On this Labor Day I’m still wondering what working people will do once there is nothing left to do as the result of technology that is meant to free us from labor.
This morning on my computer I was looking at the digital version of a Spanish newspaper (I’m headed to Spain next week) and there was a photo of a farm tractor pulling implements behind and it was remotely controlled.
That is not a new idea at all. When I was in high school in the mid 1960s I remember going to the county fair and one of the 4-H Club displays was of a farmstead with remote-controlled tractors. Have not seen any yet, but they’re coming. I know. I’ve been an over-the-road truck driver for the past two decades and the remote-controlled trucks have already been built and tested — yeah, they’re coming, and soon. How actually that will evolve I don’t know but I have a feeling that once it begins it will be rapid.
I used to work in the newspaper business as a reporter. It was already going down hill when I began in 1973 but the final nail in the coffin for the real thing, a paper newspaper, was of course the computer, like the one I’m using right now, and of course the smart phone. I doubt my grandkids have much of a concept of a newspaper, although strangely my older grandson did play some kind of newspaper reporter game on the computer when he was smaller — it was completely his idea. I didn’t even get it.
But I ask the question: what do we do when there is no more work? For most of us our whole lives are centered around work. What we do for a living.
At my age, 67, I don’t worry too much about that for my own sake.
But let’s go back to the farm so to speak: when I was an adolescent, just before becoming a full-fledged teenager, my mom hauled me out to a prune orchard and I helped pick prunes off the ground. We did this for extra money for the household, but for some, their lives depended upon it. Whole families used to follow the crops, and as I have written so many times before, back then it was not just Hispanic laborers (and no disrespect for Hispanic laborers intended) but people of all ethnic groups and nationalities — or to put it crudely, poor white folks too. Ok we were not poor, just maybe of modest means. My dad worked on a newspaper.
Crawling around in the dirt all day and in the summer (best to get started in the cool of the morning) is not a joy. So I think it was great progress when that job was mechanized. A v-shaped contraption pulls up under a tree and a mechanical shaker makes the prunes fall into it and then it all moves to the next tree.
So mechanization still has not done away with all harvest labor. Some crops it seems are not as adaptable to it. But as I have also written, I think almost any kind of harvest can be mechanized; it’s more a matter of labor cost than anything else. As long as labor is cheap enough, the pressure to mechanize is not there. So for those hard-to-mechanize crops it still might be cheaper to use hand labor, but if the cost were to get too high on the labor finally, it would be mechanized or in the worst case scenario abandoned.
So what happened to the prune pickers?
For those who did not depend upon the work, they just did something else. For those who could not find anything else, they signed up for LBJ’s Great Society programs. This is something else I have repeated many times in these posts. This is perhaps a form of shorthand. I mean there is probably more to the story. But on the other hand I watched this all unfold in my lifetime and feel it is reasonably accurate.
And the good news is that succeeding generations of the once migrant laborers were essentially forced to move into something else and hopefully something more promising.
So as long as mechanization is doing things like that, good. But now technology is taking over almost every line of work. Every one from restaurant waiters (enter the kiosk to order) to lawyers (computerized programs to do those repetitive legal tasks) is being affected.
I actually have more important things to do now than write this, so I’ll just try to close by saying I hope we don’t end up a civilization that produces weird human forms with bodies that have weak, limp arms hanging at their sides because they have no work and technology does everything for them. I think that was predicted in a song — the year 2525?
On the term prunes: I once had an argument with a sergeant in the army who disputed my term prune to mean the fresh fruit from the tree. He insisted they are plums when on the tree and prunes once they are dried. Well technically he is correct of course. But here in prune country (well just south of me nowadays) we call them prunes from start to finish. Just thought I’d clear that up. Oh, and in a way, the sergeant won the argument — it doesn’t pay to argue with the boss.