Uncommon Common Sense – May 2015

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Are We Headed for a Technological Dystopia?


Bill-Frayer-2010We have often envisioned a time when we would have to endure a world taken over by technology. Such has been the theme of much science-fiction literature and films. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis envisioned a holocaust-like underworld where workers were subservient to huge machines. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times envisioned a similar world where workers were made to conform to the ridiculous tempo of giant assembly lines. George Orwell’s 1984 depicted a future where Big Brother monitored citizens via large television screens in every home and workplace.

Artificial intelligence run amok was the theme of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. The same theme was central to the Terminator movies, where machines finally outwitted humans and become their masters.  Steven Hawking has also suggested that we need to be careful of how we develop computers lest we let them become our masters. 

I think Aldous Huxley may have actually been closest to the truth with his classic Brave New World in which the people were “decanted” instead of born, genetically engineered to be satisfied to carry on a particular role in society.  In this world, the people were not alarmed about the emergence of over-powerful technology.  In fact, they would take soma and happily go about their lives, unaware that they were heading into a technological oblivion. 

Writer Neil Postman has suggested that our modern world is, indeed, more like Huxley’s, as we are content with our consumption of material goods, mesmerized by media, and unaware that even our voting patterns are being manipulated by moneyed interests and corporate profits.              We have always been concerned about technology replacing human labor. Since the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of Henry Ford’s assembly line, futurists have been predicting that machines will replace humans, and indeed they have.  Fortunately, technology has created many new employment opportunities as it has made other jobs obsolete. 

I remember reading some op-ed writer opining about this trend back in the 1970’s, predicting that as technology, particularly robotics and computers, took over more jobs which were being done by humans, the work week would continue to shrink and we would all share in the economic benefits of greater efficiency.  There was, of course, some historical precedent for this.  Laborers in the late 19th and early 20th century had traditionally worked upwards of 60 hours a week.  Labor laws and Scientific Management eventually reduced the typical work week to 40 hours.  Therefore, it was not unreasonable to assume that as machine efficiency continued to increase, the work week might shrink further, guaranteeing that we would all continue to receive a good wage for, perhaps, twenty or fewer hours a week. Of course, it didn’t work out like this.  The greater technological efficiency has benefitted the owners of the factories and workplaces, as Marx predicted, to the detriment of the working class.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has recently suggested that new technologies do not just replace manual labor, they are also replacing knowledge workers.  He cites two of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy: health care and education.  He predicts that technology will soon be doing tasks in these two areas which humans have always done.  “We’re on the verge of a wave of mobile health apps for measuring everything from your cholesterol to your blood pressure, along with diagnostic software that tells you what it means and what to do about it.”   In education, he predicts” the jobs of many teachers and university professors will disappear, replaced by on-line courses and interactive online textbooks.”

Where will such developments lead?  Presumably it will displace more workers and lead to even greater income inequality.  Do we need to consider some completely new economic model?  I think of that 1970’s prediction that increased efficiency will lead to shorter work weeks and more leisure time for everyone.  Of course, such an egalitarian outcome, where everyone shares in the benefits of technology, would require a conscious effort to redistribute wealth.  It may sound socialistic, but free-market capitalism, left unrestrained, may lead to a dystopian future sooner rather than later.


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