Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Robots: Replacing the Middle Classes

Elgin Marbles. 5th century BCE.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, when optimism about technology and space was at an all-time high, a popular conviction arose that by the 2000s robots would have replaced humans to do all sorts of menial labours.  This would lift people up, free them from work like scrubbing floors and digging ditches so that they could live in an idealized world eating grapes, wearing space-togas and philosophizing like cartoon Greeks and Romans.

The Jetsons, with their Robot Domestic. ABC (1962-1963).

We keep looking for the robots, and in fact they are already here, in the form of computers.  When we think of the impact of technology on jobs, we might think of a robot in an auto plant, or an automated bank or grocery cashier.  While the impact of technology on the working classes was never a worry for a family like the Jetsons, they would not necessarily like being replaced themselves.  GOOD Blog is reporting that that's what's happening.  Computers are replacing clerical jobs associated with the middle classes, and the result is the creation of a stratum of the super-rich and a stratum of the super-poor: "The culprit is technology, not politics. The hard truth—and you don't see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing because middle-class skills are becoming obsolete. Routine clerical work and assembly-line production can now be done by computers and robots. Algorithms and machines are replacing customer service agents and even grocery checkout clerks. On the low end of the spectrum, the jobs that are left are the ones robots' bodies can't do yet (grounds-keeping and protective services, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, the jobs that are left are ones that machine brains can't do yet (law and medicine and management). As technology advances, more people near the middle are going to be elbowed out of the workforce. We may not have robot janitors any time soon. But when the science of computer vision advances sufficiently ... we'll have algorithms, not humans, evaluating X-rays at airport security checkpoints and monitoring footage from security cameras."  No worries - I'm sure the Jetsons will adapt - somehow.


  1. I made the Terminator reference already, so here I will talk about the economic side of it; I was born into the Middle, but now am in the Low, finanfically speaking. A comfortable, easy-living Low, to be sure. But Low all the same.

  2. I don't think we ever thought that home computers would be a sure path to downward mobility, but that's the indication. There are lots of metaphors out there about computers 'enslaving' us, we're always stuck at them, etc. But fewer people are speculating on whether or not that addiction to tech is reversing our social mobility. Most people think computers and gadgets are making the world better, are signs of wealth and affluence. For example, look at teenagers and children who can't be parted from their mass of gadgets. They think these are badges of status. In fact they could be signs of mass socio-economic decline as the gadgets undermine traditional hierarchies and professional structures. That's not to say that there won't be a new socio-economic order appear out of the tech revolution, but many commentators observing that phenomenon are witnessing an emptying out of the middle, without necessarily yet getting to the bottom of why that's happening.