Over at The Umlaut, Eli Dourado has managed to stir up a rather large sea of anxiety. The creature which arose from the depths grew many tentacles of much girth and long reach. As it was, I mostly sidetweeted, because I don’t know the vocabulary, but a question started to form, then to congeal. At first, I wrote as a comment on the article page:
I wonder if this works outside the traditional manufacturing environment, where robots are robots. The more abstract “robotic” might apply to the automation of clerical jobs as well. Using myself as an anecdote, I won’t hire an assistant for my business because 1) the training is too specialized for the actual labor, and 2) New York State hiring laws are cost prohibitive. My anecdote is common enough and well-known enough that my email and business phone are clogged with messages from entrepreneurs promising me easy data entry and automated filing as has never been known, not since Miss Lemon conquered Hercule Poirot’s office.
That was hours before the conversation wound its way through Twitter. Since then, it occurs to me that Eli has touched on a kind of anxiety that disturbs all civilizations, especially at the level of a civilization’s societies where men and women are concerned about the wherewithal of her institutions. My favorite example of this is the Eighth Century B.C.E. , in which the Assyrians perfected a handful of things, e.g., the chariot, seasonal warfare, iron weapons, equestrian warfare, siege warfare, psychological warfare (seeing a pattern?), and just plain old mean cruelty. Everyone around freaked out, making poor diplomatic decisions to the detriment of their cultures, the Assyrians opened up a can of burn-everything-down-and-then-tax-it, and while they were picking the fat of their conquests from their teeth, the Chaldeans landed an arrow shot in the dark, and a several millennia-old civilization and group of civilizations fell within two hundred years, never to rise from the ashes.
Technology played no small role in that fall, and its use, and its abuse: the Assyrians, apparently, were just mad at everyone for a few millennia of encroachment, so they lashed out with technology they perfected in a furious hurry (I know, I know: that’s pretty tendentious, but I’m right). The response to them, in turn, was a rebuke of the ages.
Isn’t this stark reality–namely that in a couple of thousand years a shepherd might stub his toe on a rock that used to be the top of the John Hancock tower, and historians who were arguing that there never was something such as the Glorious U.S. of A. would hang their heads in shame and write quick journal articles to explain how when they steadfastly denied the existence of said civilization they really meant they denied the “mythology” of the Free Market, Individual Liberty, and the Glory of the Ordinary–isn’t this stark reality the cause of every civilization’s love for the myth of the Phoenix of Fire Which Rises From the Ashes? It gives us a false hope. We are doomed to ashes, and everything we strive, sweat, and bleed for–falls to the unknown.
“Thanks for the technology: we’ll be sure to sweep your ashes into a pile next to Lake Michigan.” But not in my lifetime, right? Or my kids’?