Robotics and the Second Industrial Revolution

Participants in this seminar include the entire class except Dorcas and Lucas. As it opens, they are talking about the advantages and disadvantages of the Metalibrary.

Johanna: The more I read of some of the ideas in this text, the less I like them. The Metalibrary may have benefits, but will we really be better off or will we be slaves to the computers? I don't think we should build it.

Nellie: The machines will be our slaves. Besides, the information revolution and the Metalibrary aren't even half the picture. What about automation? There's no need to have people doing dull, repetitive jobs on an assembly line when machines can do them faster, better, and cheaper.

Ellen: And with no strikes, lockouts, or coffee breaks, working twenty-four hours a day with no salary, pension, fringe benefits, or retirement, eh, Nellie?

Nellie: Exactly.

Ellen: And tens of millions of unemployed workers who can never get a job again, never have any dignity, and never pay taxes, but just collect welfare. What about people, Nellie?

Johanna: I say we forbid anyone from making or using robots.

Nellie: Well, that's a head-in-the-sand approach if I ever heard one. Do you think the Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and Russians will hesitate to use robots to gain a competitive edge? Do you think the Europeans will? Canada will be a third world country before you know it if we go your route, Johanna.

Professor: Your planet is not heavily industrialized, Eider. How do you manage?

Eider: It's not possible to make easy comparisons between the Builder's World and Earth Prime, Professor. It's true that ours is a relatively unindustrialized world, but we have fewer than twenty million people in nearly as large a land mass as on your earth.

Nellie: That's not enough to support mass production.

Eider: No, but we do have high technology, though we have gone in rather different directions. I suppose we actually skipped the Industrial Revolution. Our economy is agricultural, cottage industry, and small labs. People generally work from their own homes, and are widely scattered.

Ellen: But, you do have children--you look like you're, what, sixteen or so?

Eider: Yes.

Ellen: So why the small population?

Eider: The birth rate is very low. I don't know anyone within a thousand of your kilometres who is my age. People live longer, too--though not as long as they once did.

Nellie: You say there's high technology. Do you already have a Metalibrary, then?

Eider: Essentially, yes. The main social consequence is that even fewer people live in the city than there were, oh, five-hundred years back.

Johanna: How many cities?

Eider: Just one. It has about a hundred thousand people.

Johanna: Other communities?

Eider: None with a population over two thousand. They are trading and transportation centres for large regions. Manufacturing is also regionalized to get at raw materials easily, but it's all automated.

Nellie: Wait. You've had a Metalibrary for five-hundred years?

Eider: Yes, it amounts to that.

Nellie: What effect has it had?

Eider: We've changed our educational system--that's almost all done at home now. Population has declined some and fewer people live in communities. We're more individualistic than we used to be.

Johanna: (skeptically) You don't talk like a sixteen-year-old, dearie.

Eider: In our world, you go as far and as fast as you want, educationally. I daresay our fourteen-year-olds are as capable, and much more widely read, than your holders of doctors degrees. As for me, my mother died when I was quite young, and my father is away a lot, so I manage our farm.

Nellie: Didn't you say you lived in the city and worked in medicine?

Eider: Healing, yes. But I can manage the farm from there easily enough.

Nellie: What does your father do?

Eider: (looking nervously at the professor) I don't think I should...

Professor: (interrupting) Right, then, back to our world. What if we robotize so we have no need for people to make products in factories? We have a large population. How do we handle the job dislocations?

Johanna: I say we don't go that route at all.

Nellie: Can't stop progress, Johanna.

Johanna: So, who says it's progress?

Nellie: Some techniques are more efficient than others, and that means that their use is inevitable. Progress is just the record of the inevitable happening.

Johanna: No, that makes progress into an icon or god, just like the state is for Ellen. Robotizing would harm people, not make things better.

Ellen: Progress is the record of evolution. The fittest people and techniques survive.

Johanna: And the rest do what--starve?

Eider: I don't know much about this world, but it seems to me that the changes would take place gradually, with employment shifting over time from manufacturing to service industries. In my world, few people strike a clock...

Alicia: ...I think that's "punch," Eider.

Eider: Oh, yes, sorry. Everyone has a place, a function in society, but we don't need to go somewhere to do a job. The nearest equivalent in your world is an independent contractor. There are enough goods, and plenty of food for everyone to provide the basic necessities of life--all that comes from the family farm.

Nellie: They don't send you care packages in the city, do they?

Eider: No, but the family account is credited for whatever the farm sells, and my room, food, and clothing are charged to the same account. By the time people are my age, they also have their own accounts. I can contribute to the family businesses or punch out on my own.

Alicia: "Strike" this time, Eider.

Eider: Oh yes. English idiom is quite fascinating. Anyway, I don't see why you can't develop a similar system here.

Nellie: Another chore for the Metalibrary--keep track of what everybody contributes to society and what they all use.

Ellen: Everybody could be paid exactly the same amount; it would be the ultimate in social leveling.

Eider: I don't see why you would want to do that. Some people do nothing; they just live out their lives on the common wealth of their families. Some never use the library after the age of a hundred, they are happy doing farm labour, city maintenance, or a trade. Others make great contributions to planetary wealth and knowledge--these surely should be recognized.

Johanna: (sourly) In the real world, we're talking about a massive deindustrialization, one in which goods are still manufactured but people don't do it--they just use the goods. Surely the social dislocation is too great a price to pay for the small benefit.

Eider: As far as I can see... (pausing) Or is that "as near as I can tell?"

Alicia: "Far" and "near" both mean the same thing in this context.

Nellie: (interrupting) Sounds like you artists would be better off than ever, Johanna.

Johanna: How so?

Nellie: As things stand now, scientists get grant money to discover new things, while artists, musicians, and poets have to scramble, right?

Johanna: How true.

Nellie: Well, if the necessities were provided for by machines working away unattended, you artists could create to your hearts' content without having to wonder where your next meal is coming from. We scientists would continue as before, but you'll be much better off.

Ellen: But, the workers, the workers.

Nellie: What do you mean?

Ellen: You're not going to turn riveters, boilermakers, and unskilled assemblers into either scientists or poets. How does a present-day worker retain some dignity?

Eider: You educate their children differently.

Nellie: There will always be some manual labour.

Eider: In the Builder's World, we could have chosen to run farms by robots but instead use a lot of manual labour along with the machines.

Johanna: There's an inconsistency here in this imaginary world of yours, dearie.

Eider: (smiling) I assure you, it's quite real. But how so?

Johanna: Large efficient farms produce large surpluses, do they not?

Eider: Yes.

Johanna: Well, who eats all the food produced by the family farms you talk about?

Eider: Our farm is not large; we employ one supervisor and four other hands. We intensively cultivate fewer than ... let me see ... a thousand of your hectares, and several thousand more are left in a wild state. A lot of what is cultivated is left fallow for horse pasture. At that, ours is one of the oldest and largest farms; our family has worked that land for seven generations. We specialize, then trade at the regional produce market.

Nellie: Why horses? Don't you use tractors?

Eider: We use very few internal combustion engines. There's no oil deposits and little coal, just natural gas. Different geology, you know.

Ellen: Back to real workers in the real world.

Nellie: I'd guess that many of today's semiskilled workers could go into business for themselves making the handcrafted items in small numbers that can never come off a robotic assembly line.

Eider: A great deal of the production in the Builder's World is done that way. We do use robots, but don't need very many.

Johanna: Even granting all that, there are just too many people to accommodate if you automate all their jobs.

Alicia: So far, the jobs eliminated from manufacturing have turned up in the service and information industries.

Johanna: That only helps the statistics, not individual people who get fired and can't be retrained. An assembly line worker won't become a travel agent or a computer programmer.

Nellie: Look, Johanna, these things are going to happen anyway. Competition will drive all industries toward the highest possible efficiencies. We just have to adapt and make the best of it, that's all.

Johanna: But, all those machines--

Professor: (rising) Enough for today. Next time we talk about intelligence--artificial and otherwise. Eider, I'll have a paper from you forecasting demographic changes as this world automates. Nellie, you do one telling us what are the disadvantages of automation. Ellen gives us one on how workers can benefit from robots, and Johanna writes one describing Eider's world more fully. (smiling and ignoring their protests) Have a good week.

Johanna: (after he and Eider both have left) The gall!

Nellie: Oh, you get used to it.

Johanna: Say, have you two noticed anything funny about Eider and Lucas?

Nellie: What do you mean?

Johanna: They're never here at the same time. Do you suppose they know each other, and only one comes to class to get notes for both?

Nellie: (Rubbing her chin) I don't think they're supposed to meet, yet.

Ellen: What do you mean, "yet"?

Nellie: I think that's part of another book.

Ellen: Oh.

Johanna: But, doesn't the fact that we characters in this book can talk about ourselves create some kind of paradox; after all, it's not as if we're real.

Alicia: You seem real enough to me.

Johanna: But we've never met you; are you real to us?

Alicia: As real as you want me to be.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises