exchanges where traders from one tribe exchange items with members of another tribe on whose island they have landed. It is more like ritualized mutual gift-giving. Furthermore, each side of the transaction gives the other side objects they already possess. The gifts get passed along a ring of islands in southeast Melanesia (the group of islands where New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands are located). Red shell necklaces are passed along in exchange going clockwise in the ring of islands and white shell bracelets are passed along the ring of islands counterclockwise. Someone is successful in the kula trade if he can execute a lot of exchanges. Necklaces for bracelets, bracelets for necklaces. This is definitely not trade in the ordinary sense. These exchanges do not lead to profit in the ordinary sense. They lead instead to intangible gains for the trader. Social prestige that comes from the quality and size of his trade network. And the canoe trips between islands are dangerous, and require preparation. So successful canoe trips where the travelers come back safe have to also be part of the package that leads to consideration for prestige by others.
This ritualized gift giving serves several related purposes. Giving a gift is a way of making an imprint on someone. Giving several gifts over time to someone who gives back gifts in return and thus forming an ongoing relationship as a result creates the means for mutually making, receiving and preserving organic imprints. Having these relationships over a large geographic area creates an extensive experiential grounding for people. Making these trips and having adventures in the process leads to the development of an interesting varied life narrative.
In other words, the kula trade satisfies a whole bunch of fundamental human needs that each succeeding industrial revolution has inadvertently worked to repress. The kula trade creates a whole rich flow of primary experience. The four industrial revolutions have sought to repress this flow of primary experience in order to protect humans from organic perishability. But humans are becoming so increasingly protected, that they are living less and less in any traditional sense. All the traditional hall marks: organic imprints, flow of primary experience, rich vibrant individual life experiences and rich life narratives are disappearing. So those who look with excitement at the appearance of each new industrial revolution should be a little more cautious in their excitement. Particularly the fourth industrial revolution is threatening to shut people out not only of opportunities for working and making a living, but also from having a well-lived meaningful life.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow