Sunday, September 8, 2013


Years ago someone said that if a room full of monkeys were seated at typewriters, they’d eventually write The Great American Novel. The speaker didn’t know about computers, but he (or she) could look at the shift from hand labor to machines and see the future. I suppose that the future holds great promise, especially for those who have either a skill that can’t be robotized, or the skills to make robots that do anything people can do, only better, faster, safer or cheaper – or all of those. The fact is, more and more jobs are being taken over by machines and given up by human hands. Not a new trend, of course. It has been happening right along with human development. Think club instead of hand, as in killing an animal or another human being.

The real change came with the Industrial Revolution, and is still going on. Like any form of evolution, the move from manual to automatic is ever-changing. Sometimes we see it coming, and other times it just comes from behind and passes most of us in the dust.

Many years ago, in researching a film about the American automobile industry, I ran across two quotations that seemed to sum up two very important elements of the ongoing conflict between profits and production.

Henry Ford said, "A large corporation is too big to be human."

The other quote was from Walter Reuther, then head of the United Auto Workers. The man who led the effort to unionize the auto industry was talking about the future: "I have no objection to automation. But who will buy the Fords?"

Henry hadn’t the opportunity to meet the present day Supreme Court, wherein corporations were given the constitutional right of free speech. He was talking about the responsibility of corporations to give honest work its honest reward.

Reuther, on the other hand, was talking about robots working the assembly lines at Ford, GM and Chrysler. There were other manufacturers then, but only those three have remained to see the day when automated assembly lines have largely replaced the hands-on builders of busses and trucks and cars.

A recent story in a weekly news magazine focused on the next phase of the industrial revolution and frankly, it offered a rather scary look at the future. There are already cars that drive themselves, and even a fleet of long-haul trucks that drive with only one driver for three rigs; the other two are fully automated, and take their instructions from the lead vehicle. Of course industry spokesfolks will say "It won’t happen," and "At least not soon," and other supposedly comforting phrases, but we all know that these things will come to pass, should the world still be here when the technology is perfected. It is only a little comforting to think about the 1939 Worlds Fair, and the General Motors "World of Tomorrow" exhibit. It featured cars that drove themselves (along a defined roadway), and the prediction that the individual driver would soon be replaced. Well, it’s happening.

That leaves us with the question: "What about me? Will the work I do be turned over to a machine?" And don’t think that just because you are a writer, it doesn’t apply to you. An automated journalist has been at work for several years now, researching and writing daily news. It may not be Pulitzer winning journalism, but it will be someday – maybe when the judges for that prize are robots, too.

Still, the question remains: who will buy the Fords?

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