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Very recently, at a Chinese electronics factory, a hundred and fifty workers got up on a roof and threatened to commit mass suicide if they didn’t receive the agreed-upon severance which the company had reneged on. Thankfully, a local mayor talked them down. Foxconn, which employs over a million workers and makes goods for Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard has had repeated problems recently with widely reported atrocious working conditions and resulting suicides, as have many similar companies. The Foxconn plant in question made X-Box 360 components and games. This dramatic incident shows how serious the question of working conditions behind our gadgets are, and increasingly evidence is coming out to show that the plight of these workers was far from unique.

Apple, in particular, has been plagued with such news. Their cutting-edge, overpriced, hipster-appeal doesn’t take well to images of 13-year-old girls working 14-hour shifts. The working conditions recently documented on This American Life include pay of $0.70/hr, employees as young as twelve, dormitories and even one man who died after working for 34 hours straight. Henry Blodget recently made up a list, and it makes it clear that the conditions behind a new iPad are little different than those behind Nike shoes, hellish and colossal sweatshop environments (one Foxconn plant employs over 400 000) where few human rights apply.

Beyond the immediate assembly of these goods are the resources they’re made with, especially rare-earth minerals like ‘coltan’, notorious for being illegally mined in African wars. On the other end is the global issue of ‘E-waste’, where boat-loads of first-world scrap electronics (which, given lead solders and batteries are often “toxic waste”) to impoverished third-world communities where they’re melted down in open bonfires for the traces of metals like gold and copper, used in circuit-boards and other components.

I’m not one to downplay the (real) usefulness of digital technologies. And I must admit my new (android) phone is pretty nifty, and no less annoying or expensive than my last. The thing is, it’s not really a phone so much as it is a tiny computer, and as decades of experience in electronics has taught us, making them smaller doesn’t make the process any easier or less resource-intensive. If the quintessential consumer good of 20th century industrial society was the automobile, then the tablet computer is rapidly becoming the best example of the 21st. In so many ways this process is just as colossal, complex and toxic, yet all the precision machining takes place on tiny pieces of silicone. As these gadgets get smaller and more portable, their lifespans drop considerably. The laptop I’m writing this on is now in its sixth year, but pocket-sized cell-phones go, two years takes a lot of luck and care, to say nothing of the additional risks of losing, breaking or having one stolen.

Also, while these devices have a lot of promising uses, this isn’t something that companies like Apple have exactly…fostered. By strictly regulating which programs (“Apps”) can run on their platforms, they’re able to exact enormous licensing and royalty fees from buyers and programmers while restricting our ability to get the full use out of these devices. The obvious example of this would be the ability to use wireless netowrks to place calls over VIOP rather than cell-phone-towers to place calls, which would save us all a lot of money – something Apple immediately took steps to prevent from the first iTouch units which weren’t even phones (and many cellular providers got very rich as a result). Another (even earlier) example would be the fact that “video iPods” were nothing special – the program would run on nearly any (cheaper) version at the time. These restrictions extend the kind of privileges that would be extended to the owner of a private establishment into our own pockets, onto our own desks and throughout all our airwaves. They offer less options at higher prices, with the only real consolation being that they’re fashionable – sounds like a nightclub to me. When the iFridge hits the market, offering only three brands of beer at five dollars a can and no ability to refill it myself, I think I’ll give it a pass.

I look forward to a day when electronics aren’t so disposable and toxic. It’s not impossible to produce circuit boards or microchips locally (etching and lasers are the best options I know of). In time we’ll get over our need for ultra-miniaturized gadgets and refocus our effort on stable, long-lasting devices. Soon, likely (as China has already bought up most of the world’s spare supply of rare-earths), we’ll have to start making do with more common materials, the way we’re now having to redesign machines around a growing global shortage of neodynium magnets (again, China). Some of that work is already beginning with the Arduino and other examples of open-source microchips, and much more is taking root as people learn the skills needed to work with them. While some of these machines may have less raw power than their industrially-built competitors, they more than make up for it by being ‘programmable’ down to the circuit pathways on the boards and chips, a far more powerful and efficient option than installing “apps”. Then and in the meantime, if we care about the world around us and the people in it (even those we’ll never meet), perhaps it’s time to learn to be a little more happy with what we have. Modern phones, tablets and laptops have more power than needed to run a space program and if we really took the time to learn to really use them.

The world’s first robot farmer, Prospero, is now getting a lot of attention since an amateur robotics enthusiast posted a Youtube video a few months ago. These small, bug-like machines created by an amateur robotics enthusiast can plant, fertilize and tend crops, and, in theory, help feed the world.

But can they?

Prospero is a very impressive robot. It’s an efficient design which uses a lot of low-tech solutions to build a “swarm” of autonomous robots which can cover a lot of ground. The deeper question, though, remains – are robots really what farms need? Technophillic “solutions” like this are frequently touted by our high-tech media, but show a remarkable ignorance of the realities of farming and hunger, especially in poor nations. Like GMO crops and other ultra-high-tech, answers, they do a lot to glorify the wonders of technology, but fail to address the real problems faced by farmers.

What’s the point of a robot farmer? Obviously, to reduce the amount of labour needed for farming. But is this something farmers need? Industrial technologies have been dramatically lowering the labour needs of farming for a century, generally by putting farmers out of work. In countries like 2% of our population is needed to grow our food. and falling. In rich and poor nations alike, since the dawn of the industrial age, rural areas have been witnessing an exodus into the cities, and it’s taken a huge toll on their abilities to sustain themselves. This isn’t, and has never been an issue of “more food per farmer”, but rather more food per landowner.

Shouldn’t more productive technologies solve this problem? Why would they? We have more than enough food – people aren’t getting it. Growing more will only drive down the price, leading to poorer farmers and more wasted food, land and water. Worse yet, it’ll put even more of the world’s croplands under the control of a few large, centralized companies like Monsanto, ADM or Cargill, since they can afford to let food sit and rot while their competition goes out of business or starves.

It may seem counter-intuitive to draw connections between increased food production and famine, but any real look at the history of famine shows it very clearly. From the Irish Potato Famine to modern third world nations, people tend to starve en masse in countries busily exporting food. Shifting from traditional family farming systems to more “advanced” industrial systems also often involves huuman carnage on horrific scales – as was witnessed during the dawn of “collective farming” in Communist Russia and China, killing many tens of millions of people in each. As a final, perhaps prophetic form of famine, there’s what happens when one of these systems collapses, as it did in North Korea after the collapse of the USSR – with no cheap oil imports for fertilizer or diesel fuel, the nation fell into one of the worst famines on record.

Industrial methods, using machines, chemicals and enormous centrally controlled farms have indeed produced a lot of food, but at a tremendous cost. While chemical fertilizers severely deplete the soils, pesticides knock out the natural web of predators for pest species. Machines involve enormous capital costs, and require enormous areas to be profitable. Mechanical planting, tending and harvesting have demanded highly standardized crops, wiping out countless traditional varieties with genetically identical strains bred for the task (and often lacking in taste, texture and nutrition). Mechanical tilling has further degraded the soil, effectively dumping the carbon content (humus) into the atmosphere, as one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters. Farmers have suffered, food has suffered, and a few corporations have become obscenely rich and unbelievably powerful.

We already know how to grow more food with less land, energy and other inputs. Ordinary, old-fashioned, human labour. While this MSNBC article talks of gains of 20% per acre of farmland, the added care and attention given urban gardens often yields 20 times more food per square foot. There’s no shortage of workers, in fact, we’re facing the opposite problem on a very large scale. Without jobs, people aren’t allowed access to this food. Excluding them from the process, especially in developing countries, tends to offset any increases in efficiency. We’ve seen this problem with tractors and combines, pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds – why would an army of small robots be any different?

Before a task can be automated, it must be understood. Growing food is not simple – it only looks that way from a distance. Before we can hand this vital task over to robots, let’s first make sure that we know what we’re doing with bare hands in soil. In our rush to “update” farming with 20th century technologies, we overlooked the fact they were being applied to an underlying system which hasn’t changed much since Ancient Mesopotamia. If 21st century technology is going to change that pattern, it’ll happen by re-examining the basic system itself, not simply adding more mechanical power to systems which clearly don’t work.

A recent article from The Economist just caught my eye (and ire), raising a lot of questions about work and technology. As artificial intelligence matures quickly, it’s going to put entirely new fields of employment at risk, as machines can no longer just do things, but are learning to think as well. This threatens white collar jobs the way robots and assembly lines threatened blue-collar employment, and truthfulfully, many people probably have a lot to worry about. Some have theorized around 50 million jobs at risk, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

What bugs me so much about The Economist’s article is how little economics are present in it. There’s lots of references to bestselling authors, but few actual numbers or theories besides what you’d find in an update on the unemployment rate. A perfect example of this ignorance shown by the Economist article would be the constant misuse of the term “Luddite”, as well as their laughable history of the movement. “Ned Ludd” (if he ever existed) and his associates began smashing the new weaving frames not only because they were losing their jobs, but because the new technology was destroying their art. Though more textiles could be produced, they were of lower quality and these new frames were threatening to flood the market with cheap, crappy fabrics. This wasn’t just a simplistic revolt against technology and progress – it was a rebellion against early industrialism. At its height, the British government had to pull troops back from the European mainland, as it had more soldiers battling the Luddites at home than Napoleons’s armies abroad. The only “Luddite Fallacy” here is the author’s unwillingness to look up a word they use so many times in a piece (including the title).

Does “technology” (on the whole) destroy “jobs” (on the whole)? Of course not. Ask any anthropologist – the amount of work, on average, in a society, tends to increase with the level of technological development, not decrease. We work significantly more than medieval peasants (where roughly half the days of the year were holidays or festivals), who worked more than our “cave man” ancestors. The average hunter gatherer today “works” a little over two hours a day, and since said societies only now exist on the fringes of habitable lands. Even more recently, productivity has more than doubled over the past half century, and yet we don’t work any less.

Why does this happen? Because technologies require work to produce them. We may have dishwashers, dryers and fax machines, but we have to work to buy them. Some studies have shown that when time at work is taken into account, drivers aren’t moving any faster, on average, than pedestrians. Moreover, because these technologies and jobs all function under capitalism, we must work many hours for each hour spent actually making cars, dryers or fax machines (and of course, the companies which produce them).

The issue of capital is very crucial here. They touch on it when they ask “what happens when capital becomes labour?”, but don’t go any further. This has, of course, been happening since the dawn of the industrial age and it’s hard to see how The Economist could miss that. Just as the fallacy of labour-saving technologies is absolutely standard for any first-year anthropology class, the use of technology by capital against labour makes up a very large chunk of any first year labour studies course. Technology, especially in manufacturing, destroyed millions of jobs over the last century and that’s hard to miss. What’s harder to miss is what kinds of jobs were destroyed, what kinds of jobs they were replaced by, and how this transformed the relationship between labour and capital. The use of technology by industrialists to break the associations of skilled workers is legendary. The term used most often is literally “de-skilling”, as a means of simplifying tasks to the point where almost anybody could do it, thus making all workers replaceable. This didn’t neccessarily mean there was less demand for labour, but it did lead to a clear decline in living standards for a lot of people and trades. This has never just been about “technology” or “jobs”, but certain technologies and certain jobs

So how can technology eliminate so many jobs and yet not put us all out of work? Because it creates new jobs, too.

All of this can be described very simply by supply and demand – when an increase in capital makes labour more productive, it puts a “downward pressure” on wages. This happens because labour becomes effectively less scarce, and therefore less valuable. An apple that used to take three minutes to pick now takes three seconds, and therefore there’s sixty times less work for apple-pickers at current levels of apple demand. You could assume that we’d all buy more, cheaper apples, but that assumes a very “elastic” demand for apples (that we’d all eat as many as we could afford, no matter what), as well as trusting in the owners of the orchard to pass the savings onto customers (instead of keeping it as profit, or spending it on robot apple-pickers). This would be a disaster for apple-pickers as well as many others, but it wouldn’t necessarily lead to less work. Why? Because of supply and demand. Work, in general, would become cheaper as other industries were flooded by unemployed apple-pickers, and other workers could no longer threaten their bosses that, “if you don’t pay me well I’ll leave and become an apple picker”. This cheapening of labour would make workers more attractive to employers, who could now afford to pay them to do things which never would have been practical before (like peeling apples or making sauce).

In the same way that cheap labour generates jobs, cheap products generate consumption. As far as technologies go, this creates something called the “Jeavons Paradox”. Initially created to describe the introduction of new coal and steam power technologies into early industries, it’s now often used to describe why more fuel-efficient cars don’t save gas. Sound paradoxical? It isn’t – the lower cost of driving, per kilometre, generally means that people drive more. The same thing happened with steam engines and nearly every technology like them since. They may be able to save us work in theory, but in practice, they generally create much more.

In short, even if robots replaced every single one of us tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t ever have to worry about running out of work. The resulting boom in unemployment would make nearly everything cheap enough to hire somebody for. This has already happened to a large degree, which is why so many of our primary industries (farming, forestry, mining etc) have been replaced by service-sector work (telemarketers, cashiers and Wal-Mart greeters). Even with minimum wage laws, there’s never much of a shortage, as America’s vast working population of illegal immigrants proves… just because there’s no “good jobs” doesn’t mean you can’t be put to work.

The question is, do we really need more “work”? Or is “work” more of a proxy demand for food, housing and other consumption? If so, do we need more work if it isn’t providing those things? And on the other side of it, do we really need more “things” if each of those things is doing less to meet these needs (food with less nutrition, goods which need to be replaced more often etc.)? Does this raise our standard of living at all, or make our lives any easier? Of course not. It is, however, very profitable. If we’ll work more for less, or spend more for less, the result in simple mathematical terms is “profit”, and that’s why it happens.

There’s a disconnection between work and production which seldom gets mentioned. Workers are not the economy, and neither are consumers. The banks, corporations and institutions which control the economy have their owm accounts – when we work, we support their survival, not our own. The food, housing and other goods we get from them are at their discretion, and they have no obligation to give us more just because more is being produced. We’re their clients, and at their mercy. As The Economist notes, it takes less than 2% of our population to grow food – given some of the technologies available to us today, we could all easily work as little or less than our ancestors – in theory. But that would require far more humble lifestyles and much less humble paycheques. Sadly, while we have the technology, we certainly don’t have the economy.

The personal computer revolution really began to take hold thirty years ago. It’s lead to an explosion of productivity, and whole host of new jobs, industries and nifty consumer products. You can throw globalization, the introduction of women en masse to the workforce (and youth, and elders), and an incredible amount of global corporate consolidation into that timeline, too. What hasn’t it done? Led to us working any less or making any more per hour, at least for the vast majority of the population. It hasn’t led to us using less of any natural resources. According to conventional economic wisdom, this should make us all unfathomably rich. It didn’t. The point of all of this was to make money, not share it, and that’s exactly what happened. A few got very rich, and everyone else stagnated or sank even deeper into debt.

The missing element isn’t just the technology, it’s who owns it. As long as we don’t, improvements in the technology will only diminish our own significance. If, on the other hand, we own and control them, then we can receive the benefits when they multiply our own productive abilities. This would give us far more control over which technologies were used, and the ability to reject those which are just too expensive. A revolution in the technologies we use could go a long way toward achieving this transformation, whether it takes a “high-tech” or “low-tech” route. On the other hand, a technological transformation can’t do it alone. Whether we’re buying iPads or trendy handmade knick-knacks, as long as we’re still just buying them. Technologies are never separate from the society using them, and technology alone can never set us free.

In the wee hours of this morning, just before bed, I saw a truly ridiculous television show. Made for the History channel, “Ancient Aliens” documents evidence that extra-terrestrials visited Earth in the distant past. Now – I was not there at the time, so I can’t say for sure aliens aren’t there, or even that they aren’t here now. As an old science-fiction fan, I find the notion to be intriguing. As one with a modest amount of education as an Archaeologist, though, I’m going to have to suspend belief until we find some alien technology here, rather than just something they’ve allegedly built. The episode in question “Ancient Engineers, raised a lot of questions about how ancient people were able to lift and carve massive stones which would be difficult or impossible with cutting-edge 21st century technology.

Might it be possible that ancient builders knew something we don’t?

This sort of suggestion, these days, seems almost as bold as suggesting Stargate-style ancient alien gods. The technological, intellectual and moral supremacy of our present age is one of the central myths of our society. Our technologies aren’t just helpful at doing things faster or more efficiently, they’re seen as absolutely necessary to accomplish these tasks. Nearly every argument in the episode relied on this notion – that high-powered building tasks need modern power tools like lasers, diamond-tipped drills and angle grinders.

Could humans in ancient times, lacking electricity, air compressors and diesel generators still work and move stone? Of course they could. It happened all over the world. And though only a few intensely studied societies built giant monuments and vast stone cities, nearly every society could work stone to some degree, with the earliest examples dating back over half a million years before Babylon. That’s ten times as long as we’ve been using fire, and well into times where our brains were far smaller and bodies more apelike (if you believe that kind of thing…).

You might think that as a modern, educated human, pressure-flaking an Oldowan-era handaxe would be dead easy. Go try it. West Hamilton and Ancaster have plenty of chert. You’ll come away with an entirely new respect for our ancestors. Many archaeologists try, and few succeed. If you want to find someone who can do it (rather than just identifying them), you’re likely better off heading to a native reserve. Now, for your next project, carve a one metre cube out of granite with hand tools….sound impossible? Not at all – you might even have most of what you need at hand, you just don’t know how, and neither do I. But I could offer a few suggestions…

Perfect finishing has never been about power, but rather a very old and simple technology: abrasives. Before dremel bits and sandpaper, people had to make do with sand. Even today, many ‘stone aged’ people are on par with some of our best geologists when it comes to identifying rocks. They had to be – it was and is every bit as essential to their survival as the stock market is to a Goldman Sachs executive. Some kinds of sand are very hard and sharp (like silica, which we melt into glass). When rubbed into a softer stone they’ll grind the surface right off. Applied in one spot, by a spinning stick, they’ll bore into the surface. And if you work up through finer sands, you can polish the stone to a perfect, glass-like shine. I had to laugh watching Ancient Aliens, when, after talking at length about how carving the Sphinx would be “impossible” without modern machining, they showed a very brief clip of ancient tools. Among the axes and chisels was what looked like a fire-drill – perfect for this task.

This sort of work was unbelievably slow-going, but there isn’t much evidence that these monuments went up overnight. Most took centuries and enormous slave or corvee (tax) labour forces. The point was to demonstrate the awe-inspiring power of the rulers of the time, so it’s no surprise that this kind of monumental architecture is found only in the most centralized societies with the most powerful rulers. When large numbers of people spend decades at a time at these tasks, they’ll find simple ways to improve. The complex math displayed often has very humble roots. How do you build a perfect hemispherical dome? Nail one end of a string to the ground, and use it like a compass to trace a circle in three dimensions. How do you keep everything perfectly straight in a building site miles wide? The same way sailors travel in a straight line for weeks at a time on the open ocean – with the sky. Is it any surprise, then, that these sites tend to be laid out in perfect alignment with stars and constellations, or that these societies were so focused on astronomy?

People focused on more recent building styles, a century or two old instead of millenia, know all too well how skills have vanished over the years. This is especially true of stoneworking, a subject which has come up frequently with discussions of heritage buildings over at Raise the Hammer. Other crafts have suffered as well – I spent a good deal of time this past weekend at country antique fairs looking for old woodworking tools, because it’s hard to find anything that compares at most modern hardware stores. While we may have beefy motors with lots of nifty disposable bits, the quality of basic tools like chisels has dropped enormously. Why? They used better steel, which stayed sharp much longer and far more reliably. The same could be said for leatherworking tools, or even much of the furniture one can find at these fairs. Slow, methodical work with hand tools can produce stunning results, often just as easily as with power tools, but only if you know how to use them.

It’s often said, and Ancient Aliens often reminds us, that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If ancient Egyptians saw one of our cars, planes or computers, they might believe they were the work of the Gods. Is the reverse now becoming true? Are we now so “advanced”, and so utterly wrapped up in our own technology that any sufficiently “primitive” technology is indistinguishable from magic to us? Are we so amazed by laser levels that we’ve forgotten about the existence of plumb bobs? What would this mean if someday the power didn’t flow easily from outlets in the wall, or Home Depot closed its doors?

Any real craftsperson will tell you that it’s not just the tools. Quality work is all about method and technique – proper jigs, careful measuring and plenty of patience. Power helps, but it isn’t necessary. When we forget that it was possible to do these things with very simple tools, we forget that life is possible outside of complex industrial economies like our own. Once that happens, it becomes very difficult to criticize our system or imagine alternatives. Capitalism and industrialism become the source of all food, water, housing and medicine – a new mechanical and electronic ecosystem. This is the basis for all totalitarian societies, old and new. It’s also tremendously dangerous.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond examines the end of many societies, modern and ancient. As most archaeologists know, these collapses tended to be relatively sudden, occur right after a peak in population and resource use, and present no single, glaring “cause”. Diamond suggests that this wasn’t just about mismanagement of resources (which surely played a role), but also about the changing nature of skills in the new growing population centres. All it takes is two generations for skills like hunting to vanish – when the grandparents pass away, nobody’s left to teach them. As these cities grew, and knowledge of how to survive outside of them was replaced by knowledge of how to survive inside. People gave up hunting and gathering in favour of commerce or building giant monuments for kings. When their limited technology could no longer handle the strain on the environment, there was nothing left to do but run.

They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Does our rampant disregard for traditional skills point toward the same kind of fate suffered by Babylon, the Anasazi or Classic-Era Maya? Our (mis)use of resources like land, water and timber certainly points in the same direction, as do our increasingly out-of-touch ruling classes. There’s no question that the Egyptians or Aztecs possessed some of the most advanced technology of the ancient world, but that didn’t ensure the survival of their empires. Will ours be any different? Whatever role aliens played then (or now), there’s an undeniable role for human avarice, ambition and hubris. In those areas, we’ve seen remarkably little progress.

We all started using the term “climate change” when people started using “global warming” to evoke visions of a summery paradise on earth thanks to warming temperatures. I mean, nobody likes the cold, right? If we hadn’t just had a week-long heatwave, I’d be a little more sympathetic.

Some of the rosy predictions, though, Apparently the long-sought-after Northwest Passage has finally opened up for shipping. Arctic ice is retreating, and 2010 is being called the “Landmark Year” in Arctic shipping. This could open up a lot of opportunities for Europe/Asian shipping, which of course will drive more trade, production and industry – meaning even less ice in the long run.

This is a sign, folks. Runaway global warming is a serious threat – we have no idea how long we have before climate change itself causes enough warming to keep itself going. And while that’s a threat with things like disappearing sea ice (dark oceans absorb more heat) and dying forests (rotting trees give off greenhouse gasses), it’s also an issue if warming opens up economic opportunities which drive climate change, like shipping, farming or massive northern settlement. Which is not to say that any of these things need to drive climate change, just that in their current forms, they do. And when our entire world is at risk, we need to stop fantasizing about some magical technological revolution which will make them all “carbon-neutral”.

A revolution like that is coming, but not from above. It will involve the wholesale rejection of entire industries and modes of production (like those which ship things here from Asia). Industry-leading corporations will be demolished, and I suspect more than a few governments will fall as well. If we’re going to factor massive fuel and emission savings because of technologies into our response to Climate Change, then we’re going to have to work to make that happen. Governments and corporations are not going to do it for us.

The real question here where is all that ice going? And the answer is clear – sea levels.

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