Reality Is A Creative Process
A recent office side bar turned to a quite interesting discussion of the future of society. It began as a casual comment on productivity increases and the man machine contest for employment, where productivity increases are becoming exponential, or likely to do so, as technological progress continues to replace human labor. Where does this lead? I posed a former opinion that our educational system had to radically change to accommodate the need for rapid education of a population for the creative destruction of old methods of production and their replacement with new, more efficient methods. I also highlighted the greatly destabilizing nature of such rapid change and how humankind was not presently geared to continuously and rapidly adjust to such change. My workmate accepted this problem, but instead of trying to propose ways for humankind to keep up with such change proposed that society will evolve into one in which productivity has so increased that labor will be unnecessary. The costs of goods and services will be affordable to all, and society will consist of peoples choosing which leisure activity to pursue, their necessities provided for through inconsequential efforts of labor.
This seems farfetched, yet possible. Although I do not discount the possibility of advancements in technology making the attainment of the modicums of life’s necessities available to all within their means, however minimal, I do doubt the human condition and its capability to accept and prosper in such a state. Those afforded the leisure to seek self improvement would likely, in large number, not seek what is needful but will rather spend such leisure time in profligacy. The few who do use the opportunity will form a ruling class. This ruling class will lord over those of lesser character, using such means of force and persuasion as are necessary, to maintain order and class position. Without a moral order, as well as necessity, enforcing and codifying societal norms of sustenance in exchange for the free exchange of labor, society will devolve into debauchery and forced acquiescence to one’s caste, except for those of character who choose to escape such realities, the escape velocity ever increased by the hardening of social stratification.
The Bible says, “If a man does not work, neither shall he eat.” This is not a statement of moral judgment so much as a statement of fact. Without a vision, the people perish. Mankind needs worthy goals. Leisure time without worthwhile leisure activity which leads to self improvement is not only a wasted commodity but destructive. Even menial labor, which contributes to the production of a worthy commodity, is both pleasurable and useful. The laborer can look at the finished product and its usefulness which he has contributed to, even if only in a small fashion. He can take pride in his compensation, having labored to contribute to an object of pride and provided for his family by the sweat of his brow. Though his talents, perhaps, be few, his perseverance and constancy are well honed, and these he can take pride in and relish in, however small, the fruits of his labor. Though he has little, he has this.
What, in contrast, does the man of little skill have in a leisure society, where his needs are provided for without labor? If his means of character and cash are few, even the few assets he has, such as a desire to work, persistence, constancy, and a strong back, are no solace to his need for worth and meaning. Imagine a world of John Henry’s, hard as steel, tough as nails, struggling to keep up with the technology that is, slowly but inexorably, taking away their claim to dignity and worth. They don’t want a hand out! They want to work. Finally beat by the machine, and with little besides their brawn and bristle, they give up. They take the handout, but they hand back so much more – their dignity, their self reliance, their soul.
My fellow workmate is an accomplished, smart, inventive young fellow. I emphasize the latter as I do not believe he has thought through the societal impacts of the society he has envisioned, unless he accepts, which I shudder to imagine, one in which the John Henrys’ of society are, rather than immortalized, immobilized and controlled in some dystopian future where only the few, so blessed with such gifts of genetics and character, are afforded a fulfilling existence.
Reality is, indeed, a creative process. We are on the cusp of choosing our future. Some of the choices for the future have been explored here and, for some, a leisure society is desirable. For me, a society which does not set the conditions for as many as possible to achieve their potentials is suboptimal. I choose to envision and create a society where all are valued and given the chance to find worth in those abilities they have.
“This man, known as Neal Miller, told me in plain words how he had come to the tunnel with his father at 17, how he carried water and drills for the steel drivers, how he saw John Henry every day, and, finally, all about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill.
"When the agent for the steam drill company brought the drill here," said Mr. Miller, "John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.
"Well, they decided to hold a test to get an idea of how practical the steam drill was. The test went on all day and part of the next day.
"John Henry won. He wouldn't rest enough, and he overdid. He took sick and died soon after that."
We need productive, meaningful labor for our country. Unfortunately, many of the products of today and the future are technology intensive, and not conducive to employment of low skilled labor. How, in such a world, do we give purpose and meaning to the John Henry’s of today? Do we really believe John Henry would have been content in a leisure society? John Henry gave his last great measure, of pride, of effort, of work, to prove his value against technological innovation. He died trying to prove his value. What happens if we take away any hope of that contest?