This is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen.
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It is a re-training film made in the mid-sixties by the International Typographical Union. It is amazing how quickly the process moved on from this early response to technological change. None of what you see here survives in today’s print industry (including the union itself. Founded in 1852, with a membership of about 100,000 at the time this film was made, the ITU finally withered away in 1986 and merged in 1987 with the Communications Workers of America.)
The tone of the film is optimistically up-beat, showing the way forward into the new world. In fact these guys were facing the elimination of most of their jobs. The union had an interest is portraying a labor-heavy process: see the guy carry one plate into the pressroom, turn around and walk back. Despite its optimistic front, the union was clearly aware of the writing on the wall. The stiff-upper-lip dodging and weaving in the face of the inevitable make for an almost tragic tale. Manning levels have plummeted since then, and while a few senior workers can remember the old ways, the number who successfully retrained was not immense. What workers do today has little connection with either the old, old ways shown at the start of the video or the initial responses to the new technology which follow.
The commentator proudly proclaims: “Printing in its many forms is the handmaiden of civilization and of progress . . . Since the days of Gutenberg the typesetter, in a real sense, has been the engineer of civilization . . . The printer has led mankind by the hand, so to speak, into the light of modern society.” Printing isn’t the only trade that has lost its pride. When it was a matter of coaxing huge piles of metal into doing ridiculously detailed things, the manual workers who accomplished this could bask in the romance of the struggle successfully won. Now there’s not too much pride to be taken in watching a computerized control system turn your lathe, grind your lens, cast your ingot, weave your cloth and so on. No wonder unhappy workers (or ex-workers) have become a troubled political force. We have moved our economics beyond manual work, but need still to come up with a psychological story transforming idle hands into — what? Proud consumers? Jolly vacationers? Self-improvement mavens? Life-time students? What about avid readers?
If we’d never had “these dark Satanic Mills” I think we wouldn’t have developed this stultifying hang-up about the nobility of work. We have bought this bill of goods, pushed at us as a means of distracting us from the realization that working in a mill was a nightmare, but a nightmare rather better than starvation. There’s no inherent nobility in being a wage-slave. Wake up guys — you’ve nothing to lose but your chains! Let’s divorce income from work by getting a universal basic income scheme going so that nobody has to be seen as “redundant” or “unemployed” — the village stocks of the modern day. People who wanted to keep working could do so. The underlying problem of automation is that robots are not workers, they are capital goods, and their arrival has accompanied and will only accelerate a switch from the proportion of the work product moving from labor to capital. Those who choose to work should become shareholders rather than salaried staff. If you don’t have to feel exploited, who knows how many people would choose to keep working.