Wither The Industrial Revolution?

The Numbers, hundreds, thousands of Numbers in light blue unifs (probably a derivative of the ancient uniform) with golden badges on the chest – the State number of each one, male or female – the Numbers were walking slowly, four abreast, exaltedly keeping step. (more)

Over the last year I’ve reviewed several ~1900 era future dystopias, such as Metropolis, We, and Pictures of the Socialistic Future. I wanted to see fears of the industrial revolution, from an era when that revolution was still young enough for people could see things from a farmer era point of view, and yet old enough that people had some idea of where the revolution was going.

A wide mix of concerns are expressed, from aversion to change to fear of weakened connections to nature. But the strongest concerns were about the new scales of social organization, arguably the central distinguishing feature of the industrial era. People saw the rapid increase in the scale of factories and firms, and projected that trend forward to imagine a rapid change to coordinating in this way on even larger scales, and over more areas of our lives. People imagined entire cities and nations being organized as were factories and firms, with commands sent down from above, and little room for local discretion. They also imagined such commands telling people not only what job to do when, but also what to read and eat, who to marry, where to live, etc.

Many of the concerns were about who would control these new organizations. But there were also concerns about there being such organizations, no matter who controlled them, and how they would change humanity.

Today, it seems that such fears were overblown. Yes, the size of cities, firms, and nations has increased, but this increase has been far slower than feared. The scope of activities run by these large organizations increased for a while, but that trend mostly stopped and arguably reversed. For example, cafeteria scale organization of meals increased for a while, but today most folks avoid such structure.

These fears of regimentation were most realized by folks, such as communists, who seemed to take trend projections as destiny, and purposely tried to create the large scale and scope command style organizations they thought inevitable soon. Which shows how dangerous can be overconfidence on future trend projections.

But it is also too soon to claim that these fears will not be realized. The scale of cities, firms, and nations continues to climb. More jobs become more regimented, regulated, and structured, leaving fewer dimensions of discretion. More jobs focus on dealing with other parts of organizations, instead of dealing directly with customers or the physical world.

The non-increase in the scope of regimentation in our lives seems to be mainly due to our increasing wealth. We choose to spend our increased wealth keeping our leisure lives small scale and easily changed. But if per capita wealth were to greatly decrease in the future, this trend could easily reverse. Future very poor descendants, for example, might find it hard to resist the cost savings of cafeteria style food service, or dorm style sleeping arrangements.

The industrial revolution continues, and we have not seen its end. We’ve heard one shoe drop – another may be on its way.

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