Friday, May 20, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 9


Summary of Chapter 9: The First and the Second Industrial Revolution [sic]

In this chapter Wiener gives an overview of the history of technological development, with an eye to distinguishing between the First Industrial Revolution, which was primarily about machines replacing human and animal labor, and the Second Industrial Revolution, which he saw as commencing about his time and projected to continue over the next several decades, and in which “automatic control machines” will be increasingly used to automate more and more of the production process. He attempts to feel out the relationships between various determinants – technological determinism in the form of the material qualities and [affordances] of technology at a certain time (and path-dependency), as against social and historical context. One of the main points he insists on is the value of seeing communication as not simply something that happens between humans, but also between humans and machines, and between machines and machines (not to mention, within a machine).

He discusses the problem of longitude in the history of navigation, and the influence of this on clockmaking and optics, which later influenced the Industrial Revolution; in part because these required delicate instruments.

It is an interesting reflection that every tool has a genealogy, and that it is descended from the tools by which it has itself been constructed.  (138-9)

He connects this to the necessary role of machines in constructing many modern machines; the available skill and ability to invent exists in an [assemblage] of humans and tools, existing at any given point in time. This drives the form which the industrial revolution takes:

It is thus entirely natural that those who were to develop new inventions were either clockmakers or scientific-instrument makers themselves, or called on people of these crafts to help them. (139)

One of the first steps forward is the use of the Watt steam engine to pump water out of mines, replacing brutal and exhausting human and animal labor:

The use of the steam engine to replace this servitude must certainly be re­garded as a great humanitarian step forward. (140)

[as if was simply the older technology, not the concept or function of a silver mine per se, that had been inhumane]

In the textile industry, in contrast, Wiener admits, “here, the machine worsened the condition of workers” (141). This leads into a discussion of the cause of the brutalities of the early industrial revolution:

A great deal of this was due to the fact that new tech­niques had produced new responsibilities, at a time at which no code had yet arisen to take care of these responsibilities. There was, however, a phase which was of greater technical than moral significance.

[By that second sentence he means the brutality was due to how the machinery necessarily operated, rather than to "any moral obtuse­ness or iniquity on the part of those concerned." Such “moral obtuseness” and “iniquity” do play a role, and continue to today; his point is that it takes time for a “code” to “arise” and be embraced by industrialists, regulators, and so on, limiting such moral obtuseness. It is to be noticed that, while he is interested in materialist explanations for technological change, on the social side he is purely idealist.]

He sees great importance in the difference between early factories, with one power source powering all machines (connected by shafts, etc. to communicate/transform rotary motion) and the 20th century kind, in which machines have their own engines powered by electricity; an effect of the change from mechanical to electric/wired transmission of power. Power is no longer one of the reasons for machines to be grouped together, allowing for a potential "return to cottage industry" (143).

I do not wish to insist that the difficulties of mechan­ical transmission were the only cause of the shed factories and of the demoralization they produced. In­deed, the factory system started before the machine system, as a means of introducing discipline into the highly undisciplined home industry of the individual workers, and of keeping up standards of production. 

[Basically he is trying to argue the point of something like the material potential of a technological system, as against the effects of [social organization, though he just says "moral"]; if the "fractional horse-power motor" had been available at the start of the Industrial Revolution, centralized factories might not have had to have replaced the cottage industry.]

He has an interesting discussion of the effects of this technological development on the distribution of knowledge among different categories of workers and creators attempting to solve such issues as the loss of power through entropy, and the amplification problem. In the older, mechanical system, there was a need for all kinds of “dodges and devices” based on the cunning of craftsmen; these are no longer needed with the newer electrical transmission, based on scientific knowledge and theory:

The design of machines involving such parts has been transferred from the domain of the skilled shopworker to that of the research-laboratory man; and in this he has all the available tools of circuit theory to replace a mechanical ingenuity of the old sort. Invention in the old sense has been supplanted by the intelligent employment of cer­tain laws of nature. The step from the laws of nature to their employment has been reduced by a hundred times. (146)

[A good paragraph to consider in relation to Braverman, or to Detienne and Vernant.]

Wiener’s distinction between the promise he sees in technological development, and the failure of human societies to use those technologies to their full potential, can be seen in his discussion of the invention of radio:

Let not the fact that this great triumph of invention has largely been given over to the soap-opera and the hillbilly singer, blind one to the excellent work that was done in developing it, and to the great civilizing possibilities which have been per­verted into a national medicine-show. (147)

Another theme he returns to several times is the importance of war in driving technological change, for example in the use of vacuum tubes. Another is the knock-on effect of automation: improvements in computing machines since the war means they are faster than humans, and thus more aspects of their operation (and related operations) have also to be automated, to keep up with them:

Their speed has long since reached such a level that any intermediate human intervention in their work is out of the question. Thus they offer the same need to replace human capacities by machine capacities as those which we found in the anti-aircraft computer. (151)

The possibility of automation thus becomes a need for automation; this is achieved by [delegating] more aspects of communication and control to machine-machine relations, rather than to the older, slower, human-human relations:

The parts of the machine must speak to one another through an appropriate language, without speaking to any person or listening to any person, except in the terminal and initial stages of the process. Here again we have an element which has contributed to the general acceptance of the extension to machines of the idea of communication.

He outlines the differences he sees between the first industrial revolution, and the incipient/upcoming second industrial revolution:

except for a considerable number of isolated examples, the industrial revolution up to the present has displaced man and the beast as a source of power, without making any great impression on other human functions. (153-4)

This has led to the devaluation of human labor:

In all important respects, the man who has nothing but his physical power to sell has nothing to sell which it is worth anyone's money to buy.

[This is kind of nonsensical, because of course manual labor still exists, and someone is obviously paying for it; and he will even mention the continuing need for "low-grade labor" later on. It seems more of an unthinking ideological restatement of the cheapness of labor being some inherent factor due to the present technological context, rather than to its exploitation; Wiener is capable of saying smarter things, when he stops to think first.]

“Let us now go on to a picture of a more completely automatic age.” He discusses how computers will become cheap enough to be used to run factories, through the development of sensors and effectors. Unlike the computers of his day, these will not be disembodied brains, but “will correspond to the complete an­imal with sense organs, effectors, and proprioceptors” (157).

Again, part of the process of change is not merely within the capacities of computing machines, but in the way of organizing production; the concept of “programming,” he notes, comes from Taylorization of factories, and is then incorporated into computing, rather than the other way around. The simplification/rationalization of work processes and flows pre-adapts them to automation by computers:

That which can be done then by a technique so stand­ardized that it can be put in the hands of a statistical computer who does not understand the logic behind it, may also be executed by a computing machine. (158)

[“Statistical computer” in that sentence refers to a human (what we now call computers are “computing machines” to Wiener); an interesting application of the Chinese Room scenario]. The upshot is that clerical and accounting work in factories can also be done by computing machines. There still may be a use of "low-grade labor":

But even a large part of the outside correspondence may be received from the correspondents on punched cards, or transferred to punched cards by extremely low-grade labor. From this stage on, everything may go by machine. (159)

The managerial viewpoint of all this is quite evident (per Braverman, the more expensive skilled workers are the first to be replaced, leaving only “low-grade labor” if this is cheaper than machines. However, Wiener also notes that “the machine plays no favorites be­tween manual labor and white-collar labor” although, in contrast, it will be the less-skilled white collar workers, “performing judgments of a low level” who will be replaced by “machinery of judgment”[not MIT professors! Whew!]

Some jobs will be safe from automation, due to the costs or variability of work:

I cannot see automatic ma­chinery of the judgment-replacing type coming into use in the corner grocery, or in the corner garage, al­though I can very well see it employed by the whole­sale grocer and the automobile manufacturer. The farm laborer too, although he is beginning to be pressed by automatic machinery, is protected from the full pres­sure of it because of the ground he has to cover, the variability of the crops he must till, and the special conditions of weather and the like that he must meet.

These changes might take another ten to twenty years, or sooner if there is a war, because of the demands on labor supply of infantry in a major war, and thus the need to replace human production in industry:

Thus a new war will almost inevitably see the auto­matic age in full swing within less than five years. (161)

He turns to the economic and social consequences of the second industrial revolution:

In the first place, we can expect an abrupt and final cessation of the demand for the type of factory labor performing purely repeti­tive tasks. In the long run, the deadly uninteresting nature of the repetitive task may make this a good thing and the source of leisure necessary for man's full cultural development.

[This is the typical talk of automation as savior of workers from those “deadly uninteresting” jobs; Braverman again is the key corrective to this, having shown how deskilling was the result of the first part of this [control revolution], and how it continues to be skilled workers who are more likely to be replaced than “low-grade labor.”]

It may also produce cultural re­sults as trivial and wasteful as the greater part of those so far obtained from the radio and the movies.

[This is Wiener’s suspicion of the capitalist system speaking, concerned more with its triviality and noise than with social inequality.]

There is also likely to be "an immediate transitional period of disastrous confusion." He provides a criticism of industrialists/entrepreneurs and their selfishness, which is legitimated by “the traditional American philosophy of progress.” A few prescient passages could have been written about the social media and "sharing economy" appsplosion of the 2010s:

We also know that they have very few inhibitions when it comes to taking all the profit out of an industry that there is to be taken, and then letting the public pick up the pieces.

Under these circumstances, industry will be flooded with the new tools to the extent that they appear to yield immediate profits, irrespective of what long-time damage they can do.

He interestingly compares automation to slave labor, and predicts this will have a disastrous effect on employment, in this case due not only to the capacity of the technology itself, but to the ways in which it is likely to be exploited by selfish capitalists:

Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor.  Any labor which competes with slave labor must ac­cept the economic conditions of slave labor. (162)

He predicts unemployment and a depression far outweighing that of the 1930s; in which context selfish capitalists may still be motivated to profit, leading to disaster:

Thus the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword. It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

But Wiener is hopeful because he has been to two meetings at which managerial types were aware of the dangers. And so we are left again with the hope that some kind of “code” will be developed, among the powerful of course (John Mackey’s “conscious capitalism” comes to mind), to constrain the abuses by the coming computing revolution. [Wiener apparently fails to consider how the previous code of laws, regulations, etc. limiting the abuses of the first industrial revolution, was the product of long and hard-fought struggle from below.]

There are many dangers still ahead, but the roots of good will are there, and I do not feel as thoroughly pessimistic as I did at the time of the publication of the first edition of this book.



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