Rise of Machine Labor
The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of Machine Labor
If even a casual reader takes a glance at contemporary media sources, one of the most recurring themes that she will encounter is that of a revolution ongoing at this very moment, and that is the automatization of labor. All sorts of headlines bombard the reader, from Will Artificial Intelligence be Replacing Your Job Soon? (DeCleene, 2018) to This company replaced 90% of its workforce with machines. Here’s what happened (Javelosa & Houser, 2018). Certainly, the increasing capabilities of phenomena such as artificial intelligence make this a reality. But what if we pause and ask ourselves: when did this revolution begin? We tend instinctively to think about such revolutions in labor as something in the future, but what if this was just merely the next phase of an ongoing process, one that began with the Industrial Revolution?
In the following paper, I would like to defend the thesis that the true historical significance of the Industrial Revolution lies in the fact that it marks the beginnings of the replacement of human beings with machine forms of labor. To the extent that labor and economics are crucial to how societies function, then the Industrial Revolution is a truly radical revolution, since it displaces the human being from a key social role as a producer, making his ability to work less and less important. The Industrial Revolution is not only a technological revolution, but therefore a social revolution that seriously questions the role human beings play in their societies.
How it works
Historians commonly trace the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to a series of rapid changes in British Society during the late 18th and early 19th century. As Berg and Hudson note, the Industrial Revolution was an economic and social process which added up to much more than the sum of its parts measurable parts. (44) Accordingly, the implication of these authors and their focus here is on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, such as parts of Great Britain becomes specialized in certain production areas to radical changes in living, such as the shift from human labor in agricultural production to working in new factory type settings. But arguably, there is one key measurable part without which the entire process could not have begun, and this is the rise of machine labor and technological possibility to reproduce human production.
Baker, therefore, describes this key precondition as follows: the Industrial Revolution rose out of a variety of inventions and small improvements to existing technologies that replaced animate and human labor with inanimate machine power. In other words, vast improvements in economic productivity were driven by the improvement and rapid accumulation of physical capital, the machines and factories that can be used to produce goods and services. (16) From this perspective, whereas the greater social changes of the Industrial Revolution are clear, the true impetus behind the Revolution is a radical change in how human beings produce goods and services.
Following Baker’s analysis, the Industrial Revolution can be in fact reduced to a measurable part, in terms of the key historical emergence of technologies that made it possible to produce in goods and services in historically unprecedented ways. The founder of Ethereum cryptocurrency Vitalik Buterin summarised this change in the following concise words: The industrial revolution allowed us, for the first time, to start replacing human labor with machines. (Volpicelli, 2016) The industrial revolution is revolutionary precisely because it meant the first time that human labor was no longer the dominant form of production in human society.
Certainly, in our popular imagination, the image of the Industrial Revolution is of human beings in factories, moving from their traditional forms of labor, such as agricultural production, to ominous steel and machinic monsters. As Emily Drabble writes in The Guardian, a common sense perception of the Industrial Revolution is that of images of vast machines and disease-ridden slums. (2012) Yet even in this popular image, one can see the motion at the center of the revolution and the displacement of the human being. Vast machines suggests the ever-growing productive mechanism without which the Industrial Revolution is not possible.
Disease-ridden slums, in contrast, graphically represents the unprecedented changes in how human beings lived because of the emergence of a machinic form of labor. In this contrast, therefore, despite its graphic imagery, is more fundamentally the beginning of a precise process that can be identified. Certainly, the humans living in these slums still worked, as there was a radical shift in the type of labor human beings performed. But to say that it is a beginning of a process is to see truly how revolutionary this was, to echo Buterin’s words, the beginning of a real replacement of human beings in the production process.
Karl Marx, the great historical commentator on shifts in economic forms of production and the way in which they shape society in general often invested factory machinery with a demonic, parasitic will, portraying it as dead labor’ that dominates and pumps dry, living, labour power. (Carr, 2014) From such a perspective, it is insufficient to see the Industrial Revolution as a shift from one form of labour to another performed by human beings, such as the shift from agriculture to machinic production. It is a dead labor that as a machine labor performs certain tasks with greater productivity and potential than the human being.
Such accounts inevitably stress that the Industrial Revolution is a process where the human being’s importance decreases with the rise of machine labor. For example, Wade notes that for thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the Industrial Revolution, some societies traded this ancient poverty for amazing affluence. (Wade, 2007) The World Economic Forum also notes this raise in living standards, describing the results of the First Industrial Revolution, where the use of water and steam to mechanize production resulted in an increase in global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.
(Schwab, World Economic Forum, 2016) Yet even if one accepts the narrative that the Industrial Revolution improved the quality of human life, this does not mean that it is not a process, one that is ongoing to the present day, where human beings are continually displaced by machine forms of labor. As the British philosopher Nick Land writes, Industrialization is on one side of an automatization of productive apparatuses, and on the other a cyborgian becoming-machine of work-forces….Technical machinery invades the body; routinizing, reprogramming and plasticizing it. (434) In this view point, the Industrial Revolution is not merely a historical event among others, but instead even a science fiction type transformation of the human being, whereby we become all the more programmed by the machines we think we control.
The Industrial Revolution in Land’s perspective does not only represent the replacement of the human being in a labor process, but also as a fundamental transformation of the human being as we have traditionally understood it. Certainly, as the philosopher of bioethics Peter Mills argues in the context of genetic modification, any type of technological incremental adjustment…do not constitute a radical change in human nature. (2016) Viewed from the perspective of the Industrial Revolution, therefore, the adjustment, for example, in a human being working in a factory instead of a farm, does not make a make radical change: he can still experience pain, love, joy, etc. But what the Industrial Revolution truly does mark, is a fundamental change in the role of the human being’s place in society, which forces us to ask key existential questions. The Industrial Revolution can only be truly understood in its radical change through these key questions, which once again marks precisely how significant the Industrial Revolution is.
We cannot understand the Industrial Revolution, therefore, without comprehending the fundamental change that occurs when the human role in production processes is replaced by machines: what occurs, precisely, is a societal revolution. And this revolution is not part of history, but is ongoing to the present day, as the ability of machines to take over jobs has outpaced the economy’s ability to create valuable new work for people to do. (Carr, 2014) This is essentially a process that to the extent that it exists today has a clear historical origin: the Industrial Revolution of the 19thcentury in Great Britain, when advancements in technology allowed machines to perform unprecedented tasks, thereby fundamentally altering the entire structure of society, as well as the role of the human being within this society. The Industrial Revolution is therefore not a historical event in the sense that it is in the past, but it is something ongoing to the present. Perhaps trying to shed light on a particular historical event in order to better understand it has never been so relevant to our present day concerns.