How History Repeats Itself: The Rise of SciTech & the Evolution of Blue Collar America

It’s happened before. None of us were alive to remember it. Handloom weavers burned mills, textile workers smashed looms, and farmhands broke threshing machines, all to protest the deplorable state of labor that had arisen during the Industrialized era.

They were known as Luddites, allegedly named after the young Ned Ludd who broke two stocking frames in a fit of passion in 1779 in Regency England. From there onwards, Ludd became a symbol, eventually inspiring the character, Captain Ludd, the fictitious leader of the Luddites, a bastion of the underprivileged work force.

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Although these revolts wouldn’t have happened had employers not taken advantage of the labor force, driving them into insolvency for the sake of profit shares, the ongoing march of human technology generated the circumstances that led to these revolutions. The Industrial Revolution itself shifted labor away from artisan craftmanship, positions which often required numerous years of apprenticeship, ensuring that the craftsman himself was a valuable commodity to his employer.

Industrialization enabled product reproducibility, wide availability, and cheaper goods that a wider range of classes could afford. The invention of factory lines also ensured that production was compartmentalized and training comparatively easy in contrast to the earlier artisanal system. Unfortunately, this also meant that barriers to entry for any given workman were dramatically reduced, making floormen almost as interchangeable (and thus expendable) as the factory parts they operated. This offered poor leverage to the workforce in order to garner fair wages from their employers during a time when there was little government intervention on behalf of laborers. Although the riots did succeed in improving some workers’ wages, it did not slow the change from artisanal to industrial business– a change that lay at the heart of men’s disquiet.

Today, our society faces a similar transition from what was once a largely blue collar country to a progressively white collar college-educated workforce. And a similar unrest amongst those who remain at the crossroads of that transition in the job force are trapped in a no-win position. And yet, just as with industrialization, the rise of the science and technology (SciTech) fields ensures that society will continue to change. Some call it Progress and look forward to the boon to society; others fear losing a way of life that has lasted perhaps generations. Both views are understandable– though neither will alter the march of time.

It’s important that, even if we may mourn the passing of an era, we recognize that the progress of SciTech is inevitable and must plan accordingly. It’s predicted that even within the next decade, for instance, the trucking industry will begin the switch to driverless trucks, putting many truckers out of work. And already coal miners have felt the sting of a dying industry– a vulnerability that has been taken advantage of politically, though no political promises will revive a bygone era.

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It has all happened before. And though I’m sure many will not “go gentle into that good night,” night will come nevertheless. Industry will continue to evolve and, just as with biological evolution, some will adapt and some will not.

5 responses to “How History Repeats Itself: The Rise of SciTech & the Evolution of Blue Collar America

  1. Re: “It’s important that, even if we may mourn the passing of an era, we recognize that the progress of SciTech is inevitable and must plan accordingly.”

    Not sure why this is true in fact unless, by “progress,” one means “whatever actually happens to come about.”

    As I understand it, “progress,” above, is otherwise undefined and that’s a big part of Ned’s objection–and our problems. He’d have said that one might as well pray for divine deliverance from the unforeseeable as to expect to plan for it.

    All indications are that both Clinton & Trump planned to win the presidency but that only one of them seriously envisioned the possibility of defeat.

    Too much of what happens takes us by surprise for us to see science & technology’s fruits as automatically either inevitable or a part of progress–a very subjective term, it seems to me.

    _____________________
    “Ned was right.”

    “If you don’t have a wheel chock, you can improvise with some suitable object found by…

    • All very true. And progress goes largely undefined, although as the writer in my mind I did envision the progression of SciTech theory and invention and then the cultural changes that inevitably follow, some good, some bad, some neutral. And I agree that as life happens on a day to day basis, it’s difficult to not be surprised because, even if something similar happened during the Industrial Revolution, this is all new to us. But I suppose my major point is that, for those who consider history, we can start to see patterns because we humans can be fairly predictable. And as such, we can begin to base our behaviors– not thinking just about today or tomorrow– but about 10, 20, 30 years from now. For instance, should truck drivers now begin to consider a change in career to something that will be more stable so that they’re not forced to do so under sudden and more dire circumstances, e.g., if they’re made redundant? Should young people considering becoming a trucker instead consider something else rather than investing time and energy for training in a career that may well be replaced via automation?

      • I do see your points. Whichever way things go there are what economists call “opportunity costs” and the trouble is that those lower in the social pecking order–as was Ned Ludd– typically wind up bearing far more than a fair share of these and that’s also part of human predictability. But Ludd wasn’t the ignorant slob which history’s winners have portrayed him to have been.

        We both know that if the essential intellectual freedom (on which both arts & science on one hand and democracy’s rights on the other depend) were to be lost or sacrificed in order to pursue some other conflicting interest, terribly valuable things would be lost or at risk of it.

        Here’s an analogy which you’ll find makes the point for you by altering the focus.

        We know that we accept biological evolution as a condition of our general survival and that we can only slightly influence the direction and consequences. Suppose our evolutionary successors lose all interest in science as a world view and essential social good? We’d call that a disastrous development because what
        .. would be lost by it means so much to us. Our successors wouldn’t be able to see why we’d be so distressed and they wouldn’t care that they couldn’t see it. Their interests and priorities would be elsewhere. This was Ludd’s dilemma.

      • True, what we might define as “progress” (which I’m sure is equally as challenging as defining such things as “love” or “happiness”) is not inevitable, despite our assumptions. Just as evolution is often envisioned as something progressive, leading to ever-increasing morphological complexity– it’s clear that even the most basal of our single-celled ancestors share similar counterparts today despite that the earth is also populated with complex multicellular organisms such as ourselves. So perhaps what we think of as “progress” is in fact purely “variety.” I wonder if it would be useful to consider aspects of Industry and SciTech in such a way.

  2. “variety” is a very interesting angle by which to consider the possible distinctions between biological evolution and technological evolution.

    I’d suggest that, in bio evo’s favor is this : it inherently favors increased diversity–because it’s rooted in quasi-randomness; while techno evo’s inherent favor or bias is toward uniformity, that is, it rewards the one unique “best” response (without regard for _”why”_ it’s “best” ) by “punishing” or eliminating all the others.

    Since Nature doesn’t need to earn a profit, it can accommodate all variations which are at least minimally viable, whether “the best” or far from it.

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