“Machines should work, people should think.”
The “IBM Polyanna Principle”
This slogan seems to come from an IBM ad from the 1960s, but it may be much older. It’s based on a vision of the future where robots do the heavy lifting and humans have time to dream up new ideas. In many ways, it describes the world we live in today. In other ways, it’s as much of a cartoon as “The Jetsons”.
The problem with automation is that it doesn’t stop just at physical work. Today’s machines do the thinking for us – or at least make it easier for a small cadre of professionals to view the “big picture”. Are humans becoming redundant? Is there a place for people and work in a world already heavily tilted towards capital and the machines it can buy?
If you had to sum up 2014 in one short sentence, what would it be? Barataria is a blog of social commentary and observation in the largest sense, which naturally includes a lot of politics and economics – the places where the citizens of this great nation express their true values. So for the the purposes of this humble effort, one thing comes clearly to mind for this year:
The system largely works.
That may sound horribly pro-establishment, especially with the terrible failures of the system that made the news this year. Police brutality went unpunished as many people came to fear that there is an open season on their families simply for having the wrong skin color. The Republicans took the Senate easily with a record low turnout, an expression of apathy more than direction.
But this points to the power of the systems we have as much as the successes do, and why the goals looking ahead have to be about getting control so that these mechanisms do what we need them to. The systems work – as they didn’t at all in 2008 and sporadically after that – but for whom?
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel “Player Piano” was more than his first. It was arguably the first “dystopian utopia” novel of a world carefully described and proscribed for everyone involved. Those with technical degrees were the masters of the carefully planned world, and the rest either joined the army or worked for the “Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps” building infrastructure. Government took care of everyone, but not all were happy. Rebellion steeped under the calm surface in both the working class and the unchallenged rulers.
It’s hard to not think of such a world when reading “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs” from the Pew Research Center and Elon University. A survey of 1,896 experts in technical areas were asked what they thought the future world of employment might look like – how much automation might displace workers and how many jobs it might create. The results read something like Vonnegut imagined – enough so that a little anxiety about the next economy is justified.
It has been a long week. This repeat from 2010 goes to the physical nature of economic restructuring and where it must come from – our cities. The recent snow disaster in Atlanta (brilliantly discussed here) is more about infrastructure not keeping up than anything else. So what do we need? Let’s start with the basics of what a city is for, and how it will serve us.
Cities mark the landscape across this nation and all others. Images of the handiwork of a culture often define the people who come to inherit the space and, in turns, mark it with their own generation’s values. Yet they are so much more than static collections of icons – they are where people come together and live their lives right now. They are always ultimately about the connections that make them alive.
Even the bricks and mortar or glass and steel is ultimately a connection across time to what made the city what it is today. Though it’s the stuff that makes up a city which gets photographed and noticed, they are much more than that.