The situation we find ourselves today in the 21st century is similar in some ways to that of the early 19th century. At that time, it was the dawn of the First Industrial Age when we started to use water and steam to mechanise the mass-production of goods.
It was an age of factories and automation; a time of uncertainty and flux. People were afraid of losing their jobs to machines. In many ways, it was not unlike the world we find ourselves in today.
The Romantic poets of the day, including Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, grappled with the uncertainties of the day, man’s conflict with nature, and what they perceived as the dehumanizing effects of Science.
Caspar Friedrich’s 19th-century painting, “Wanderer above the Mist” depicts your quintessential romantic poet (many say it represents Lord Byron) atop a mountain. We see the back of a young man, wearing a dark green coat, and holding a walking stick. His hair looks tussled by the wind and he cuts a lonely figure as he gazes upon desolate mountaintops covered in fog extending into the distant horizon. Through the wisps and tendrils of the fog, a forest is visible. The entire painting is in hues of grey and can be seen as a metaphor: The solitary poet contemplating a foggy, uncertain future for humanity. In fact, John Lewis Gaddis, Professor of History at Yale, feels that the wanderer’s position atop the precipice “is contradictory, suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it”. This captures the dilemma of the 19th Century romantic poets: the role of humanity in a world increasingly being dominated by science and technology, where factories and automation of the Industrial Age were having a revolutionary impact on society and human life.
We could compare and contrast Friedrich’s painting with the ubiquitous image of the Technological Singularity inspired by The Citadel from ‘Mass Effect’ (a science fiction video game series for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3). This image has exactly the same wanderer standing atop a craggy escarpment. However, instead of a foggy, mist-filled landscape, he is gazing at a futuristic vista of ultramodern skyscrapers and technological scaffolding. In the distance, we see an all-encompassing, almighty bright light emanating from the horizon. The overall impression is of man gazing at the future, but the difference between this painting and Friedrich’s is that here the trees and mountains have disappeared. Man has mastery over nature and is now able to landscape the surface of the planet in an almost godlike way. The Wanderer no longer holds a walking stick. He gazes with brazen impudence at the white light — almost as if challenging the future and ready to stride towards it.
What most people today are concerned about when they contemplate a future with robots and A.i. is the loss of jobs. But the fact is, we’ve been in the situation before — with the Luddites during the 19th century Industrial Revolution. This was a time of social upheaval and dramatic economic change. Machines and factories were taking over jobs that were traditionally done by humans. The working class began to become increasingly agitated about the scarcity of jobs caused by the invention of new machines. Rallying under the real or mythical figure of Ned Ludd, groups of agitated workers began destroying weaving machinery as a form of protest. They called themselves Luddites — and the word has now come to refer to any opponent of technological progress, industrialisation, automation, or computerisation. Ultimately, the Luddites were put down with military force and many were shot to death. And the Industrial Revolution went full steam ahead.
We have lessons to learn from this episode in history. Imagine, for a moment, what our current world would look like if the Luddites had had their way: a world with no machines and no factories, where hundreds of millions of humans would be consigned to a plodding life of drudgery, where production was slow, laborious, and filled with errors. Of course, this is not to imply that everything about the Industrial Revolution was positive. The matter of industrial-scale pollution and rampant ransacking of Earth’s resources began at this time and has not ceased since. Capitalism, and all its associated avarice, also saw its birth at this time.
But the fact remains that the Industrial Revolution resulted in more efficient production, cheaper goods, and an improvement in the quality of life for millions of people. To deny this is to evince a marked ignorance about history and about the social and civic condition of pre-19th-century life. But the most important thing to remember is that ultimately, the Industrial Revolution created more jobs than it took away — and all the luxuries we take for granted today have their antecedents in the events that took place during that period of human history.
Many historians and futurists concur that we are currently living in a time unlike any other. Artificial Intelligence and other exponential technologies are disrupting things faster than at any other point in human existence. We’re witnessing a fusion of technologies and a blurring of the lines between the physical, digital, & biological spheres. According to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”
As Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, Thomas Friedman puts it: Whatever can be automated and outsourced will be automated and outsourced. Trying to stop this trend would be as futile and foolhardy as the attempts by the Luddites to destroy the weaving mills.
Instead of despairing and wringing our hands we would do well to keep ahead of the curve and stay on top of the competition. We can do this by being informed about the ways in which the world is changing and also by retraining and upskilling ourselves to stay relevant. We no longer have the luxury of resting on our laurels. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”