Monday, March 07, 2011

Daniel Bell, the Post-Industrial Society, and Engineering

Daniel Bell was a Harvard sociologist who died at the age of 91 last January. He is perhaps best known for inventing the phrase “post-industrial society” in the 1970s to describe a transition that was only beginning to take place in the United States back then. I’d like to speculate a little on the contributions of engineers to that transition, and whether post-industrial society is an unequivocally good thing.

Perhaps the first modern industrial society came into being in Great Britain in the late 1800s, where the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolutions combined with a commerce-friendly government and culture to lead to tremendous growth of mass manufacturing and exchange of mass-produced goods. Transportation and communications technologies were an essential part of this transition, because the mere making of 100,000 widgets is a pretty pointless endeavor if you can’t agree to sell them fast (e. g. the use of telegrams and the telephone by businesses) and ship them to customers nearly as fast (e. g. on railroads and steamships). The U. S. was an even more fertile ground for industrialization than England in some ways, and once World War II temporarily flattened nearly every other country’s industrial base, the U. S. entered what is increasingly looking in retrospect like a unique Golden Age of industrialization.

Industrialized societies are physical-thing-based: the making and using of things is what they are all about. The things can be big (modern buildings, cities) or small (computers, microchips) but they are physical objects that are assembled, bought, sold, shipped, and owned. Bell’s insight was to see that a different kind of society was in the cards: one in which things, although necessary to the functioning of the new kind of society, were not the main event. What web developers like to call “content,”—what Bell described in terms of data, information, and knowledge—was to be the main product of post-industrial society. This transition from industrial to post-industrial was to have huge implications for the makeup of society as a whole, and for the kinds of workers needed as well.

By many criteria, Bell got it right. Perhaps the most obvious measure of the transition is the movement from manufacturing to service employment. The category of services, which counts everything from janitors to judges, has always been a larger component than manufacturing once most people moved off the farm, but in 1970 there were only about two service workers for every manufacturing worker. By 2005, the proportion was five service workers for every manufacturing employee.

Another way that Bell’s idea was confirmed is in the types of business that attract attention and young workers. In 1970, quite possibly the best a high-school graduate could do was to find a factory job that demanded semi-skilled manual labor. The wages and benefits (often guaranteed by a union contract) were enough to start a family on, and job security was good. In 2011, good luck finding such a job. The unemployment rate among native-born U. S. citizens aged 18-29 with only a high-school diploma is about 20% as of last fall. And those who are employed get jobs that barely can make ends meet for a single person. As for raising a family or getting married (increasingly in that order), it is a dubious proposition at best.

What have engineers got to do with all this? Engineering is both an industrial and a post-industrial job category. Engineers were needed to design the cornucopia of material goods that built the industrial economies of the world, and engineers likewise devised the computer networks, software, and auxiliary tools and concepts necessary for the modern film, video game, and financial trading industries—the kinds of activities that make up a post-industrial economy. As I have noted elsewhere, engineers tend to have a narrow focus on the technical task to be done, to the neglect of its wider implications for society as a whole. Not only engineers, but most people discussing modern economies tend to operate with some unspoken assumptions I would like to at least question.

To put it a little too broadly, what is life for? The unspoken answer to this question that usually is assumed by all parties is, “To produce and consume—especially consume.” In a way, the transition from industrial to post-industrial hasn’t questioned that assumption. Instead of buying new, improved toasters and refrigerators and cars, we’re now buying new and improved DVDs, computer games, and versions of Microsoft Excel. Both kinds of economies demand that people earn enough money to consume the products made—and that’s where a problem is showing up.

Every cohort of young people is made up of some who will make brilliant lawyers, doctors, scientists, or engineers—and a whole lot more who won’t. But if we increasingly move toward an economy in which the only people who can earn a decent living need advanced degrees and the brainpower required to obtain those degrees, we will end up with a situation more typical of developing countries: a small, pampered, wealthy elite living in walled compounds to keep out the impoverished, ill-fed and ill-clad masses who live from hand to mouth. This is frankly the way most societies were organized over the centuries, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way. To have a solid, prosperous middle class, one needs solid middle-class jobs for them—jobs within the reach of most people with average smarts. But that’s not what’s happening.

We are trying to compensate for the problem by making more and more people go to college for longer and longer periods. This is good in some ways, but it runs against biology in several respects, notably the fact that we are set up (by evolution or God, depending on your point of view) to marry and have children around the age of 20 at the latest. The Amish solve this problem by amputating education at the eighth grade. The young people who choose to stay Amish (and there is usually a time when they are given a choice) become farmers or craftsmen, marry and have children at 18 or 20, and live quiet, unremarkable, pre-industrial lives, most of them. But if everybody quit what they’re doing now and tried to be Amish, we’d run out of farmland in about two seconds.

I said I’d raise a question. I didn’t say I knew the answer. Responses to this blog, as always, are more than welcome.

Sources: I relied on the Wikipedia article on Daniel Bell, and used information from the websites and for employment statistics.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Karl, great blog! I just read a book called The Capitalism Delusion (by Bob Ellis, which had a similar argument about keeping some unskilled jobs in the economy as its better than having high unemployment. He also talked about free trade as being the reason that manufacturing jobs have declined in the developed world.

    I think there's another argument in your blog that you've skipped over and I'd like to hear your thoughts on over-consumption and the ever growing economy in a world with limited natural resources. It is my opinion that we cannot continue to consume resources and create waste under the assumption that engineers will always be able to think of new ways to extract scarce resources and deal with waste. I'm no economist, but I think it might be time to adjust our thinking on growth and consumption, because it seems to be on an unsustainable trajectory. This of course raises the question of whether we have an ethical responsibility to leave some resources for future generations! I'd be very interested to read you views on this topic.