In understanding some social concepts and theories around automation I came across The Triple Revolution a notion that developed in the 1960s with an open memorandum to the US President. The authors of the memorandum site cybernation, weaponry and human rights as the three revolutions they identified as being underway.
In 1964 when the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution composed their thoughts, these three areas were hot topics for social activists. Half a decade later and these are still issues that are discussed. The evolution of weapons and the debate about whether nuclear weapons should be recommissioned is a topic that greatly divides opinion, and human rights are never far from the headlines. Interestingly though, it is the cybernation revolution that arguably has the most significant impact on today’s society, and back in 1964, it was the cybernation revolution that took centre stage throughout The Triple Revolution memorandum.
What is meant by the ‘cybernation’ revolution?
‘Cybernation’ is not a term that we tend to use now but the ideas behind it are the same now as they were in the 60s. The idea that machinery can complete work more efficiently and consistently to humans means that there is a constant development of technology. ‘Cybernation’ refers merely to the process of using machinery instead of people.
Automation is therefore not a new concept. The Triple Revolution refers to ‘automated self-regulating machines’, and there is a constant drive to move technology forward. We don’t tend to regard the use of machinery instead of people as a revolution, we see it as progress or technological development. However, the Ad Hoc Committee argued that the cybernation revolution is having the same impact on production as the industrial revolution had on agriculture. In other words, the principles of an organisation have changed radically with the use of modern technology and this is impacting on society as a whole.
Martin Luther King spoke not long before his death about remaining awake during a revolution, and arguably his speech is as relevant, if not more so, in today’s society. Speaking to an audience of young people, he described how too many people are living amid a time of significant social change but fail to develop the new attitudes and mental responses that the new situation demands. He urged the audience to keep their eyes open and remain awake during a revolution because by ignoring the changes that are happening we run the risk of missing the impact that these changes are having on society. By sleeping through the revolution we can miss the opportunity to take advantage of the new technology, but we can also miss the chance to address any negative consequences.
Arguably the increase in technology is seen on the surface as being a positive development. The purpose of technological advances is to make processes more efficient and more consistent, and more economic in the long term. However, for many of the people involved the impact is not positive and this was accurately predicted in The Triple Revolution.
The dark side of automation
The most significant negative impact of the cybernation revolution relates to employment, or more specifically, unemployment. For instance, it was predicted that machines would use most of the resources and leave humans becoming increasingly more dependent on the welfare state. While automation is not the only contributing factor to unemployment, it has had a significant impact and led to millions of people being officially regarded as long-term jobless (seeking employment for 27 weeks or longer).
Long-term joblessness in itself leads on to have an even more significant negative impact on society. Again, this was predicted. We have the capacity for every person in the country to have access to what they need, however, in the midst of this we have an increasing number of families and individuals who are living in poverty. The long-term jobless are becoming a class of their own, and there is little being done to reverse this trend.
It would be a massive oversimplification to suggest that automation is the sole cause of mass employment; however, the fact that machines can carry out the job of numerous people means that it is one of the leading reasons. Since 1964 there have been rises and falls in unemployment but the constant that has been seen over the past half a decade is that as automation has increased, so has unemployment. It makes sense that there are just fewer jobs available than there would have been before machines were brought in. It is not uncommon for a job advertisement to have hundreds of applicants for one position, or for job adverts to be ‘live’ for a short period before being taken down due to already having a significant amount of interest. Getting a job is therefore much harder than it has been previously. What the 1964 Ad Hoc Committee failed to predict was that women would start to enter the workforce in much larger numbers. Society still places the burden on women to be the primary caregivers in the family; however, it is no longer frowned upon for women to hold down a full-time job as well. This means that over the years as automation has decreased the demand for employees, the number of employees has been increasing. This is obviously not an ideal situation and has increased the impact that automation has had.
It is interesting that The Triple Revolution is still as prominent concerning the cybernation aspect as it was in 1964. After so many years it must be concluded that either the negative impact of automation is not as bad as it seems, or lessons that should have been learned and changes that should have been made are simply being ignored. Maybe we need to wake up to this revolution and make some changes before society is transformed irreversibly, for the worse.