Among the things we are a half century behind in addressing properly is the economics of plenty. Let’s start with one of the less controversial of the conundrums of the modern world: the disappearance of the Automation Crisis.
One of my great heroes, uber-geek Norbert Wiener, pretty much got himself into terrible trouble over this. He basically invented information technology (Though it was entirely analog and/or mathematical at the time, which is very interesting in itself. Most information theory taught these days is more based in Shannon’s much more accessible ideas. But the whole network lives on top of an amazing hidden Wienerian world of transmission and detection that few people look at. While Shannon’s ideas get more attention, we would not be where we are today without Wiener’s work.)
Basically, he realized that a lot of mundane decision making, as well as mundane activity, would eventually be delegated to machines. Accordingly, he felt that low-skilled jobs everywhere were under a long-term threat, which would lead to a dangerous oligarchy of the skilled and educated. He construed this as a threat to the prosperity of the working class. As a mid-20th-century academic intellectual of obviously Jewish ethnicity, thus with Nazism being fresh in his mind, he in turn had little trouble extrapolating these stresses on the working class into a direct existential threat to pretty much everything he valued.
Wiener had already run afoul of the authorities by refusing to work with the Pentagon after WW II ended. As a mathematician first and an engineer second, Weiner’s ideations had little to do with what was considered ideology in those days in some circles. (If it’s obvious to anyone that closed loop systems like capitalism work better than open-loop ones like Stalinism it would be Norbert Wiener!!!) But this didn’t stop J. Edgar Hoover from opening a dossier on the fellow. Fortunately, he ended up with the Douglas-Adamsish designation “mostly harmless” and was left alone.
Somewhere in those days, though, Wiener attempted to capture the attention of the labor movement, going so far as to have meetings with AFL-CIO chairman Walter Reuther.
Here is Wiener’s astonishing letter to Reuther.
South Tamworth, August 13, 1949
Union of Automobile Workers
Dear Mr. Reuther,
First, I should like to explain who I am. I am Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Iam the author of the recently published book, Cybernetics. As you will see, if you know of this book, I have been interested for a long time in the problem of automatic machinery and its social consequences. These consequences seem to me so great that I have made repeated attempts to get in touch with the Labor Union movement, and to try to acquaint them with what may be expected of automatic machinery in the near future. This situation has been brought to a head by the fact that I have been approached recently by one of the leading industrial corporations with the view to advising them as to whether to go into the problem of making servo-mechanisms, that is, artificial control mechanisms, as part of their extended program.
Technically I have no doubt what direction my advice should take. My technical advice would be to construct an inexpensive small scale, high speed computing machine, together with adequate apparatus for putting the readings of photo-electric cells, thermometers, and other instruments into the machine as numerical data, and for putting numerical out-put data into the motion of shafts and other out-put apparatus. The position of these output shafts should be monitored by proper sense organs, and be put back into the machine as part of the information on which it is to work.
The detailed development of the machine for particular industrial purpose is a very skilled task, but not a mechanical task. It is done by what is called ‘taping’ the machine in the proper way, much as present computing machines are taped. This apparatus is extremely flexible, and susceptible to mass production, and will undoubtedly lead to the factory without employees; as for example, the automatic automobile assembly line. In the hands of the present industrial set-up, the unemployment produced by such plants can only be disastrous. I would give a guess that a critical situation is bound to arise under any condition in some ten to twenty years; but that if war should make the replacement of labor mobilized into the services an immediate necessity, we should probably have a concentrated effort put into this work which might well lead to large scale industrial unemployment within two years.
I do not wish personally to be responsible for any such state of affairs. I have, therefore, turned down unconditionally the request of the industrial company which has tried to consult me. However, it is manifestly not enough to take a negative attitude on this. If I do not put this information in the hands of the industrialists, it is merely a question of time when so obvious a method of procedure will be urged upon them by other people.
Therefore, the procedure which I shall follow depends finally upon whether I can get you and the labor interests you represent to pay serious attention to this serious situation. I have tried to do this in the past without success; and I do not blame you people for it, but since then there has been a turn-over in personnel among you and the present group of labor leaders seem to have transcended the point of view of the shop to a sufficient extent to make it worthwhile for me to make an appeal to you again.
What I am proposing is this. First, that you show a sufficient interest in the very pressing menace of the large-scale replacement of labor by machine on the level not of energy, but of judgment, to be willing to formulate a policy towards this problem. In particular, I do not think it would be at all foolish for you to steal a march upon the existing industrial corporations in this matter; and while taking a part in production of such machines to secure the profits in them to an organization dedicated to the benefit of labor. It may be on the other hand, that you think the complete suppresion (sic) of these ideas is in order. In either case, I am willing to back you loyally, and without any demand or request for personal returns in what I consider will be a matter of public policy. I wish to warn you, however, that my own passiveness in this matter will not, on the face of it, produce a passiveness in other people who may come by the same ideas, and that these ideas are very much in the air.
If you determine that the matter does not deserve your serious consideration, you will leave me in a very difficult position. I do not wish to contribute in any way to selling labor down the river, and I am quite aware that any labor, which is in competition with slave labor, whether the slaves are human or mechanical, must accept the conditions of work of slave labor. For me merely to remain aloof is to make sure that the development of these ideas will go into other hands which will probably be much less friendly to organized labor.
Under these circumstances, I should probably have to try to find some industrial group with as liberal and honest a labor policy as possible and put my ideas in their hands. I must confess, however, that I know of no group what has at the same time a sufficient honesty of purpose to be entrusted with these developments, and a sufficiently firm economic and social position to be able to hold these results substantially in their own hands.
I have a book ((The Human Use of Human Beings) which will be forthcoming with Houghton-Mifflin next spring which will bring these ideas to a head. If you so wish, I shall send you copies of the relevant chapters.
Naturally, I do not expect you to take these matters on my momentary say-so. If you show sufficient interest to be willing to push the matter further, I shall be glad to put my ideas both technical and social at your disposal, so that you will be able to judge them better.
Department of Mathematics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge 39, Massachusetts
Before long, to Wiener’s satisfaction, Reuther was writing articles like this:
When we look at our current quandary, though, it may pay to ask how and why these things didn’t happen. The simple theories of “growth” may be contrasted with the observational evidence that the average person in North America is not on the whole safer or more comfortable or happier than his or her predecessor. (Though the coffee and the razor blades are much improved!) So whatever the increased efficiency of labor is doing, it is not actually doing much for the benefit of the general population.
But the redistribution of wealth and allocation of responsibility as a matter of policy interest did not happen. Nor did massive underemployment. Indeed, in the intervening years, an expectation of employment of married female adults has actually greatly increased the proportion of the employed! So what happened?
Has the great chicken of the Automation Crisis finally come home to roost? And where has it been meanwhile?