Man vs. Machine

Published on August 19th, 2011

Man vs. Machine is a long-running theme explored by futurists and well-mined by filmmakers and science fiction writers (I’m partial to Blade Runner and The Matrix). Machines (technology) taking over the world or machines “rebelling” are a most popular theme from I, Robot to the Terminator series.

But in the “real world” on a day-to-day basis, our man vs. machines concerns are more mundane. We complain how, even though technology is supposed to make our lives easier, we seem to have less time. And when the stock market drops precipitously, there’s now discussion of how complex computerized programs drive rapid market moves.

We don’t see too much in general discussion or everyday media though how advancing technology impacts a sustainable population size. This perhaps is due, at least in part, to enhanced technology so often being linked to new products, and new products need customers to buy them. So the business model we so well know is driven by continual growth; business demands more consumers.

Yet, when there are tremendous labor reductions due to technology advances and there’s entrenched unemployment (where we are now), from whence do those consumers come? Where are Henry Ford’s workers turned Model T buyers?

As an example, a recent story about Foxconn outlined the Taiwanese technology company’s plan to replace some of its workers with robots. It now uses 10,000 robots, will increase that to 300,000 next year and, ultimately, robots will total 1 million in three years. Foxconn now has about 1.2 million employees. The company is the largest producer of computer components in the world and has had suicides that have been attributed to bad working conditions.

That sounds like a huge squeeze on the labor side in a market already squeezing costs out by using cheap labor.

If workers can’t buy the products, because they can’t afford them because wages are too low, or because they’re not working and thus can’t afford them, it would seem the Henry Ford model doesn’t work anymore. Conversely, if more can be produced with less human resources (the ongoing push), it seems there’s increasing potential for labor surplus that can’t get redeployed fast enough into productive work.

Both the U.S. and the world are swimming in unutilized labor. Of course business, economics, government policies, government instability, wars and a host of other issues are intricately connected with labor utilization, but it seems intuitive if we are ever to experience any sort of stasis and sustainability in our systems the human overpopulation issue has to be addressed, which means stabilizing and, ultimately, reducing population.

Or, enter sci-fi …  maybe the machines will address it for us …

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