A post-industrial point of view

We can roughly sketch human history as follows:

  1. Initially, everything was expensive for human beings.
  2. Farming made food cheap.
  3. The industrial revolution made goods and services cheap.
  4. In the post-industrial age, we are making the design of new products and services cheap.

Once you adopt this (admittedly simplistic) point of view, a few things about our current economy become clear:

  • The very concept of a job is squarely rooted in the industrial age. A job is a standardized and regimented occupation. It is expensive to create a new job, but we can amortize the cost over many years. I predict that fewer and fewer people will be interested in creating jobs. It takes too long and it is too expensive.
  • Schools and colleges are organized for the industrial age. They train a large volume of people in a consistent manner. The concept of a degree, that is, an expensive badge that you acquire once and amortize over many years, is probably quickly becoming obsolete. It will probably fall along with the concept of a job.
  • It does not matter much how many products a company is selling, what matters is whether it can out-innovate its competitors. Corporations may produce more than they ever did in volume alone, but they have never been so short-lived. I don’t worry about how many people Google is serving, I worry about whether they’ll keep innovating fast enough to stay in business. In fact, I worry about whether corporations can even survive in the post-industrial age, as they tend to be geared toward the accumulation of capital, not fast innovation.

This view of the world defines how I view others and my own job:

  • We used to spend a great deal of time teaching using a standardized format. What I wish I could ask to young people today is: Can you learn something like Calculus very cheaply and very quickly if you need to? What would you do if you needed to learn calculus, do you know?
  • So, you are are unemployed or underemployed? You aren’t very rich? I don’t care about any of this. However, have you ever created something new and interesting? There is a counterpart to this: if you are rich and hold a prestigious position, but you are just sitting on top of an industrial machine, then I don’t care about you. You are not interesting.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “A post-industrial point of view”

  1. I dislike the word post-industrial. Tertiary jobs depends on industry and must improve on it. The reality in so called advanced countries is that our self declared “elites” invented that post industrial meme. Then they shipped industries overseas, organized a three-card monte system, the financial system so that control does not belong to countries, “so called democratic” or not. Until now the anglo saxon financial system decided on the fate of third world countries, now it has the chutzpah to gamble on a whole continent. Currently it gambles on the fate of the euro.

    Without industrial jobs, the population is kept occupied by the bernaysian system ; mass media and compulsive consumption. Also panem and circenses like the olympic games. Most of the tertiary jobs are parasitic and just feed that bernaysian cancer.
    If we continue in this track, eventually the productive countries will revolt just like the tiers état displaced the aristocracy in France. We should remember that the establishment of democracy was a bloody process that went back and forth until 1870 and the third republic.
    Humanity can’t afford such a thing at the planet scale.

    I agree with your global thesis about extractive institutions that consume too much resources and regiments people. But we can’t do away with the industrial system. With DNA sequencing beating Moore law and Craig Venter first “artificial cell”, I bet the next industrial revolution will be biological. What is done today by messy chemical plants will be done in small biological reactors. As a result we can hope we can avoid zoning systems that broke our cities.

    The industry should stay the focus but it will occupy people in creative jobs instead of productive ones. It means organisational changes and educational ones.

    The first step is changing the dangerous “post industrial” meme to the “meta industrial” one. One of the meta steps is shifting focus from productive jobs to creative ones.

    Today, the most encompassing thought to move away from the toxic bernaysian/financial duo is done by http://www.arsindustrialis.org/
    Too bad, they follow the french intellectual tradition of using complex words and overarching concept. They have a good glossary though.

  2. The process of transitioning from the current system to one in which ALL basic needs are covered without some form of extortion “incentivizing” work is a fairly challenging problem in itself – the 3d printer fad will not (despite the press about it) usher in the new era.

    Given that universal access to complex products is the commonly used yardstick used to measure “wealth” what then is the most likely means of fueling this transition? – IMO personal manufacturing is the ONLY way to break the chains of Monetary Production/Consumption cycle.

    That why my Project: CubeSpawn is open source – so that like-minded individuals are not constrained from using it for whatever they like. the latest project: http://sketchup.google.com/3dwarehouse/details?mid=cbda048868ad22511be93f897c0a2ad9&prevstart=0

  3. @cognominal

    The reality in so called advanced countries is that our self declared “elites” invented that post industrial meme. Then they shipped industries overseas, (…)

    My impression is that our elites are still thinking in industrial terms. They still think that a job from 9 to 5 is what most people need, and they still think that an education in a large “factory” (called school) where the bell ring and workers (students) have to follow a strict schedule is the best preparation for these jobs.

    Can you point to a member of this elite that has a post-industrial discourse? Obama is squarely an industrialist, going as far as subsidizing factories to keep jobs.

    If human beings were such that they preferred to pay more for local goods, globalisation would not have happened. Alas, people like to trade over long distances, especially when it makes things cheaper.

    But globalisation is a joke compared to automation. Even if your country closed its border tomorrow, it would only be a matter of time before robots ran factories.

    The fact is: robots are better at doing consistent and repetitive jobs than human beings. These factory jobs are not coming back, ever.

    I bet the next industrial revolution will be biological.

    By the meaning I give to the term “industrial revolution”, there can only be one and it has already happened. It is a move from artisanship, to consistency and volume. Whether your factories run on fuel and steel or biomaterials is irrelevant from this point of view.

    Robots can run factories, no matter what the production means are.

    One of the meta steps is shifting focus from productive jobs to creative ones.

    If you accept that “industrial” implies consistency and volume, then we can’t have many “creative” industrial jobs. People are very much a cog in the machine.

    in fact, most highly creative people don’t have real jobs. Jobs are about consistency and repetition.

  4. > But globalisation is a joke compared to automation.
    > Even if your country closed its border tomorrow, it
    > would only be a matter of time before robots ran factories.

    Currently industries are completely dependant on oil, gaz
    ores, so geostrategical strategies are essential. In France, since the independance of colonies, all politic has been corrupted by the money of despots like Omar Bongo (and now his son). In the beginning the France was in control but with the dawnfall of USSR, the influence of France in Africa has disappeard and African despots call the shots. You can’t be a successful candidate without african money. We call this system Françafrique and it has been thouroughly documented but not by serious but not main stream media.
    In the united states, the military system to keep its imperial system will eventually cost too much and entails too much corruption, like in Rome and more recently in USSR.
    This is why I hope so much in an industry based on biology because it wil diminish the reliance on foreign resource and the military system or corruption to maintain accessibility to these resources.
    This is why I hope so much from a transition to biological industries but still they will be dependant of computer hardware when the cost of plants to make microprocessor are higher every year and depend on the whole traditional industrial system.

    About the disparition on jobs as we know it I invite you again to read the material in Ars Industrialis and Bernard Stiegler

  5. While I am for the most part in agreement with your basic concepts, I am very, very concerned about this “post industrial” concept. The thing that most disturbs me is the propensity among the elite to create an ILLUSION of wealth as opposed to real wealth. During the industrial age, a corporation could go out of business, but there was still a factory, and machinery, that someone else might be able to make use of. Today, a real estate bubble, inflamed by artificially manipulating the perceived risk through these things called “derivatives”, busts, and trillions of dollars disappear overnight. That money did not wind up in the pockets of some Wall Street banker- it just disappeared.
    Then, we look at the concept of “intellectual property”- not only the publishing and entertainment domains, but the patent world as well. We are assigning unrealistic value way out of alignment with the cost of producing the “product”; and one’s claim to “ownership” of the information tends to evaporate as the material goes viral on the Internet, or some Asian upstart revere-engineers your invention and sells it for a tenth of what you think you should be getting.
    I have not held a “job” in more years than I care to admit- and it has been many years since I have created anything totally new. I make my living by assembling systems for others out of components manufactured by others (occasionally having to “invent” some sort of interfacing device). When a project is complete, the customer is presented with a document detailing every bit of information necessary for someone else to reproduce the project in its entirety- I give the “intellectual property” away, and ask the customer to be sure and share the document with everyone he or she knows. Results? New customers call up, “Hey, I saw the document you put together for Smith- how about putting the exact same system together for me?”.
    The key is not the knowledge- it is the implementation. But how does one assign “value” to this?
    Throughout the history you briefly outlined, ever since we left the random-access world of the hunter-gatherer, the actual producers of wealth have been at the bottom of the food chain- whether they be farmers or miners or factory workers. Why are they at the bottom of the food chain? Because they must produce sufficient excess to provide sustenance for all the other participants. This basic rule can not change, no matter how fancy your illusion of wealth creation…
    And I have probably rambled on way too much for now…

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