Meaningful Work and Technology

March 8, 2012

Next to environmental degradation, the disappearance of meaningful work is the most important problem facing not only Canada but the United States and indeed the whole world.

A human being needs to be productively and usefully engaged with both hands and brains. Since the mid-19th century we have been giving jobs to machines. At the end of the 20th century this trend has reached a fever pitch in killing not only jobs for hands, but now jobs for brains: with user-friendly software and modems, these jobs are now migrating to low wage areas and they will not come back until our wages reach the level of those in Mexico or Asia. Technology and computers are sweeping through factories and office towers like job-killing viruses. Transnational corporations and free trade deals are accelerating this process.

The real problems facing this planet are not economic or technical, they are philosophical. Our high capital, low labour philosophy is pauperizing North America with downsizing and rationalizing for "efficiency" - in the long run this philosophy will be very costly and inefficient because it will destroy our consumer base, human self-respect and other delicate psychological structures of society. It is now also destroying our tax base just at a time when a damaged society needs more support. It is making governments helpless and irrelevant.

We cannot get out of this dangerous trend with more growth or retraining for "new" jobs. The planet has taken almost all of the "growth" it can stand. Most of our problems are a result of rapid growth. We have overproduction and declining demand along with unemployment and depletion of resources. As a result of this and overcapitalization, our forests, fisheries and family farms are in ruins. And our cities are disaster areas. As for retraining - the costs are astronomical and courses are out of date almost immediately due to too rapidly evolving technology.

There has been a silly myth that we can keep giving jobs to machines and new, meaningful jobs will replace the old ones. It is now clear that this is not true. The "everything is temporary - take nothing for granted" new economy will continue to produce an inner conviction of insecurity and uselessness. This is obviously dangerous and expensive in human and financial terms. There is a steady rise in crime, substance abuse, family violence, violence among young people, teenage suicide, homelessness, soup kitchens and food banks. The reason for this dismal picture is directly connected to a growing lack of meaningful work. Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If the foundations are unsound, how could society be sound? Unless we change our philosophy, this trend seems tragically unstoppable. First should come the values, then should come the technology.

The Luddites were a group in England who strongly protested the displacement of hand work by industrial textile machines. They correctly predicted the end of a way of life and the destruction of the vitality of their towns and villages. Although the Luddites' tactics and timing were off, they were right. This displacement and destruction has now reached a global scale.

The two most frightening words these days are "global economy" - which basically means leaving the destiny of everyone in the world in the hands of multinational buccaneers with their free-roving electronics. Like true pirates, they have no sense of place or permanence. In modern, high-tech war, a distant enemy can push a button and destroy thousands of lives. In modern high-tech business, distant company bureaucracy can and does push a button and destroy the livelihood of thousands. The world seems to be moving in a direction which will be boring, ugly and dangerous. Is it a good idea to leave the lives of all the people in the world plus all the plants and animals in the hands of these buccaneers? Do we want to completely eliminate self-reliance, loyalty and dedication?

We need some law and order at the international level. Rather than job retraining, we need philosophy retraining. We should challenge old, destructive orthodoxies about growth being good, bigger being better, and new being always superior to traditional. During the 20th century we have been throwing out the bath water and the baby, and being proud of it. It is like being in a canoe in rapids; we have the choice to steer or not to steer, we do not have the choice to get out of the canoe. The direction in which we are moving with frightening speed is clearly dangerous and unsustainable.

We should promote such radical ideas as small is beautiful, self-reliance, lower capital - higher labour input and job-sharing, and aim for a sense of permanence in our lives, jobs and communities. Maybe there is even a place for protectionism. As we move into the 21st century we must pick and choose to create a new orientation of science and technology towards "small is beautiful" and a human scale. Anyone who thinks we can continue riding unchecked on this high technology band wagon to a better world is truly living in an "Alice in Wonderland" world.