‘When the looms can operate themselves, all men will be free’: Aristotle versus Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier argues that our collective response to emerging technologies determines the present and future shape of our society. Indeed, such responses determine whether we will even have a society. On the one hand, advancements like the printing press can empower people, yet advancements such as mass production are equally capable of centralizing power and enslaving.

In Politics, Aristotle writes that if “the shuttle would then weave, and the lyre play of itself; nor would the architect want servants, or the master slaves.” Alternatively, as Lanier paraphrases the Greek philosopher, ‘when the looms can operate themselves, all men will be free.’ Lanier thinks that such liberation is far from assured.

(Since we now have the technology of sewing machines and mp3 players, and yet we still have sweatshops and poor buskers, I tend to agree with him.)

Instead, he argues, once the means of production – particularly in regards to information technology - can operate itself, the following may well happen:
  • unemployment skyrockets 
  • power becomes concentrated amongst the few techno elites 
  • civilization ends shortly after. 

I think that the risks implicit in such automation are ones worth taking – after all, we have been taking such risks for a long time. Whenever machinery becomes self-operating, there is less of an imperative that someone is constantly operating the machinery, and less of an imperative to enslave some underclass into carrying out menial tasks, like picking cotton or collecting trolleys. Sure, the slaves are then unemployed – but at least they are free to make their own employment. The key, of course, is to manage such risks – which is what Lanier is suggesting.

I try to think of it this way: if I were born fifty years ago, I would probably have to work a 9-5 from the age of 16 to the age of 65, and I would be probably compelled to raise numerous children on top of that to support me in my old age. Nowadays, however:
  • I can afford to dedicate the first 25 or so years of my life to academic pursuits. 
  • I can afford to retire at 65 even though I will probably live much longer than my grand parents’ generation. 
  • I can spend a proportion of my working life in states of mini-retirements, or working part-time. 
  • I can remain childless without fear of dying a pauper. 

Even were everyone in my generational cohort were to do this, things would still be okay. (In fact, things would probably be much better: to list just a couple of categorical imperatives, by not working as much, I allow the available work to be redistributed more evenly between the labor market, thus reducing unemployment; furthermore, by not having children, I reduce the strain placed on the environment.) In short, our society has reached an amazing level of automation that is only set to grow; technology like the internet has allowed that to happen, and we have adapted to its social effects, and - in some regards at least - we have become richer for it. (The problem is whether such wealth will continue, and whether such richness translates into happiness. This is where things get a lot trickier.)

On the other hand, of course, whenever new technology emerges, employment suddenly becomes much less reliable (see ‘Luddite’). Nowadays, as the old career mantra goes, people have to choose degrees so that they may learn how to perform jobs that do not yet exist. Again, this is not just about inventing ‘looms that can operate themselves’. It is also about changes in the means of distribution: online shopping and ‘free trade’ means that every market is now global, and competition is fierce.

Because of advances in technology, getting a reliable, future-proofed full time job is a lot more difficult than it once was. Yet, thanks also to technology, permanent, full-time work is also a lot less important.

Whether having more advanced technology is, overall, empowering or disempowering depends then on whether each of decides to shape that technology to enrich our lives, and to build financial and intellectual wealth – or whether we allow technology to use, shape, and exploit us. We can manage this correctly by being more selective in what we buy – but it may also be necessary, on a much larger scale, to be, as Lanier advocates, more generous in rewarding quality content.

Image by Sari Choche