Monday, November 25, 2013

The Resurrection of Captain Ludd

The local high school has about 800 cellphone-carrying students. Assuming that they, or more likely their parents, are paying an average of fifty bucks a month for cell service, that's $40,000 every month floating out of that building into the coffers of the cellphone industry.

Twenty years ago no students at that school had cellphones. That's a school that can't afford new helmets for the football team and has multiple fund-raisers to keep alive its breakfast program which costs somewhat less than $500 a month to operate. But $40,000 every month just wafts up through the ceiling tiles.

This is the result of a completely irrational fetishization of technology. What are these kids actually doing with these cellphones? Are they necessary?

Ask the kids and they'll answer that they can't imagine living without one.

As a society we seem to blindly accept that just because someone has come up with a technology, we are obliged to adopt, adapt, consume, and enrich the providers of that technology. Asking "how is this making the world a better place" would mark you as a senile sentimentalist.

But while it's true that the billions worldwide who have adopted this technology have made an infinitesimally small clique of individuals exceedingly wealthy, how has it improved society?

This goes well beyond cellphones. Usually, new technology will promise enhanced efficiencies in the bouquet of propaganda that heralds its debut.

As a society, we're over-the-top about "efficiency."

Efficiency-seeking investment dollars chased manufacturing from the US and Canada to Mexico and then China, and then on to Cambodia and Bangladesh and Haiti, in a constant quest for greater efficiency.

The never-ending search for cheaper inputs on the one hand, and the constant evolution of technology on the other, have conspired to make North America and much of the "developed world" into a job-shedding wasteland.

If we believe that "jobs" are a valuable commodity in a society, perhaps we should manage ourselves accordingly.

When hedge fund driven mergers, rationalizations, take-overs etc. result in the inevitable "synergies,"  i.e. drastic lay-offs, there needs to be a place in the discussion about how this benefits society at large. If the only beneficiaries are the hedge-fund operators and their investors, then the only point would be to further enrich the already rich at the expense of a wide swath of ordinary folks.

Why should that be permitted?

The creation and preservation of decent jobs is a worthwhile end in itself. The elimination of such jobs is not.

And what is a "decent" job?

A lot of low-wage employment is not inherently unpleasant. I served a spell in retail myself once. Putting in an eight hour shift at the mall could be eminently agreeable to a lot of people if the pay allowed them to live a proper life.

That's why the movement in the US by fast food and retail workers to up the minimum wage to $15 is such a positive development. If Costco can pay a decent wage, Wal-mart and McDonalds can too.

Even more important, we can't as a society embrace every new "labour-saving technology" without giving some thought to what will happen to the labour that's going to be saved. When we talk about saving labour we are talking about eliminating somebody's livelihood. Shouldn't they have a say in the matter?

For far too long the discussion about workers and jobs has been monopolized by the Chamber of Commerce types who champion profit maximization over employees, communities, society, the environment, and every other manifestation of the common good.

It's time to reboot the discussion.

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