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Implications of Very Productive Technology

Pictures and Essays by Martin Hunt

Implications of Very Productive Technology
There is a 600 lb gorilla in the room when people talk about economic issues, a gorilla that nobody seems to see, but that influences our society very much. That is the hugely productive technology upon which we depend. People completely ignore how that technology has transformed our economic lives. I’ve experienced that transformation in one industry - the printing industry. I first encountered the printing industry in the 19 60’s because my Mom worked as a typesetter in a letterpress shop. She ran a huge machine with a 8 keyboards that punched a paper tape. That tape went to another machine that cast the type. That type went to a crew of specialists that locked it up in chases that went to the press to be printed. The shop she worked in employed 25 or 30 highly skilled tradesmen who all made good livings from the work. There were 5 or 6 in the typesetting room alone.

By the time I entered the industry 15 years later I worked as a typesetter running a dedicated computer. I did all the typesetting for a smaller company that produced a lot more printing at lower cost. By 2000 I could do the typesetting for books in my studio and print it myself on a laser printer.

Almost all other industries went through similar transformations. When diesel engines were introduced into railways in the 1950s one man could run the whole train himself. The only way that the unions would let diesels come in was to stipulate that nobody would lose their job - and for quite a long time railways had to pay good wages to people who did no work at all. That was unstable of course and eventually the unions had to cave and a lot of jobs were lost to the economy. But the writing was on the wall - that increasingly productive technology does more while providing fewer jobs.

For a while people thought that this was great - that it would lead to a leisure society - where very little time at a job would earn a good living. And at that time a good living meant that a single person’s work could support a house and a car and a family and even a summer cottage. That leisure society didn’t come about. And with the non-appearance of the leisure economy we also got the appearance of that gorilla that we don’t see. That gorilla is (to be clear) that a highly productive economy has to do a lot more while providing fewer jobs.

On reason we lost sight of the gorilla was devices like planned obsolescence. Rather than produce what we need to live and reducing the hours each of us need to work, our economy became very wasteful. We started producing things that quickly fell apart and had to be replaced. This kept the factories humming - for a while. But slowly the relative value of wages compared to the cost of stuff eroded to the point where it took two people working to support a family household. And it happened so slowly that nobody really noticed.

Another change was that productive work, in the sense of producing the things we need to live has almost disappeared from our economy, especially when the manufacturing sector has been moved to low wage regions. Now, most people earn their livings, if they can get jobs at all, from secondary non-productive jobs. Like being advertising consultants, or bankers, or burger flippers.

My point here is that our economy already supports a huge number of people whose work is in no way productive. Advertising consultants, or bankers, or burger flippers do not produce the food or raw material that we need to live. So what has happened is that rather than evolve into a leisure society our economy has evolved into a more and more complex structure that soaks up our energy. The productive capacity of our society already, in the present, lets us support a very large number of people who aren’t productive of the things we need to live. Do we really need ad executives, and bankers, and burger flippers? And if we don’t need them, why not just give them a livelihood with without making them work?

Think about it.

One of the things that our productive capacities enable is that peoplecan live without everyone being productive. Personally - I think that most people, if they didn’t have to be wage slaves, would be very productive. They would sing and dance, make art, invent new things, grow gardens, and do the myriad of things that people now do as hobbies.