Sunday, December 25, 2016

Clifford Furnas and the Clouded Crystal Ball

In 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression, a professor of physical chemistry at Yale named Clifford C. Furnas published a book in which he tried to anticipate the next great advances in science and engineering during the following century.  His book was inspired by a visit he made to the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, otherwise known as the "Century of Progress Exposition," which marked the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Chicago.  A lot of the technical exhibits that were designed to show how the world of tomorrow would be better than the depression of today didn't work properly, and so he went home and surveyed the state of science, engineering, and technology and made his best guesses as to how things would be by 2033, appropriately entitling it The Next Hundred Years.

My interest isn't so much in the accuracy of his technical predictions as in his expectations for what the trend of automation would yield for the economy and the working life of the average citizen.  It was already obvious by 1933 that a lot of jobs formerly done partly or wholly by hand up to then would be performed by machines or even robots in the future.  But what Furnas missed, along with nearly every other prognosticator up to the end of World War II, was the rise of the electronic computer, computer networking, and the growth in Internet-based economic activity.  And without the computer, modern robotics would be impossible, because without digital control systems (now including artificial intelligence), a robot can't do anything much more than act as a power-assist to a human being.

What we're talking about is the rise in what economists call productivity:  the economic output of a nation divided by the number of hours worked.  One person using a small lathe and a few hand tools can build a watch in maybe a few dozen hours, depending on what they start with.  But one person at the controls of an otherwise fully automated watch factory can make hundreds or thousands of watches per hour.  And Furnas was right in his prediction that advances in automation would (a) greatly increase the productivity of the average worker, and (b) render obsolete entire classes of jobs that previously employed millions of people. 

Where he went wrong was his prediction about what the result of these changes would be.

In Furnas's view, the average man (he barely discussed women at all), when faced with a choice of working 40 or 50 hours a week for ever-increasing pay, or else getting paid the same wages for less and less work, would choose to work less and get paid the same amount for it.  Consequently, the great challenge he foresaw for the future was to find things for people to do with all their spare time, now that their jobs could be done in as little as one or two hours a day.  He summarized the difficulty thus:  "Our problem will be to keep the citizenry on even keel while they have a wealth of time on their hands, for certainly a society steeped in mere idleness will soon lose its moral fiber, its material possessions and its reasons for existence." 

Why didn't things turn out that way?  Why isn't the U. S. a peaceful country full of debating societies, painting groups, and volunteer choirs, instead of harboring an increasingly divided populace in which some better-educated folks live a life of relative freedom and interesting work, while most people without advanced degrees work longer and longer hours in uncertain dead-end jobs (sometimes two or three jobs at once) and feel they can barely get by?  And don't forget the growing class of working-age men who have simply resigned from the workforce altogether and spend their days playing video games and in other forms of, in Furnas's words, "mere idleness."

A complete answer to these questions would require a book, or several books by a group of experts with talents that I lack.  But in my 300 words or so remaining, I'll hazard a few guesses.

One answer will sound paradoxical:  the rise in the standard of living.  The phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" captures some of this idea.  For Furnas's vision of the leisure class to come to pass, it wouldn't do for just a few people to choose shorter working hours over more pay—most of the country would have to do it.  And in the hyper-competitive international economic arena, a country in which most of its working people work only two hours a day would lag behind countries where 40 or 50 hours a week was the norm. 

Another answer is that people are, frankly, greedy.  And greed, at least of the mildly acquisitive type, is the engine that fuels advertising and consumer economies such as in the U. S. and most other industrialized nations these days.  There are a few people who choose to live on next to nothing and cut themselves off from the grid, but most of us regard them as eccentrics at best and dangerous at worst. 

A third factor is what I call "building-code creep."  If you attempted to build a house today in the way a modestly-priced house was built in 1930, you would be violating nearly every building code in the book.  Where's the third wire for grounding the outlets?  Where's your insulation, air conditioning, smoke alarms?  What's all this lead paint doing here?  That gas water heater has no automatic flameout-protection valve.  In thousands of  ways that have made life safer and more convenient, we have changed the rules of material life so that it costs a great deal more to live simply than it used to.  In certain rural parts of the country, most if not all of these things can be skipped, but at the price of living dangerously.

For a variety of reasons, we seem to be entering a period in which increasing numbers of people in the U. S. choose to live without jobs.  But most of them don't seem to be happy about it, and I think Furnas was on to something when he expressed concern about the deteriorating moral fiber of a nation where idleness becomes a way of life for many people.  The key, if there is one, lies in the phrase "reasons for existence," but that is a topic for another blog.

Sources:  Clifford C. Furnas's The Next Hundred Years was published in 1936 by Reynal & Hitchcock, New York.  The quotation about keeping citizens on an even keel is from p. 367.  I previously referred to this book in my blog on Sept. 23, 2013, "Engineers and Technological Unemployment:  What Are People For?"

No comments:

Post a Comment