Category Archives: TV & Movies

Automation Meditations

So, I’m a dorkosaurus. Raaawwrrrrrr. An enormous shock, I’m sure. I’ve been bingewatching the series Edwardian Farm, which first ran on the BBC. Of course our library has it.

Picture of the cover of Edwardian Farm, the DVD.

The show you never knew you needed to watch. It’s fascinating, and sometimes gross.

It’s a reality-TV-ish series about making historians live on an Edwardian Era farm, as in, technology, food, clothes, and everything from the first years of the 20th Century. Yikes. One thing that I find really striking though is the way this show illustrates how the massive changes to the economy wrought by mechanization and automation started earlier than we usually think. (Or at least earlier than panicky articles about the coming Skynet-style Robot War due to cute self-driving cars would have you believe. But look at it! It’s just so roly-poly and cute! Who could hate that?*)

A 3/4 photograph of the google driverless car. Designed to be cute, actually, like a little face.

PANIC! IT’S COMING FOR YOUR JOB! IT MURDERS KANGAROOS! IT RUNS ON HUMAN BLOOD! SOON THEY WILL FARM US LIKE CATTLE! By Grendelkhan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But first: some definitions!

Mechanization – the process of adopting machines to do work.

Automation – machines operating without a human operator.

Our age has a lot of anxiety about machines taking over. We write entire movie series about the idea. It permeates our pop-culture consciousness. But, over 100 years ago, the process of mechanization was well underway, and even automation was on the horizon. Technological forces have always shaped our economy, from the dawn of recorded history, even.

Cover of the DVD of the movie Terminator, with robo-Schwarzenegger crouching in some fog.

A vital entry in the cultural canon of techno-anxiety.

Cover of The Matrix DVD.

Seriously, I had a whole coffee-rant one morning this September, about how science fiction doesn’t get enough credit for tackling massive intellectual issues like technology. I still think the rest of the Matrix Trilogy makes more sense if (spoilers spoil! Click and drag between brackets to reveal!) [you think of Zion and the resistance and everything as yet another illusion to bottle up the troublesome humans who think they made it out. That’s why the other machines were so helpful, and how Neo can still have superpowers on the “outside” – he never made it out. Nobody ever does. Of course, this way, it’s way, WAY, more depressing. Less plot holes, though…]

Anyway, let’s return from these horrifying futures to the past, and the ways in which machines were already dominating the economy a century ago. This is how you till a field, by hand. This is with a horse and a plough. By the early 20th Century, you could plow more than one furrow at once, with a riding plow, in the same amount of time. Watch these different models of ploughs. Less time to do the work of a farm means that less people have to be involved to cultivate even more food than ever before. (More horses, though, until the tractor. Today, as you can see, there’s as many people ploughing that huge field as was needed to deal with a just a single large hitch of horses, 100 years ago. The mechanization process was there all along, and reducing human labor all along, but it’s gotten so much further these days. This is a huge factor in why people moved to cities from the countryside. Shrinking employment pool for farmers, all along.)

Another great example is knitting machines. Today, textiles with a knit pattern are made on computerized automatic knitting machines. For an example, look at your t-shirt. But hand-cranked machines made knitting tricky socks much easier, starting in the late 19th Century. Time-saving devices like this made it possible to free up more time and effort for other things, and even earn extra money on the side.

As much as we read panicked articles about automation eating jobs, machines have been supplanting, supplementing, and creating jobs for generations, at least. There are no wind farms without wind turbine repair technicians. Entire jobs have opened up that did not exist before, if you get the training and the education to do them: wind turbine repair requires about a two year professional degree and a good head for heights. If you like rock climbing, this could be a good fit.

*But maybe, that’s what they want you to think: a lot of work goes into designing cars. The creators of the project knew how nervous a self-driving car could make people, and wanted to subconsciously ease anxiety by designing it to look cute. You can’t really help it, because cuteness DOES literally hack your brain’s love circuitry. Mammal parenting hormones at their best. Oxytocin is a heck of a drug. DUN DUN DUUUNNNNN!!