Rummaging through some old files yesterday, I came upon a paper I presented in 1967: “The New Technology: Some of Its Implications.” I don’t recall how I came to present it at the Barlow School; I probably was job hunting. I was quite taken by the thinking of Marshall McLuhan, and had recently attended a convocation around the papal encyclical Pacem in Terris, where I was first exposed to the idea of the guaranteed annual income.
I had recently resigned as a founding faculty member of Simon’s Rock, an “early college” combining the last two years of high school and the first two of college in a four-year liberal arts program, which is now a part of Bard College. I had taught a class in “Community,” which in addition to studying the nearby Shaker community of Hancock Village and other intentional communities had us studying the genesis of the Simon’s Rock community itself.
I was a young idealist of 26:
The New Technology: Some of Its Implications
presented at the Barlow School, Amenia, NY, March 12, 1967
Every nation and every man surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to their moral state, or their state of thought….We surround ourselves, according to our freedom and our ability, with true images of ourselves in things, whether snips or books or cannon or churches. ——Emerson
The medium is the message. ——McLuhan
All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. ——McLuhan
Until recently the greatest part of a human being’s time and energy has been spent in competing with his fellows for the limited resources available in his world. On an international level the same has been the case: nations competing with one another for the world’s limited resources, with war the frequent outcome of this struggle. When there is not enough to go around, it is only natural that a struggle ensue for what there is and that some of the competitors be eliminated in the process.
The classical economic analysis of man’s fate is roughly as follows:
a) Nature makes only limited resources available to us.
b) We humans have almost unlimited desires which we wish to satisfy.Somehow a parity between the limited supply and the unlimited demand must be reached.
We need not enter into the argument which compares the virtues and vices of the answers to this last problem supplied by capitalism and socialism because these, after all, are merely variations on the same classical economic theme—limited supply, unlimited demand, equitable distribution. The fact is that this type of analysis is obsolescent and is more of a hindrance to us than a help.
We have already entered an era which makes the first premise of classical economics inoperative. Today the resources which are available to man are virtually unlimited.
We have now only to name and program a process or a product in order for it to be accomplished. 14 it not rather like the case of Al Capp’s Schraoost One had only to look at a Schmoo and think longingly of pork chops or caviar, and the Schmoo ecstatically transformed itself into the object of desire. Automation brings us into the world of the Schmoo. ——McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 352.
The combination of automatic machines supplying the labor and computers supplying the thought makes it possible for us to gratify almost any desire by the mere flick of a switch, turn of a dial, or push of a button. We have brought substance to the old adage, “Thinking makes it so.” Indeed, machines having supplanted much of the thinking, we can say, “Wishing makes it so.”
What are the implications of this seeming utopia we are entering? We need not dwell upon the myriad statistics of job displacement or of unemployment over the last ten years. Suffice it for us to note that it has been shown that over the past 50 years 22 years of leisure have been added to the life of the average American and that within our lifetime we shall see all of the goods and many of the services available today (not to mention untold new ones) produced by between two and five percent of the people currently engaged in these activities. Cybernated devices (computers linked to automatic machines) will perform over ninety-five percent of the tasks now being performed by men. Only at the highest level of management will human beings be necessary to make decisions.
The crucial question which emerges at this point is, “What will this vast majority of people displaced by cybernation do with themselves?” One can be variously pessimistic and optimistic in confronting this question—which, usually depends upon one’s mood. Let’s first take the optimistic view: The affluent society which we have sketched, in which men are freed from the meaningless toil which has been their lot throughout most of history, “opens the prospect of a brighter day for mankind, changing the challenge from ‘Where can I get the best job?’ to ‘What can I best do with myself as a man?’” (W.H. Ferry, “Toward a Moral Economy”)
For the first time in human history man can leave off being a “beast of burden” harnessed to the land or to the machine. He is no longer a means of production and may become truly human, exercising his moral judgment quite independent of considerations of where the next meal is coming from. Having constructed a technology which can attend to what the classical Greeks called the vegetative and animal parts of the soul, man can now exercise that part of the soul which “loves wisdom” and, in turn, serve others.
There is no doubt that the shift from making things to serving people is already well under way. Statistics show that the number of “** people in the production industries is steadily shrinking while the * number in the service industries is steadily increasing. This means that fewer and fewer people are having to take care of machines and more and more people are taking care of one another. For instance, teachers are already to largest employee group in the U.S. economy. While this does . not necessarily mean that huge numbers of people are beginning to “love wisdom^” it does mean that many are attempting to “learn a living.” The hope is that serving people rather than servicing machines may become the habitual way of life.
Years of leisure?
Let us now become less optimistic and, perhaps, more realistic. We cannot be at all sure that the transition from an industrial society to a cybernated world can be made without some major problems. A trip into the center of any large city will give a taste of the distasteful side of the process. Here we encounter huge numbers of the people who in any previous age would have supplied the backbone and the muscle of the economy. They are now shunted aside as the waste products of a society which no longer needs them but has found machines to do their work more efficiently and more cheaply.Unfortunately, those most likely to be replaced on the job by the machine are those who are least prepared to take advantage of their new freedom from toil. The less skill involved in the job, the more likelihood that a machine will take it over and the less likelihood that the worker displaced will have sufficient education to do something that a machine cannot do. The poor who inhabit the urban slums are only the first wave of those who will in the future be displaced by the machine. If our experience of the slum is any indication, very little is being done to create real opportunities for those being displaced by automation, such as opportunities for these persons to enter into human service.
What can be done to create such opportunities? Perhaps we can begin by questioning some of the conventional wisdom with which our society is plagued. We have already sketched the basis of classical economic theory, whose conventional solution to the problem of equitable distribution is the assumption that he who uses his energies to produce goods and services deserves to have his desires for goods and services met and that the non-productive must want. A more subtle convention has been woven into the moral fabric of society via the so-called “Protestant ethic” from its source in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.
According to that doctrine a man is either elected to eternal salvation or condemned to eternal damnation totally irrespective of his human merit. Being predestined before birth to either election or condemnation, one’s conduct of life can do nothing to alter one’s fate. However, a man can demonstrate to himself and to others that he is among the elect by the successful performance of his secular work or vocation. By combining with the exigencies of scarcity economics this ethic has produced the belief that a man’s productivity not only is the basis for human, social reward but may also be indicative of his worth in the eyes of God. Thus, society has evolved an almost unbreakable bond between a man’s ‘productivity on the job and his just share of the produce, his income.
While the job-income link may have made sense in the society of scarcity in which it evolved, it becomes impractical and unjust in a world of abundance where machines do the producing. Due to the advances of modern technology the traditional link between jobs and income is being broken. “The economy of abundance can sustain all citizens in comfort and economic security whether or not they engage in what is commonly reckoned as work. Wealth produced by machines rather than men is still wealth.” (Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, Santa Barbara, March, 1964)
In the light of the changing economic realities, at least one concrete suggestion has been made which shows some promise of creating real opportunities for those already or soon to be economically dispossessed by cybernation. Although revolutionary in its implications, it is a suggestion which has gained remarkable respectability since its initial statement three years ago. Sometimes referred to as the “guaranteed annual income,” it is the recommendation that “society, through its appropriate legal and governmental institutions, undertake an unqualified commitment to provide every individual and every family with an adequate income as a matter of right.” (Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution) The “guaranteed annual income” would make an adequate income the inalienable birthright of every citizen, along with life, liberty, a and the pursuit of happiness.
Everyman learning a living?
Were the right to income to be guaranteed, the potential freedom from want as well as the theoretical freedom from toil of which we have spoken would become actual for every citizen. Every man could afford the leisure, now largely used up in attempting to provide for himself materially, to truly seek the way best to fulfill himself as a human being. There are, it is true, those who hold that the guarantee of income would remove all incentive for people to do anything useful. The answer to this argument of course depends upon our understanding of what is “useful” and upon whether we are essentially optimistic or pessimistic about humanity. Can human beings really serve their own best interests and those of their fellows without external incentives to material acquisition? Put another way, can everyman “learn a living”? To these questions each must seek his own answer.