A faceoff between two cultural icons, Rosie the Riveter and HAL 9000, points toward another approach.

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The twilight of the machine

The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, as last week’s Archdruid Report argued, brings with it an unavoidable reshaping of our most basic ideas about economics and, in particular, economic development. For the last three centuries or so, the effective meaning of this phrase has centered on the replacement of human labor by machines. All the other measures of development – and of course plenty of them have been offered down through the years – either reflect or presuppose that basic economic shift.

The replacement of labor with mechanical energy has even come to play a potent role in the popular imagination. From the machine-assisted living of The Jetsons to the darker image of reality itself as a machine-created illusion in The Matrix, the future has come to be defined as a place where people do even less work with their own muscles than they do today. All this is the product of what an earlier post called the logic of abundance: the notion, rooted right down in the core of the contemporary worldview of industrial society, that there will always be enough resources to let people have whatever it is that they think they want.

Abandon that comfortable but unjustifiable assumption, and the future takes on a very different shape. In a world where everything but human beings will be in short supply, it makes no sense whatever to deploy increasingly scarce resources to build, maintain, and power machines to do jobs that human labor can do equally well. An example may be useful here, so let’s take Rosie the Riveter, the iconic woman factory worker of Second World War fame, and match her up against one of the computer-guided assembly line robots that have replaced so many workers in production lines in the industrial world; we might as well pit icon against icon and call the robot HAL 9000.

Both of them serve the same economic function, we’ll assume, riveting parts together on an assembly line. It’s a credo of contemporary economics that HAL is more efficient than Rosie; since the term “efficiency” in contemporary economic parlance means “labor efficiency,” or in other words how much production you can get per worker, any machine is by definition more efficient than human labor. In a world of resource constraints, though, this definition of efficiency becomes very hard to justify. It may be true that HAL can work long shifts at all hours with only the very occasional break for maintenance – at least this is what the robot salesman will tell you – and Rosie cannot. Still, in a world of resource scarcity, Rosie has a crucial advantage that more than offsets HAL’s capacity for night shifts: her operating requirements are much less energy- and technology-intensive to meet than HAL’s.

We can start with the energy source used by each riveter. HAL requires electricity – quite a bit of it, within fairly tight specifications of voltage, amperage, and cycles per second. For her part, Rosie requires food, and though she’s been known to take a second helping in the factory cafeteria, her fuel needs are fairly modest compared to those of the machine. Her tolerances for variability in energy sources are also much broader than HAL’s – if you have trouble believing this, a few minutes paging through an old wartime cookbook should settle the issue.

HAL’s maintenance requirements are just as exacting. He needs lubricants that meet precise specifications, and an assortment of spare parts ranging from zinc bushings to integrated circuits, none of which he can provide for himself. All of them must be manufactured off site, and some (such as the integrated circuit) cannot be made without extremely expensive, complex facilities demanding intricate technological infrastructures of their own. Rosie’s maintenance needs, by contrast, involve little more than eight hours of sleep and a modest additional amount of food. (“I’ll have two scoops of slumgullion today, Franny, thanks; it’s been a hard shift.”)

When it’s necessary to replace HAL, a huge array of industrial facilities – mines, smelters, chemical plants, chip fabrication plants, and one or (usually) several factories – have to be brought into play to produce HAL 9100. Unlike HAL, Rosie can manufacture her own replacement, and while it will take most of two decades before Rosie Jr. is ready to tie her hair up in a bandanna and take her place on the assembly line, Rosie’s own working life is longer still, so the replacement cycle is not a problem for her. In a world with nearly seven billion people on it, of course, it’s hardly necessary to wait for Rosie herself to reproduce in order to find a new riveter, or ten thousand of them.

Finally, what happens if the economy changes so that there’s no longer a need for as many riveters, as happened (for example) at the end of the Second World War? It might be possible to retool HAL for some other industrial process, but for reasons of efficiency, most assembly line robots are designed for a very limited range of operations, and get mothballed or go to the scrap heap (to the tune of a substantial tax writeoff) when the demand for their services goes away. Rosie, on the other hand, is capable of a nearly limitless range of productive economic activities, and can head off to some other career when the factory closes down, leaving HAL to sing “Daisy May” to himself on the deserted assembly line.

All this could be developed at even greater detail, and with less whimsy, but I trust the point has been made: HAL’s appearance of greater efficiency depends on access to a support system of factories and services vastly larger than the one Rosie needs, and his support system necessarily depends on the availability of cheap abundant energy and a wide range of specialized resources and supplies, while hers need not do so. What makes HAL more economical in an age of resource and energy abundance is ultimately the abundant supply and low cost of fossil fuel energy. During an age of resource scarcity, the equation changes completely, because the goods and services that support Rosie can be produced with a much simpler technology, and with much less in the way of concentrated energy, than the goods and services that support HAL.

There’s a reason for this, of course: human beings evolved over millions of years in a world of energy and resource scarcity, along with all other living things. Our hominid ancestors, and all their ancestors down the lineage of evolution all the way to those first prokaryotic cells back in the dank Archean mists, spent most of their lives confronting the hard logic of Malthus by which population rises right up to the limits of carrying capacity. There are some multicellular organisms that have requirements as exacting and purposes as limited as most machines, but not many, and our species ranks right up there with rats, crows, and cockroaches among Nature’s supreme generalists.

It’s only in the highly atypical conditions of the last three centuries, then, that machines become more economical than human laborers. This is why, for example, nobody in the Roman world thought of using Hero of Alexandria’s aeolipile, the first known steam engine, as a source of power for industry or transport. Craft traditions in the Roman Empire would certainly have been up to the challenge, and the aeolipile was much discussed at the time as an interesting curiosity; what was lacking was the recognition that the black gooey stuff that seeped from the ground in certain places, or the black flammable stone we call coal, could be extracted in large quantities and turned into fuel. Lacking that, in turn, the aelopile could never have been more than an interesting curiosity, for the fuel supplies the Roman world knew about were already committed to existing economic sectors, while human and animal muscle were abundant, familiar, and cheap.

As the industrial age winds down, in turn, human muscle will again be abundant. Will it be cheap? Almost certainly, yes – and that means that real wages for most people in the industrial world will continue their current slide toward Third World levels. I wish I could say otherwise, not least because my chances of taking part in that slide are tolerably high. Still, part of what has made the last three centuries so atypical is the extent to which ordinary people in the industrial world have been able to rise out of the hand-to-mouth existence typical of most of humanity for most of history, and partake of a degree of comfort and security that monarchs of past ages have often sought in vain. That state of affairs could never have been permanent, because it was made possible only by using up fantastic amounts of fossil sunlight at a pace so extravagant that the quest to figure out what to do with all that energy has been a major driver of economic change for more than a century now; it’s simply our bad luck to live at a time when the bill for all that extravagance is coming due.

All this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. It isn’t, of course, because the contemporary faith in the superiority of the machine reaches deep into the irrational levels of our collective psyche. When Lewis Mumford titled one of his most significant books The Myth of the Machine he was not engaging in hyperbole. The thought that Rosie the Riveter could go head to head with HAL 9000 under any conditions, and win hands down, is unthinkable to most of us; it’s a matter of folk belief throughout industrial society that the machine always wins, or at least that any victory over it is as temporary and fatal as John Henry’s Pyrrhic triumph over the steam drill.

The machine is our totem, the focus of a great deal of our culture’s sense of value and purpose, and most people in the industrial world accord it the same omnipotence that older religions claim for their gods. The sheer volume of popular culture over the last century or so that fixates on the notion of machines taking over the world, and treating humanity the way industrial humanity has so often treated other living things, is one indicator of the mythic power machines have come to hold in our collective imagination. It’s for this reason, I think, that so many of us simply can’t imagine a future in which machines will be less economically viable than human labor.

Yet if it costs the equivalent of $5 a day to hire a file clerk and a secretary at Third World wage scales, and it costs the equivalent of $10 a day in expensive and unreliable electricity to run a computer to do the same things, those businesses that hope to succeed will hire the file clerk and the secretary, and the computer will be left to gather dust. Now it’s true, as fans of computers are quick to point out, that computers will do things that secretaries and file clerks can’t, but the reverse is also true – try asking your computer sometime to go pick up takeout lunch for the office from a place that doesn’t deliver – and many of the abilities unique to computers are conveniences rather than necessities; businesses got along very well without them for thousands of years, remember.

Once again, however, this points up the value of E.F. Schumacher’s concept of intermediate technology – or, as it was usefully retitled in the Seventies, appropriate technology – for the deindustrial future. The technology that’s useful to help a human worker do his job more effectively is not the same as the technology that’s needed to replace him with a machine. As cheap abundant energy becomes a thing of the past, replacing workers with machines will no longer be a viable option, but providing workers with tools that will make their labor more productive is quite another matter.

The problem here is that very few people are used to thinking in these terms. The vast majority of thinking about appropriate technology these days still envisions it, as Schumacher did, as something to be used in Third World countries only. Worse still, while every industry in the world once had a vast amount of practical knowledge about the tools and training human workers needed to do their jobs well, nearly all of that knowledge is endangered if it hasn’t already been lost.

Consider the slide rule as one example among many. Until the 1970s, it was the engineer’s inseparable companion; every technological advance from the mid-19th century until Apollo 11 landed on the Moon was made possible, in part, by competent manipulation of this simple, flexible, ingenious tool by people who knew how to make the most of its strengths and work within its limits. Since it doesn’t require a massive and technologically complex support structure to construct, maintain, and operate them – any good cabinetmaker can make one, and their proper fuel is a scoop of the same slumgullion that kept Rosie going on her shift – slide rules are likely to be just as useful on the downslope of the industrial age as they were on the way up. If, that is, anybody on Earth still remembers how to use one when we get to that point along the curve of deindustrialization.

This is where the myth of the machine – the conviction, as irrational these days as it is pervasive, that the best person for any job is always not a person at all, but a machine – stops becoming a curious twist of our collective imagination and turns into a trap we ignore at our peril. As peak oil moves closer to center stage in the historical drama of our time, making the gargantuan technostructure we’ve built on a foundation of cheap abundant energy ever more problematic to sustain, the most common response from the centers of power and the masses alike is to call for the development of even more complex, gargantuan, and tightly interlinked machines, pushing the technostructure in the direction of greater risk and greater dysfunction. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that if it turned out we were all about to perish en masse from building too many machines, the first reaction of most people in today’s industrial cultures would likely be to insist that the answer was to build more machines.

Thus we will doubtless see plenty of shiny new machines built in the years to come, and they will doubtless do their fair share and more to push industrial civilization further down the arc of its decline. As the ancient Greeks knew well, it’s the essence of tragedy that the arete, the particular excellence, of a tragic hero also turns out to be his hamartia or fatal flaw; put another way, a civilization that lives by the machine can expect to die by the machine as well. Still, among the heretical minority that has learned to mistrust the myth of the machine, it may well be worth remembering that as the age of scarcity dawns, educating people is a far more useful project than building machines, and doing as much as possible to insure that individuals, families, and communities have the skills and simple tools they need to work productively is one very promising response to the future ahead of us. We’ll talk about one application of that approach next week.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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