ISTM #7: AI, Linotype, Vonnegut & Work

future of work

Johann Gutenberg had a clear winner when he invented Movable Type. His technology replaced monks with quills, enormously expanded the distribution of news and information and motivated everyday people to learn to read. It endured for well over 400 years until Ottmar Mergenthaler invented a faster, better and cheaper way to set an entire line of type, rather than just one letter at a time, as Gutenberg’s press required. Appropriately, he called it the “line-o-type.”

They still had Linotype machines in the 1970s when I got my first job for a newspaper, the Boston Herald-Traveler. But as I started my career, the Linotype machine operators were ending theirs.

This would be a trivial piece of personal information, except that now, I am researching Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work for a new book and Linotype operators and Kurt Vonnegut keep flashing back to me from inside my analog memory bank. I’ll tell you about Vonnegut, in a few paragraphs.

It’s important to mention that the Linotype Operators had their own union at a time when unions were still strong enough to protect tradespeople. And the unions collaborated, so if they went on strike, as a member of the American News Guild, I would be obliged to go on strike, as would the Teamsters who drove delivery trucks. If the strike got long and nasty, the Teamsters could shut down the entire country.

By the time I arrived at the old Herald, Linotype machines would be destined for trash heaps, museum exhibits and little else. Personal Computers had come along and so did a new way of printing four entire pages of news at once.

Yet, as I started my career, the Herald had an entire floor dedicated to Linotype Operators sitting at or near their machines. I passed them several times daily as I took news copy from the third floor down to the first floor where the presses printed and bundle newspapers that were then loaded onto trucks for distribution and delivery.

As I passed through the Linotype section, I’d see these guys reading books, playing checkers, or cards. While not quite hostile, I found them to be generally unfriendly.

I would eventually learn what had happened and why. A few years earlier, when word processing and cold type eliminated the need for the linotype and its operators, the unions cut a deal that avoided a strike: Every linotype operator could remain employed until retirement age. Some chose to leave but others stayed, and perhaps, would remain for decades.

It was a scenario, it seemed to me where everyone lost. Perhaps the operators who stayed lost the most: while they kept getting paid, it seemed to me they lost their pride and for that their families would suffer perhaps more than if they had lost compensation.

Player Piano

Being the Herald Copy Boy was my night job. By day I was an English Journalism major at Northeastern University, where I too was learning the skills of a job whose market value would  diminish as digital innovations advanced. At about this time, I was assigned to read Player Piano, written in the 1950s by Kurt Vonnegut. It is a futuristic novel taking place after some horrific war that reduces world population. To fight it, most  working class job holders went off to fight and die in huge numbers. Left behind were managers who kept things running with engineers who automated the jobs formerly performed by working class people. The machines proved far more efficient than the humans had been; so the managers kept managing things that engineers kept refining and no one else was really needed to produce goods and services.

To keep the economy going, government paid the former workers by employing them in an unneeded peacetime army and in bloated public works departments. Everywhere, large groups of men were assembled while a small handful of them shoveled, or nailed or drilled.   These everyday people were paid sufficiently to support the economy. But being paid to do little and often unnecessary work, it turned out, was not sufficient to ensure social stability: Just like my real-life Linotype workers, Vonnegut’s workers became surly.

The book and the Linotype guys came me to realize early in life  that people don’t just work for money, they for self esteem. Most of us define ourselves by family and country, but oftentimes more than that, we define ourselves by the work we do. And others form opinions of us by how they see our work.  Take away real work and you erase pride and replace it with anger and resentment. I the past it was a factor in the French, Russian and Maoist revolutions. It is an issue in America’s current social and political divisions. Unemployment is often a factor in violent crimes, substance abuse and even mental disorders.

Augment People

I am writing a new book, called Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out. It is all about the lessons I learned from Linotype operators and Vonnegut. AI is inevitable and valuable and will be even more of a driving force to the 21st century than the microprocessor was to the previous century. But, I argue, the wisest course for a healthy, stable and efficient world will be to keep humans in the productivity equation: Not only is it good for the people, it is essential for the health of the world. i will discuss how this will happen in work, health, education, government, the military, growing food and almost everything else I can think of.

In my view, AI will create the most amazing tools ever invented: but at the end of the day, for as far into the future as I can see, the machines, will lack common sense, creativity, nurturing capabilities, joy, humor and so much more that are required for human well being. Robots, chatbots, robotic vehicles, and intelligent software will accomplish a great deal. But they are like player pianos: and automated device that sounds like fine music is being played, but somehow that music lacks … soul.

This post is cathartic to me. It reminds me of just how long I have been thinking about these issues and ironies of my enthusiasm and immersion technology for all these many years.


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