Long before WIRED magazine began screaming day-glo proclamations from the newstands, others had already been calling the current explosion of computers and data networks a "revolution" on par with the Industrial Revolution. The Computer Revloution; the Silicon Revolution; the Information Revolution.
Naturally, this is assumed to be a Good Thing that will make all our lives better, rich and poor alike. It is assumed that it will bring added prosperity, greater leisure time and more amusements for all.
If we make the right moves, sure. But it ain't necessarily so. And even if all works out well on the balance, there may well be a price to pay.
Even the first technological revolution, the "Agricultural Revolution" that happened some 10,000 years ago and brought about living in settlements, city-building, and social organizations larger than then tribe, came with a price. If modern hunter-gatherer societies are any indication to go by, then before the inventions of agriculture and animal husbandry, tribal people put in about a 4-5 hour workday. The rest of the time, they played, performed rituals, and spent a lot of quality time with family and friends. Agriculture brought about huge increases in prosperity and population -indeed, it brought civilization itself- but the price was 12-hour workdays on the farm.
At least farmers had a winter season when they can put up their feet and catch up on their hobbies. As we go into the Millenium, workers (especially hi-tech industry workers) of today seem to be working long days the year 'round. I read an article in "Saturday Night" magazine last year about sleep deprivation. The author recounted going to the Toronto Symphony and seeing the restless, buzzing audience quiet down as the soft strains of Debussy filled the hall. Too quiet - looking around, a half hour into the concert, the author realized that a fair percentage of the crowd were asleep in their seats. (If you don't like anecdotal evidence, here's a stat: This month's Consumer Reports did a survey of readers and 21% responded that they were getting about an hour of sleep a night less than they liked, and another 25% were getting two hours less.)
So here we have the curious picture of a society rich enough to have symphony orchestras where the well-off members are working too hard to enjoy an evening of the music. It brings about the question of what we are doing with our great technology. Are the technical labours and fine achievements of our scientists and inventors really being used for the benefit of all?
According to Canadian author, historian, and all-round doubter John Ralston Saul, probably not. Indeed, he makes a persuasive argument that the developments of the Industrial Revolution were not, either. Not until the people in control of it had their arms twisted up behind their backs by unions, governments, newspapers, and other public pressures. I quote at some length from his book "The Unconscious Civilization", the publication of his Massey Lectures on CBC Radio:
In the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, the children of the poorest had tended to start as workers at the age of fourteen. They and the adults worked a twelve-hour day, including time for meals and rest. Traditional holdays remained in place from the pre-industrial period. However, a few decades later, in the early nineteenth century, it was common for children to begin as workers at seven or eight years old and to work fourteen hours a day in the unhealthful and dangerous factories. Many of the traditional holidays were ignored by the companies. It was a question of work or be fired. And in spite of working so much harder and longer, the labourer was worse off than a quarter-century earlier. (reference: Robert Owen, A New Society and Other Writings, pp 96-97)
But surely what I'm describing were temporary conditions, the unfortunate, inevitable disorder of revolutionary change? ... Well, actually, these conditions could not be called temporary. They persisted until the second half of the nineteenth century and then only began to ease gradually. There wasn't any serious spreading of prosperity throughout the population untill the twentieth century. In many ways, things got far worse for a very long time.
Well, if the Industrial Revolution - with all its qualities of technology, capitalism, the free market, and money markets, free trade and globalization - brought unstable but long-term poverty, what brought prosperity? Quite simply, as the nineteenth century advanced into the twentieth, a growing number of citizens publicly opposed the conditions created by the Industrial Revolution. They exercised the power of their legitimacy - which included demanding a widening of that circle of power until it included all adults, through universal sufferage, achieved only after World War One.
Lest I defame Saul by quoting him where he appears to be in an anti-market, anti-capitalist tirade, I'll let him defend himself with a quote from a few paragraphs later:
Now, there are those who will mistake what I say for an anti-market tirade. They will be wrong. I love the market. I like trade, money markets, global economic patterns, all of it. It's like a game. It's fun for those who can afford to have a sense of humour. But I'm not fool enough to mistake these necessary and important narrow mechanisms for a broad, solid, conscious force that can lead society.
The readers of this newsletter are probably used to hearing this kind of concern about technology itself in their workplaces:
"We can't have technology driving our business interests. The business interests must drive the technology"
"Just because a computer can do something, doesn't mean we have to do it. There has to be a business case."
Without some overriding direction, technologists have no built-in correction mechanism to make their creations truly useful or worthwhile. Everybody knows that, who has ever looked through the functions on the "emacs" text editor to discover that they include the Mayan calendar.
Similarly, the Silicon Revolution, like the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, have no built-in property of improving the lives of the population in general. They only make it possible for the people who control the new technology to tap vast new sources of wealth.
The onus remains on the public, through their votes, and their participation in unions, professional organizations, and interest groups like our own, to make sure that they have a seat at the table - and a piece of the pie.
It is bad enough that the "price" of the Silicon Revolution may be that E-mail, cell phones, and global customers will put us onto a 24-hour day, 7-day week with less sleep, less privacy and a blurred line between home and work; we should at least get richer for it. We had better not discover that our reward is to have a job at all.