In the first months of 1811, a secret army drilled on the chilly moors outside Nottingham, England. Under the shadow of darkness, these men gathered to learn guerrilla tactics -- how to move as a team, how to avoid detection, how to break through locks and barriers, and how to escape when their task was complete. Only this army was not made up of soldiers. They were stocking makers.
By the spring of the next year, nearly 200 of the mechanical "stocking frames" at local factories had been destroyed. In this following months, the destruction would spread to cloth works in Yorkshire and Leicestershire, to Lancashire cotton mills, and eventually into the factories of London. By then the army was not so secret. Handbills had arrived for months warning factory owners of their fate. Many of these were signed by the supposed leader of this rebellion -- General Ned Ludd. It from from this name that the movement gained it's popular moniker: the Luddites.
The Luddite movement would fade only after rising to widespread violence that took the lives of workers, hired guards, and a few mill owners. This was followed by a swift reaction from government to imprison or hang many of those suspected of being Luddites. The breaking of machinery was itself made a capital crime, and by 1812 several men had been executed for the offense of damaging automatic looms.
When we hear the term "Luddite" today, our reaction is to think of a brutish lout frightened by any sign of progress. A Luddite is someone who can't understand their computer, hates the Internet, and thinks that there hasn't been a worthwhile invention since the well-chipped stone. But that doesn't really describe the men (and women) who were involved in that original movement. They were not anti-technology. They were reacting to a change that was seeing many of them either lose jobs or face a sharp decrease in pay.
The Luddites were not rural loonies frightened of smokestacks. These men were the skilled craftsmen, master tailors and experienced crofters (those skilled at turning the rough product of looms into smooth cloth), who saw the automation of English factories not as a distant threat, but as the immediate reason that their lives and careers were bring disrupted.
Economics has long held that the Luddite's concerns were actually based on a fallacy. Studies over the decades have shown that the automation of factories does not tend to decrease the overall number of jobs. However, the nature of the jobs certainly does change. The original Luddites acted in response to a sharp drop in wages and working conditions as positions that had taken years of training were replaced by roles that could be (and in many cases were) done by children. The change in relationship between craftsmen and those they worked for was tremendous.
There is a trade off for this, one that can best be seen in looking at the oldest of commodities. In a hunter-gather society, collection of food occupies enough time and resources that there's little left for other occupations and severe limits on the total population. At each stage, as food production has become more efficient, it has supported a larger population, and less and less of that population has been involved in food production. When the Luddites were burning looms in Nottinghamshire, over 80% of people in the United States worked in agriculture. Two centuries later, that number is around 1%. The same forces that allowed mechanization of cloth production took people out of the fields and into the factories.
This is a cycle that's repeated frequently over time. New technology reduces the employment demand in existing areas, but provides opportunities for both basic workers in new areas and for entirely new positions, some of which have the potential to grow into the new generation of "master craft" positions. Crofters were replaced not only by low skilled factory workers, but by machinists. Which isn't to say this was good for the crofters. It wasn't. The movement toward increasing mechanization that we now see as the start of the Industrial Age was incredibly messy, difficult, and disruptive on every level from individuals to nations.
Each advance in efficiency, each new "age" has increased the total population than can be supported and employed. It's also increased the total range of opportunities available. In general it's brought on a better life. But it's also brought on an ever increasing disparity. We continue to track "worker efficiency" as one of our economic measurements, and treat it as if it's a gauge of the nation's health, but every tick of that increasing efficiency is a mark of the devaluing of the workers, a widening of the gap between rich and poor.
Once upon a time we dreamed of gleaming futures in which robots did all the work. But it seemed that no one ever stopped to ask a simple question -- if robots are making everything, how are you going to pay for what they make? We like to think that we have left the industrial age behind and entered the information age, but we've not completed our journey across that boundary any more than those Nottingham craftsmen. We have by no means faced the disorientation and dislocation that will occur as we trek further into the new age. We haven't answered that eternal question: what are we all going to do when we grow up?
One thing is sure, mechanization and automation reduced the percentage of the population involved in agriculture to a tiny fraction of what it had been. No matter how many trendy organic local farms are built, that change will not be reversed. Likewise, increasing automation has drained away the jobs of our fathers that worked in the modern analogs of those English mills. Like agriculture, manufacturing's day as the primary employer of the population is done. Not only are those jobs not coming back, more jobs will continue to be lost. At this point, about 20% of Americans work in manufacturing, about half the percentage of a generation ago. We shouldn't be surprised to see that number cut down dramatically over the next two decades.
An astounding 79% of Americans now work in "service" jobs (that's pretty much everyone who works in an office, not just those saying "do you want fries with that"). Now for the scary part. if you want the real reason why the current level of high unemployment has been so persistant, here it is: the largest gains in efficiency over the last two decades haven't been in the fields or the factories, it's been in the office. That's where productivity has skyrocketed more in the last few years than over the previous century. No one who's been in the office environment over that period should be shocked. When I started working as a geologist, I had a secretary who worked on a humming IBM Selectric, I had access to a mainframe computer that could store and retrieve data, and for making maps I had a fine selection of Rapidographs, Zip-o-Tone sheets, and colored pencils. Making a single map meant days or weeks of careful drafting, and lots of fine work with rulers and calculator to determine the fall of contour lines. By the time I left that job a decade later, I could produce a dozen colored maps in an hour from computer driven plotters and software that calculated those contour lines for me. The secretary was gone. After all, by then we had word processors on our desktops.
That kind of gain has gone on everywhere. In almost every industry. This boom in productivity has made modern corporations the wealthiest institutions that have ever existed. It has also meant that both goods and services are available at prices that are historically low. The world may not be flat, but it certainly is cheap.
But make no mistake, right now we are all crofters. What we do for a living in that 79% service sector, is for the most part exactly the kind of work that will be replaced by the next generation of automation. In another two decades, those areas will employ no more people than manufacturing does today.
This doesn't mean we should gather in the fields by night and practice smashing server farms. Standing in the way of technological advance is a good way to get run over, especially since -- as the Luddites discovered -- there are tremendous forces that will work in favor of disruptive technology precisely because it fuels those on the good end of massive disparity. But there are some things that we can do that will position us for the transition into the real information age, an age that's still ahead of us.
- Education. Why did America become so dominant in the midst of the Industrial Age? There are few factors that contribute as much as the emphasis on public education that was put in place in the mid-19th century. We still have the world's best system of universities (also a legacy of the education-emphasis of previous eras). Investment now in education at all levels is needed to compete in a world where increasingly the lowest rung is still quite high.
- Taxation. While goverments have been miserable at halting technological advance (and we really shouldn't hope they get better), one thing they can do is implement tax policies that try to smash the massive surge in disparity that's generated by increasing productivity. The United States did this successfully at the height of the industrial period, putting in tax rates up to 90%. Those that argue that when you tax people at that rate they have little incentive to make more are exactly right -- and experience shows that nothing else has worked as well for getting those at the top to contribute more to their workers.
- Flexibility. There's nothing more deadly to a nation facing such a transition than hide-bound commitment to "the way our fore fathers did it." Society and its institutions are directly shaped by changes in the level of mechanization and automation. It's not a coincidence that both democracies and modern corporations date to the same period as the start of the Industrial Age. Our existing institutions will turn out to have conflicts at every level with real Information Age conditions. It may be that we must surrender or reform some of our most cherish ideals to fit a new age.
In a period that may be surprisingly short, all of what we consider traditional "service" work may tumble down into the single digit land of agriculture. 80% of us will be doing... something else.
Whatever that something is, just remember: don't kill the mill owners. That won't help anybody. Just tax the hell out of them.