Automation anxiety, 1950s-style


From Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings, published in 1950:

Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must ac­cept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is per­fectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present reces­sion and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke. This depression will ruin many indus­tries — possibly even the industries which have taken advantage of the new potentialities. However, there is nothing in the industrial tradition which forbids an in­dustrialist to make a sure and quick profit, and to get out before the crash touches him personally.



From Robert H. Macmillan’s Automation: Friend or Foe?, published in 1956:

Once upon a time, a Hindu sage was granted by Heaven the ability to create clay men. When he took earth and water and fashioned little men, they lived and served him. But they grew very quickly, and when they were as large as himself, the sage wrote on their foreheads the word DEAD, and they fell to dust. One day he forgot to write the lethal word on the forehead of a full-grown servant, and when he realized his mistake the servant was too tall: his hand could no longer reach the slave’s forehead. This time it was the clay man that killed the sage.

Is there a warning for us today in this ancient fable?



From Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, published in 1952:

The limousine came to a halt by the end of the bridge, where a large work crew was filling a small chuckhole. The crew had opened a lane for an old Plymouth with a broken headlight, which was coming through from the north side of the river. The limousine waited for the Plymouth to get through, and then proceeded.

The Shah turned to stare at the group through the back window, and then spoke at length.

Doctor Halyard smiled and nodded appreciatively, and awaited a translation.

“The Shah,” said Khashdrahr, “he would like, please, to know who owns these slaves we see all the way up from New York City.”

“Not slaves,” said Halyard, chuckling patronizingly. “Citizens, employed by government. They have same rights as other citizens – free speech, freedom of worship, the right to vote. Before the war, they worked in the Ilium Works, controlling machines, but now machines control themselves much better.”

“Aha!” said the Shah, after Khashdrahr had translated.

“Less waste, much better products, cheaper products with automatic control.”


“And any man who cannot support himself by doing a job better than a machine is employed by the government, either in the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.”

“Aha! Khabu bonanza-pak?


“He says, ‘Where does the money come from to pay them?’ ” said Khashdrahr.

“Oh. From taxes on the machines, and taxes on personal incomes. Then the Army and the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps people put their money back into the system for more products for better living.”

Kuppo!” said the Shah, shaking his head.

Khashdrahr blushed, and translated uneasily, apologetically. “Shah says, ‘Communism.’ ”

“No Kuppo!” said Halyard vehemently. “The government does not own the machines. They simply tax that part of industry’s income that once went into labor, and redistribute it. Industry is privately owned and managed, and co-ordinated — to prevent the waste of competition — by a committee of leaders from private industry, not politicians. By eliminating human error through machinery, and needless competition through organization, we’ve raised the standard of living of the average man immensely.”

Khashdrahr stopped translating and frowned perplexedly. “Please, this average man, there is no equivalent in our language, I’m afraid.”

4 thoughts on “Automation anxiety, 1950s-style

  1. Snottzoid

    Vonnegut touched on something that has boggled me for years in politics and business—the idea that “progress,” “improvement,” or “business growth” can continually enlarge year-over-year, seemingly with no contingency plan in place for the eventuality when neither of these three continue. I have read CEO emails that bespeak disappointment when group XYZ saw -1% business growth. To me, this pattern is as foolish as assuming that if I could just find someway to make the volume knob not stop at “10” then the music would only get louder, and the speakers, my ears, and the amplifier would be just fine all along the way. It is like setting ourselves up for failure.

    I am curious as to what methods there are for determining when it is time to “leave good enough alone”, or when there is too much reliance on automation, before people die when airplanes and subways cause catastrophic accidents.

    When technology gives us something new, it also taking something away.

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