Magazine article USA TODAY

Main Street as Bleak Street

Magazine article USA TODAY

Main Street as Bleak Street

Article excerpt

SMART MACHINES are all the rage these days, especially for utopian technocrats, but not so much for many American workers who have struggled for decades with declining real incomes. Some technological utopians have predicted an idyllic future when smart machines, controlled by powerful software programs, will do almost all of the heavy lifting, so to speak, allowing humans to kick back and enjoy life.

Perhaps the most precious forecast was made in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes--the main architect of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's ill-fated New Deal economic policies during the Great Depression; be forewarned, the likely new Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen is a devout Keynesian--who forecast that future progress would permit workers in the West to work only about 15 hours a week by the next century. Since their basic material needs would be satisfied by machines, workers could devote their remaining time to leisure and aesthetic interests. In contriving such a scenario, Keynes obviously was acquainted with the works of A1dous Huxley, another English intellectual of that period, who wrote the dystopian Brave New World.

Keynes, as it turns out, was far off the mark. While it is true that many workers in Western nations are working less, they also are earning less thanks to high unemployment, the shift to part-time work, and the poor pay found in service-sector positions.

So, just who are these technological futurists? They are a cerebral group of scientists, economists, and techno gurus whose speculative musings can be found in the Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review, and similar periodicals that extol the virtues of automation. Ray Kurzweil of computer science fame is one of the godfathers of this genre, but he was not the first techno-utopian. In 1895, British novelist H.G. Wells described an unlikely future in The Time Machine, but Karl Vonnegut's novel, Player Piano (1952), was eerily prophetic in predicting that computers eventually would be able to do practically everything better than humans.

In 1948, Norbert Wiener, former child prodigy and the father of cybernetics, wrote a letter to Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers Union, in which he ominously warned that the future combination of machines and computers would yield an "apparatus that would lead to the factory without employees, as, for example, the automatic automobile assembly line ... and that the unemployment produced by such plants can only be disastrous."

Wiener was a tad premature, because the number of American workers soared from 59,000,000 in 1950 to a peak of 146,000,000 by 2007. After the end of World War II until the 1970s, the industrialized economies had been spectacularly successful in creating well-paying jobs for workers of average skills. These were the glory days for blue collar employees. By the early 1970s, though, automation had begun to impact industries. The good old days were destined to fade away.

Wiener predicted that automation would revolutionize production, but he failed to foresee that the first successful full-scale automation would occur in Japanese factories. Today, as everyone knows, virtually all of American manufacturing has been transformed by automation, which has resulted in much greater output by far fewer workers.

In 1786, Ned Ludd made his mark in history by leading a protest against the adoption of new textile machinery in England's long-established woolen goods industry. That protest ended with an outcome that would became commonplace in industrializing nations: thousands of skilled artisans would be put out of work. Ludd's machine-bashing followers became known as Luddites; however, his petition reads as though it was written last week: "How are those men, thus thrown out of employ[ment] to provide for their families ... and what are they to put their children apprentice to?"

Well, that is just progress, as Americans might say. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.